The Observer

Travel with no purpose other than seeing how big the world is. Look at the mountains, see the shores of a new ocean, eat strange and crunchy foods, talk to people in a language that is different than your own. Look at the city streets with big eyes. Take in all the savory (and sometimes revolting) smells. Cover your ears when the screeching buses drive by. Travel far beyond the land you know and learn how to exist in a new place. 

It’s easy to minimize the value of travel for the sake of travel. If you are a global-minded person like me, you might feel the need to travel with a very tangible purpose. You know, the classic mission to save the world kind of thing, build the new school house, teach the English class…

But why not travel just to see new places and faces? I don’t think we realize how wonderfully transforming, rewarding, and even generous it can be to enter a place as nothing more than an observer.

I just got back from a two and a half week backpacking adventure around Peru, and I think my eyes are still trying to come to terms with the beauty that they saw–everything from soaring mountains, rolling sand dunes, and waves over the Pacific Ocean to the sweetest of kittens, people with overwhelming pride for their country, and plenty of honest conversations about the world’s struggles. This trip as an observer was something special. Here is my best attempt to explain why that was the case:

  1. Marveling at the earth’s rugged, dangerous beauty. On this trip, we did many activities for the sole purpose of seeing more of the planet. We hiked canyons and climbed mountains and crossed streams while looking up at dazzling waterfalls, and we did most of this at elevations that would (seriously) take your breath away. It was truly amazing, and as cliche as it sounds, I really did gain a whole new appreciation for this amazing planet and the awesome power of the God who made it. I don’t think I would have come away in the same amount of awe if I didn’t take these hikes just so I could see more beautiful things.
  2. Seeing and appreciating a daily-life different than my own. I’ve been on several international trips that allowed me to participate in the day-to-day tasks of the locals. This trip gave me the chance to watch the daily activities from a distance, and in some ways (although definitely not all the ways) it was more authentic. This time around, people weren’t hosting me. They were just doing, and I liked to watch that. There is something to be said for simply watching how a person lives, noting the differences, and coming away with a better understanding of the person or people involved. I was able to remember how good I have things in the US (flushing toilet paper, drinking tap water, and air conditioning), while not getting stuck in the mindset of “oh these poor people are so impoverished and they have no idea what luxuries are out there in the rest of the world.” There was no looking down on the people or the situation, but there was plenty of learning and appreciating.
  3. Not being the hero. Going off of simply appreciating another way of living, I did not leave this trip feeling like I did something amazing for the people there. I was not the hero. I did not want to be the hero. I interacted with plenty of locals, heard their stories, and shared smiles. Without me coming with something to offer (in the form of English classes or donations) we were equals, and we got to share in the human experience of being equals…honestly, I wish I had the words for how insanely valuable this kind of interaction is. I don’t today, but I do know that it gives worth to everyone involved.
  4. Global conversations with global friends. Finally, one of my favorite parts of this entire trip was the may conversations I had with people from every corner of the world. Staying in hostels and going on group treks left me with friends from Brazil, Israel, Malaysia, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Canada. While observing all that Peru had to offer, we also had plenty of conversations about our own countries and their advantages and shortcomings. Getting an outsiders perspective on the American education system and Trump’s current presidency was a very enriching experience. It was even more enriching when you consider we were having such conversations while hiking through some of the prettiest mountains in the world. Sharing the journey with other observational traveller is one of the best parts of this kind of adventure.
  5. Getting dirty. You can’t do much observing from the comfort of a hotel room. This trip allowed me to fully embrace the joys of confusing grocery stores and jam-packed vans, but it also allowed me a real and true, up-close view of the country I was visiting. I wasn’t watching through a window, I was negotiating with taxi drivers and talking with the lady about her alpaca sweaters. Observational travel doesn’t mean ignoring the people, it means interacting without gifts or advice, just allowing yourself to live life alongside them.

Let me conclude by saying that this post isn’t written as an attack on mission trips or cruise ships. It’s just an attempt for me to reflect on my overwhelming thankfulness for this adventure I just experienced.

I know traveling isn’t easy or cheap, but if you ever get the chance to go…buy the plane ticket and the cheap hostel rooms, scramble along the mountain path, walk through the market, learn how to live in a new place, and look with wide eyes on the world in front of you. Its beyond worth it.