My summer trip this year was to Switzerland and my assumptions of Swiss culture were shattered immediately upon arrival. The Swiss are “efficient,” I’d been told. “Their trains run like clockwork.” Yet my first train from Zurich Airport into the city malfunctioned and everyone had to vacate the train.
I was reminded, within the first few minutes of arriving in this new land, that you cannot begin to understand a place and its people without going there. I had to navigate my way onto another train without knowing the language or how the train system worked, let alone this new city. I had to ask a stranger what to do. This short incident may not seem like much but it encompasses some of the most invaluable lessons of traveling: the new challenges we face, being placed outside our comfort zones, and the interactions we are forced to have with people from different backgrounds than our own.
After Zurich, I was off to the Bernese Alps, where I went canyoning, which includes repelling, zip lining, sliding, and jumping into water, an activity that exists in only a few places around the globe. It was led by Ted, who grew up in the mountains, and had bungee-jumped 180 times. He pointed up to the Jungfreau, one of the highest peaks in Europe, and explained to us, in a matter-a-fact tone yet with a glazed look in his eyes, that the glaciers, which formed during the Ice Age, were melting for the first time in human history. These glaciers, which fed the canyon that I trekked through, were the same glaciers that created what our landscape looks like today.
Whatever your stance may be on the politicized topic of climate change, one thing I hope we can all agree on is that it is good to preserve the Earth. Through traveling, you can see this even more clearly. You learn to appreciate the world as a whole and form an emotional connection to it. Once you do that, you’re more likely to help the world and protect its fragile natural resources. By swimming through the very waters of the glaciers themselves, I engaged with nature in a way that only happened because I took a risk. I turned off my TV, put away my smartphone, and got off my couch. My heart was beating a mile a minute as I made my way through that canyon and while leaping over rocks twenty feet into the air, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Through travel, you also learn to empathize more with others. For a moment, I saw the Alps through Ted’s eyes; I stepped inside his shoes. The more time you spend with people of other backgrounds (and you can do this without traveling, by stepping outside your community), the more you’re in tune with them. The more you bond with people from other cultures, the more you develop empathy and understanding.
Travel is about satisfying curiosity, having fun, and learning. It is an education that goes beyond books. It is why we go on tours, visit museums, and practice new languages. The more we learn, the less ignorance we have. Swiss trains have delays too.
We identify with the country we’ve been born in, the religion we were raised with, the family and friends we grew up with. And while our differences are part of who we are, we are also one and the same. We all on the same planet, experience the same emotions. and are part of the same race–the human race. Let’s do our best to help the Earth and one another while we still can.