The Moral Cost Of Travel


In Paradise Lost, John Milton introduced the notion that Adam and Eve ate an apple from the Tree of Knowledge (thus explaining why your “knowledgeable” elementary school teachers may have had the infamous symbol sitting on their desks). The writers of Genesis left the forbidden fruit unspecified, but scholars have since claimed it could have been a grape, possibly a fig, even a pomegranate. Whatever it was exactly, the first Biblical book is clear that its consumption is the ultimate sin — and, ever since, the Western world has equated knowledge with a loss of innocence. Banned from Eden, the original sinners were also the original knowledge seekers, and the idea that understanding means corruption is widespread — oft-seen in dubiously well-known phrases like “Ignorance is bliss.”

Throughout history, innocence has been lost when new knowledge is gained, and the most common way for that to happen is by leaving home. By temporarily or permanently saying goodbye to what he knows best, the traveler willfully treks out from the light into the dark, plucking an apple from the Tree of Knowledge on his way.

The realm of the unknown is perhaps mankind’s greatest fear, but as the philosopher Spinoza said, “There can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope.” To travel is to hope, but it is also to confront one’s fears. To stay in your tiny corner of the globe is to stay ignorant, and, indeed, it can be blissful. Yet what a warped perspective this blind contentment gives. Prejudices and naïve thoughts bask in restfulness and immobility.

The first time I left the United States, I went to Romania, Hungary and Moldova, where my family did charity work in orphanages and hospitals with a local organization. At the time, there was a travel alert from the U.S. government urging Americans not to go to Moldova. No one in my family spoke Romanian or Hungarian nor did we have any relationship with those countries. The reason that we traveled there — going against our own government’s wishes — was obvious to my parents: my brother and I needed to see a harsher side of the world. Budapest and Bucharest are essentially first-world cities, but the rural areas where we worked, mainly populated by Roma, were derelict and, at least from the perspective of a middle-class American, dangerous.

Later, my brother and I were taken to Athens at a time that coincided with the riots of the extremist Golden Dawn party, where we witnessed a great deal of violence. And, for every spring vacation in high school, we were taken to politically tumultuous areas of the world, like Tijuana, Mexico, where the drug cartel still maintains a strong presence, and to Skid Row in Los Angeles, a struggling downtown area infamous for its drug addicts and prostitutes.

While their friends back home applauded my parents for showing my brother and I the harsher sides of the world early on, there are serious questions about travel at stake: How much innocence should be preserved in children? How does white privilege and “poverty tourism” factor into the decision to travel? Should we take traveling so lightly? How much power does travel really have?

There is not an easy way to answer this but it is necessary to understand that there are two ways to travel: for pleasure or for understanding. Sauntering down, say, the Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes, stopping to shop at a boutique, and sunbathing on a particularly sun-filled patch of beach is a “pleasurable” way of travel. Travel for “understanding,” however, would be to perhaps explore Africa’s longest coastline in Somalia, to climb Mount Everest, or to visit politically turbulent cities. Traveling for “understanding” entails neither easy nor safe pursuits, but one would presume they have the greater potential for enlightenment.

Yet the idea that exposure to danger allows for a more complex understanding of the world is a bit of a fallacy. The world in which we live has danger at every turn, even in seemingly safe places: Myanmar, whose tourism office seems to have unlimited funds (there seems to be an advert in every magazine), is a country that’s still a thinly veiled dictatorship; the picturesque, seemingly perfectly stable Christchurch, New Zealand, was flattened by an unexpected earthquake not so long ago; even tried-and-true locales like the beaches of Waikiki or the museums of Paris are still subject to pickpockets and thieves. To leave home is to subject yourself to the unknown no matter where you go.

More importantly, every time we travel, we are transformed, so it matters not so much where we go — if it is somewhere as dangerous as Afghanistan or as safe as the Amalfi Coast — it simply matters that we go at all.

A loss of innocence is usually depicted in popular culture as occurring after a tragedy, perhaps a first sexual encounter, or any time that someone must undertake responsibilities disproportionate to one’s age and experience. Although the etymology is sometimes challenged, many believe that the word “innocent” comes from the Latin “noscere” meaning “to know” or “to learn” (the prefix “in” meaning “not”). “Innocence” is to “not know” or “not learn.” When one travels, especially to places like riotous Greece, inner city Los Angeles, or off-limits Moldova, one learns and thus one loses innocence.

Of course there is nothing inherently immoral or wrong about traveling. In fact, a recent multi-million dollar research campaign called The Travel Effect found a litany of reasons why traveling is a healthy activity. Among other benefits, it reported that students who study abroad tend to have higher life-long incomes, that one-third of leisure travelers have more sex while traveling, and that workers report slightly higher productivity and morale when given time to travel.

These are all respectable reasons to travel, but often we look only at these good sides of travel. We enjoy fetishizing travel as the romantic pastime of the freethinker and wandering soul, but it is also an incredibly formative, powerful, and far more jarring pursuit than it is often given credit for.

Globetrotting guru Anthony Bourdain admitted that his passion for travel led to falling out of love with and eventually divorcing his first wife, Nancy Putkoski. He explained it by saying, “I knew that [travel] had changed me, altered the way I would look at things. And the first time I went back to America, I found I was right. Everything was flat. Everything.”

The perspective-altering effects of travel are common — in fact, they are what many people like most about leaving home. But these effects can also lead to relationship failures, disappointment with careers, a change or loss of ideology, and an irreversible loss of innocence. Indeed, travel sleeps close to corruption.

I do believe that my brother and I are better off having traveled to developing nations and political unstable areas even at a young age. But often, even when one travels to more typical destinations with the idea of “gaining new perspectives,” it can inadvertently lead to one becoming scared of the world. One can clam up and fall out of love with both one’s home — for it is now dull and tamed — and with one’s world — it is too different and unpredictable. Travel is still a worthwhile experience, of course, but loss of innocence and disenchantment with the world are high potential costs to pay.

Near the end of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield tells his little sister, Phoebe, that when he grows up he wants to be a “catcher in the rye.” Taking a cue from Robert Burns’ poetry, Holden says, “I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.” Saving people from maturation, from a loss of innocence is an honorable quest, and there is much to be said for sheltering young people from the transformations that result from travel.

And yet, in the words of Holden describing his sister riding a carousel, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off.” As much as the God of Genesis wanted to be a catcher in the rye for Adam and Eve, they still decided to evade him and plunge over the cliff into a world of knowledge and adulthood. To go to Gypsy camps, to experience extremist politics in Greece, to be thrown into the middle of a drug cartel’s stronghold, indeed to leave home and travel at all — these pursuits only help one grow up faster. The decision to travel is simply to choose to grow up quickly. And just like one cannot return an apple to its tree, once one begins to explore the world, there is no going back.