I work in Global Education and repeatedly hear students express a love of travel, a wanderlust, and a passion for new places. I would never admit it to students, but I hate traveling. It’s very expensive, exhausting, unpredictable and fraught with delays, canceled flights, lost luggage and awkward interactions. So, why did I, in mid-career, choose to accept a position in Global Higher Ed?
I hate to travel, but I am fascinated by trying to understand how the world works: scientifically, politically, economically, artistically, spiritually, culturally, linguistically, historically… While it is certainly possible to get a pretty good understanding of the world through books and films, there is nothing quite like standing 100 yards from a ship passing through the Panama Canal to excite the imagination. I become suddenly fascinated with the robotic cars that guide the boats through – how much do they cost? Who came up with the idea to make these? How much maintenance do they require? I start to wonder about what’s on the ship. Where did it come from and where is it going? Who is on the ship? Have they left family behind for this long journey? What do they do in their down time? Are there things or people on that ship that are not supposed to be there? How has Panama’s economy changed since they gained control of the canal? How has the expansion of the canal affected local economies? It turns out it has helped some and hurt others.
Or how about visiting the Berlin Wall and being transported back in time to the day the wall was built and how it must have felt to be separated from friends, family, school, work… imagining what my life would be like if I woke up tomorrow and a wall had been built along the edge of my neighborhood. It would separate me and my husband from our jobs, our kids from their schools, and our family from most of our friends. We would not be able to get to the airport. I have no idea where the nearest grocery store would be. And then to look at how the memorials to the wall have been constructed. How does it have us remember history? What can we learn from how the Germans have memorialized that period of history as we in the U.S. struggle with questions of how to memorialize our own Civil War? And when the wall came down… my mind just reels with questions.
I’m not a historian, but how can I stand in a former slave castle on the former Gold Coast of Africa and not want to learn more about the Transatlantic Slave Trade? I’m not an economist, but how can I not wonder about how the slave castle as tourist destination affects the local economy? I don’t study education, but how can I not wonder why the young men hawking their wares as I leave the castle are not in school?
I know very little about the science of energy. But how interesting to visit a coal plant in Berlin and learn that the neat, clean, orderly, environmentally friendly Germans have doubled down on coal and rejected nuclear energy? Why have electric cars taken off in one place and not in another? Does it have to do with infrastructure or cultural attitudes or the power of the petroleum industry? Which countries are using wind and solar energy and which are not? Why? Some people say that wind turbines are ugly. Really? I think they are beautiful and much more aesthetically pleasing than oil rigs, but that’s just me. Don’t get me wrong, I do love my gas powered car and my plastic bottles.
Even though I have read a bit about post-Apartheid South Africa and recognize that although Blacks gained some political power, economic power remains very solidly with White South Africans, there’s nothing like getting on an airplane going from Chicago to Cape Town and there not being a single Black person on the airplane to really reinforce that concept. Reading about labor migration and race just isn’t the same as staying at a resort in the Dominican Republic and noticing that the people working at the front desk are very light skinned, the housekeeping staff is medium skinned, and the labors on the road side are very dark skinned, and most likely Haitian.
The things that fascinate me may not be the same things that fascinate you. What fascinated me when I was 25 is not the same as what fascinates me at 45. But, it’s pretty difficult to travel the world and not be fascinated by something. So, even though I hate to travel, I do it because I love being fascinated.