• Finding meaning on a cruise ship

    Posted by Matt

    25 January, 2012

    My good mate Morgan has spent half of last year aboard five-star cruise ships plying the well-worn route between some of Europe and America's most glitzy and touristy coastal destinations, entertaining giddy and sun-stroked passengers with his music. Sounds tough, doesn’t it?! Morgan is quite a character and the experience has given him some fantastic material—his emails regale those of us at home with a litany of hilarious anecdotes and analysis of the situations and people he encounters. His recent update began with the usual banter but shifted tone when he began, in his words, to “go on a rant” about tourists and their never-ending travel stories.

    “I'll tell you what really drives me crazy: listening to every man and his dog tell you how 'ah-ma-zing' everywhere they have been is. It doesn’t matter what country they are from, they all use the word “amazing”! People say tourism is good because it brings money to the country, but it can also turn places into tacky tourist dumps. That kind of travel is just another act of consumption. Maybe you can learn stuff from travelling, but it can also be an irresponsible, selfish act of just burning money without doing any work or any good."

    Backpacker on top of the worldBackpacker on top of the worldBackpacker on top of the worldWhen Morgan's searing critique landed in my inbox, it got me thinking about how I have treated the opportunity for travel. For various reasons—work, study and adventure seeking—I have travelled through over 25 countries in less than 10 years. Have my trips just been exercises western indulgence and selfishness that I have used to impress others, as I nonchalantly rattle off all the “amazing” experiences I have had in my globetrotting? Or have they been meaningful insights into other cultures and ways of life that have profoundly shaped who I am, my relationship with God, and my passion for serving those facing injustice across continents?

    When I really think about it, I have to answer “yes” to both questions, even though they represent opposite ends of the same spectrum. I've been guilty of giving into the temptation to one-up others’ travel tales, name dropping destinations and experiences too, like trekking to Machu Picchu, scrambling over the ruins of Angkor Wat or hang-gliding over Rio. At the same time, I can reflect on lots of experiences that have brought meaning and greater understanding of the world around me, like the time I finally met my sponsored child Rolly in Bolivia face-to-face and we kicked a football around the local church-yard, or when I got to play cricket in the back paddock with Nani, the child I sponsor in India, or one of the many times locals in communities far poorer than my own have invited me to share a meal, tea or some other delicacy in their store, home or bar.

    These questions and my mixed answers led me to consider what is really at the bottom of Morgan’s original rant. What really makes for meaningful travel— and is it even possible?

    If I analyse the deeper and more meaningful experiences I have had, there is a common element to them all: relationships. When I think about what it is in my travels, particularly to developing countries, that has shaped me, I don't recall the times I've stood alongside throngs of other tourists snapping away at some ‘wonder of the world’ (usually a pile of rubble that has been reconstructed to a crumbling reminder of its former magnificence). Rather, I speak of the people I've encountered and their stories of resilience in the face of soul-withering poverty, their remarkable understanding of God in the midst of oppression, and their insights from lives lived in a completely different context to my own.

    So is meaningful travel possible? I believe it is. But it requires us to suspend our default mode of attempting to find simplistic answers for the differences we see in other communities and cultures from our own worldview— and instead assume the position of the humble sojourner. This breed of traveler demonstrates a willingness to slow down; they invite those met along the way to share their understanding of what they witness. This traveler is acutely aware of the privilege it is to have such experiences in a foreign land, and the blessing it is to see the world through someone else’s eyes—and they let it change them.

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    Matt Darvas works as a Child Advocate Network Coordinator for Compassion Australia (a Micah Challenge coalition agency). He was also the 2010 Political Engagement Intern with Micah Challenge.