When I cross paths with a stranger on the street, I often think about how serendipitous it is that the two of us happen to be in this exact place at this exact time.
Imagine if we all had a life-long piece of thread that followed our footprints — a thread that essentially mapped our life stories. If you followed it, you could see every hall you walked, every road you traveled, every flight you took, every museum you wandered through. And, at this exact moment, this attached thread crossed paths with this other person’s thread, which has also followed someone as they walked through buildings, sat in cars, and wandered through neighborhoods. It is entirely possible that these two threads have even crossed paths before.
Of course, we don’t have life-long threads mapping our movements through the world. In fact, it’s probably more appropriate to say that, on some level, we all move through the world in our own insulated bubbles. Our bubbles bump into other people’s bubbles, and occasionally they even connect and we exchange pleasantries. But for the most part, we bounce around in isolation, keeping ourselves tucked away within our sacred spaces, and other people do the same.
Without connection, it can be hard to find compassion, understanding, and empathy.
But traveling in those bubbles ad nauseum doesn’t create the conditions for connection. Without connection, it can be hard to find compassion, understanding, and empathy. And without those values, we’re just bodies crossing paths on the sidewalk.
Approximately 7.8 billion people live on Earth. If we pull on that thread metaphor just a bit more, that’s 7.8 billion different paths through life — a whopping 7.8 billion different stories. How many other people have we encountered in our lifetime?
In what ways do we share a similar history — a similar story? And how can that connection make the world a better place?
Beyond the Bubble
When people travel, they have a choice: They can remain isolated, traveling in a bubble. Or they can engage with the people around them, traveling with a thread.
In a recent Impact Travel Alliance article written by Aziz Abu Sarah, one of the co-founders of Mejdi Tours, he recounts how travelers used to stop to take his photo when he was a child at a school in Jerusalem. The travelers’ bubbles bumped into his, taking a small piece of his story, before floating away.
“I hated that. I felt objectified. I wanted to speak to them, although I didn’t have the English to hold a conversation,” Sarah writes. “Still, they could have spent an extra minute or two speaking with me. But they had plans and places to go, more sites to see, and more people and places to take photos of.”
These experiences led Sarah to co-found a travel company focused on the human experience. In late February, I traveled through Israel and Palestine on a Mejdi Tours trip through Intrepid Travel. The theme of the trip, Dual Narratives, underscored the complex stories each individual person carries through life.
We learn and grow in large part by having conversations, seeking out more information, thinking about problems, and participating in solutions.
Throughout our week in Israel and Palestine, my fellow travelers and I met and were encouraged to interact with a wide variety of people whose stories were tangled up with each others’. We had a long conversation with a Jewish rabbi and ate dinner with an Arab living in Palestine who owned property in Jerusalem. We spent an evening at a social enterprise project with a Palestinian environmentalist advocating for water rights on the West Bank. We spent a day with a third-generation Palestinian refugee born in Bethlehem. Our guide was a secular Jew living with his family in a kibbutz.
Each of their stories added a new lens and perspective to my growing understanding of this complicated part of the world. I left the trip with more questions and an even greater desire to learn more, knowing there is no simple answer.
But that’s a good thing: Life is inherently complicated. We learn and grow in large part by having conversations, seeking out more information, thinking about problems, and participating in solutions.
Not So Different
When we actually engage with other people, we not only have an opportunity to hear their stories, but we have an opportunity to share ours as well. With 7.8 billion people on the planet, it is easy to think about people as numbers and to compartmentalize everyone in their own isolated bubble: They belong there. I belong here.
But when we make room for real conversation and connection, our collective identity surfaces.
Even when people have markedly different cultures, customs, languages, religious backgrounds, and levels of education, they are undeniably similar: They need food and shelter. They want to protect their loved ones and provide the best possible future for their children. They want to feel safe, understood, cared for, and listened to.
When we make room for real conversation and connection, our collective identity surfaces.
We are all people. And when we travel with a sense of curiosity and are open to encounters that avoid exploitation, we weave a shared sense of humanity around the globe.
Building upon similarities offers a blueprint for creating communities, economies, services, and experiences in a way that is mutually beneficial.
A Person, a Story, a Connection
It is easy to go about our lives in a bubble, but it’s also downright destructive. The dangers of “media bubbles” and “echo chambers” have been thoroughly dissected. It is much harder — but far more rewarding and important — to walk through life with an open mind and a willingness to engage with and listen to people.
Travel is often lauded for being a powerful force for good. However, travel is often not good, and, in fact, it has a history of being downright destructive.
Travel is not good when all it does is serve as a pretty backdrop for an Instagram photo.
It is not good when a cruise ship pulls into a port and destinations are left with a heavy environmental burden but no meaningful economic benefits.
It is not good when residents are priced out of their own neighborhoods and can’t enjoy the very places that make a destination “local” to begin with.
To be better travelers, all of us need to adopt a sense of curiosity and humility.
It is not good when Indigenous people are exploited, and their culture and traditions are commoditized.
It is not good when it is reserved for the wealthy, and it doesn’t benefit those who need or deserve it.
Travel can be good — powerfully, inextricably good — in a way that nothing else can be. But we need to remember that travel should be mutually beneficial. And we need to put respect and responsibility at the center of our experiences.
To be better travelers, all of us need to adopt a sense of curiosity and humility. We must see individuals for who they are — not objects to be photographed or pushed aside for selfish pleasure. We need to approach our destinations as visitors, being open minded and aware of a history that came long before our visit. And, most importantly, we need to avoid traveling in a bubble, instead thinking of our journey as a story intersecting with other people’s stories. We need to be willing to engage in conversation, ask questions, listen, reflect, hold judgment, and be open to sharing our own stories in return.
When travelers remember that people are people — and not simply humans living in the destinations where they visit — they can truly start to connect with each other, creating the relationships necessary to combat bigotry, racism, discrimination, and hate. “Travel provides an opportunity to learn about each other and understand one another, which leads to our empathizing with each other,” Sarah writes.
And, yes, this even — and especially — applies in our own backyards. In our increasingly polarized world, Sarah emphasizes, “we will not care about those living thousands of miles away, if we don’t connect with those who live in our own neighborhoods, cities, and country.”
It’s difficult to disregard someone if you take the time to exchange a few words, learn someone’s name, find a shared connection.
Break the bubble. Get tangled in the human narrative.