A Classroom Without Walls

Last November, my wife Karen and I toured the Mediterranean with a group of friends, landing one day at the Great Pyramids at Giza.

It’s not those marvels of the ancient world that I remember most vividly, however, or the majesty of the Sphinx, or the sweep of the desert beyond. It’s the camel abduction.

On the way to the pyramids, our guide told us to keep a wary eye on the local peddlers. “Having someone take a photo of you in front of the pyramids should cost a dollar,” he said. “A camel ride is about three dollars.”

Minutes later, as I was gazing up at the imposing Pyramid of Khufu, an older gentleman invited me to take a jaunt on his camel, a mangy beast who was, unfortunately, standing just upwind. As I looked on with mild interest, he whistled for the animal to kneel down.

The next thing I knew he was firmly escorting me onto the saddle and whistling for the camel to rise. Our group laughed and cheered as the camel driver led me off toward a rocky outcrop eighty or so yards away.

As soon as we were out of sight, however, the driver brought the camel to a halt and I was quickly surrounded by eight or ten Arab men shouting angrily at me in broken English to pay them each twenty dollars for the ride…now!

I said no and told the camel driver to take me back. He turned away as if he couldn’t hear me.

The group of men now pressed in tighter, feigning greater anger, as if I had somehow stiffed them all for the ride, which had so far lasted about 45 seconds. “Pay us now!” they shouted again, their hands stretched upwards.

We were at an impasse. I wasn’t about to pull out my wallet in front of this pack of hyenas. And I was too high up and boxed in to jump down. The men continued shouting and waving their arms. I shook my head and sat on my wallet like Jack Benny, wondering how this was going to play out.

About then, a fellow tourist wandered by, recognized what was going on and barked at the men to back off. “He said he would pay you,” he insisted. “Let him go.”

At this, the Arab men melted away and the camel driver turned and led me back.

I’m sure this incident would have infuriated some, but I was more amused than rattled. I had never sensed any real danger. The men didn’t threaten violence or brandish any weapons. This was sheer intimidation, a tawdry little shakedown. And a reminder that Egypt is not Des Moines.

Back home, I discovered that friends and colleagues were only vaguely interested in the ruins of ancient Greece, the history of Jerusalem or the serene beauty of the Amalfi coast. “Tell us again about the camel abduction,” they said.

Apparently, it was the highlight of the trip.

Not all travel is a success. With expectations high, things can go awry, especially in a foreign land. But even the occasional bad incident makes a good story. (And, perversely, the worst trips make the best ones.)

Most of my travel abroad, however, has not only been great fun but the best part of my education. This idea was once widely accepted.

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke argued that we absorb knowledge from our immediate environment. If you spend too much time in one place, you can “use up” its educational value. In order to grow, you must change locales.

In Victorian England, for example, travel abroad was more than just a mark of privilege. A “change of scenery” was a mandatory part of an upper-class education. The Grand Tour was the capstone of scholarship.

It was a rite of passage that marked a superior understanding of the world. Young aristocratic gentlemen (and later young ladies) set out from the white cliffs of Dover for the Continent with their personal tutors in tow to gain knowledge from the worlds of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, to understand the cultures and ideas that underpin Western Civilization.

Of course, the urge to travel – to open our minds and move beyond the familiar – is as old as mankind itself. It drove our ancestors out of Africa and around the globe. It motivated the ancient Romans to visit Verona’s amphitheater and Athens’ Acropolis. Philo of Byzantium was already listing his Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in the third century B.C. The spirit of adventure, the quest for understanding, and, of course, the dream of great riches pulled Marco Polo to the East and men like Columbus and de Soto to the West.

Travel broadens the mind, increases tolerance, and connects you with your fellow human beings. The more we understand others, the better we understand ourselves.

There are good people and unusual sights everywhere you go. Venture widely enough and you’ll enjoy exotic foods, extraordinary architecture, and jaw-dropping landscapes.

Exploring the world is like attending a classroom without walls. It enriches and changes you. The only requirements are patience, curiosity and a bit of money. (A traveler’s tip: Pack half the clothes you think you’ll need and twice the cash.)

Travel abroad fills in the gaps in our knowledge, dispels our preconceptions and offers endless surprises. Those who forego the opportunity truly don’t know what they’re missing.

It’s sad to go through life thinking foreigners are just strangers who dress oddly, eat bizarre foods, speak in incomprehensible tongues and drive on the wrong side of the road. As Mark Twain observed, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” A voyage abroad teaches acceptance and humility. When you travel, you are the stranger. You are the foreigner.

Your kids and grandkids should discover this too, beginning with travel closer to home. Years ago, I became mildly nauseated by all the toys and games my son and daughter were receiving on their birthdays and at Christmas.

A trip – even if it’s only to the local fair or the town next door – is a far better gift. For kids, every outing is an adventure. Why not spend your time and money collecting memories instead of more stuff?

It doesn’t need to be some place exotic, especially when they’re young. Just make for the horizon and see what’s out there. Traveling without knowing where you are going, without having any particular destination in mind, is one of life’s great pleasures.

Of course, there are plenty of resources to get your mind working on places you’ve never considered. One of my favorites is Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips, a lavish volume put together by National Geographic.

Another handy guide is the bestseller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz. It’s is a fine way to investigate destinations both on and off the beaten track. I’ve gotten in the habit of taking it with me on business trips to make sure I don’t miss the local sights and events. (If you’re on a tight budget – or unable to travel overseas – there’s even a version dedicated solely to the U.S. and Canada.)

In short, travel broadens our perspective and sharpens our view of the world. Rather than imagining how things may be, we see them as they truly are.

Your mind becomes more tolerant, your heart more magnanimous, your opinions better informed. And once your perspective is enlarged, it never shrinks back to its original state.

Some people make a pledge to visit all 50 states, or all seven continents, or fulfill some other checklist. And that’s fine.

But your ultimate goal is not a place, but a new way of seeing things.

Carpe Diem,

Alex Green
for The Daily Reckoning