Thanks to the Internet, travelers now can book a nice apartment in a foreign city with a click, fly there on a low-cost airline, and then Uber their way around the city without having to figure out the local transit system.
While the logistics and costs of overseas travel have greatly improved, I often wonder if we think enough about why we travel. As Donald DeGraaf, Calvin College’s off-campus programs director, has written: “The easier it becomes to travel widely, the harder it becomes to travel wisely.”
In that regard, many colleges organize study-abroad experiences that offer a good model for intentional travel. We may not have an entire semester to go abroad, but we can certainly be more deliberate about how and why we travel.
Here are some practices that I have tried to develop with the student groups I have led to France, Quebec, and Spain. These practices can help us move away from treating travel as merely a consumer enterprise to developing Christian virtues such as wonder for God’s world, humility for all we do not know, and empathy for the foreigner in our midst.
First, make sure your preparation goes well beyond bookings. Go online, but also go to your local library and bookstore to build a solid knowledge of the places you are visiting. If you are going to a place where an unfamiliar language is spoken, challenge yourself to learn its basic vocabulary—even better, take a course in that language. You can also read the country’s most well-known authors or, if available, watch its top films and TV shows.
Second, be ready for cultural differences—even seek them out. A Starbucks in Paris may be a welcome sight, but try a local café first. And if a waiter or hotel manager appears to be rude, consider your cultural expectations. Different cultures have different ideas of service and professionalism. Your expectations may not be the norm.
Third, focus on people. While you may embarrass your kids, take the time to talk to fellow travelers, local shopkeepers, and the person who sets up your poolside chair. Enter their lives and consider how they might see you.
Finally, limit your smartphone contact with home to emergencies or a brief check-in. Life is more than creating the perfect Instagram account or following the latest major league baseball scores. You may be missing out on the great experience that’s happening off-screen right in front of you.
Travel deeply to travel wisely and see yourself and your own culture with new eyes and greater understanding.
- Donald G. DeGraaf, There and Back: Living and Learning Abroad (Calvin College Press, 2015).
- David I. Smith and Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, Christians and Cultural Difference (Calvin College Press, 2016)