In the old days traveling halfway around the world would take months, years even in the age before steam, the age of sail when fickle winds and tempestuous seas dictated the whims of adventures worldwide. Back then, you did not come and go from long distances, unless you were a sailor and even then few would ever round the world in an entire career at sea. Things are different now. We have harnessed the energy of the dinosaurs, bottled wind, and sent metal tubes careening across the sky. We have traded the romance and danger of the seas for the reliable safety and relative affordability of cattle class flying. Now, instead of vomiting next to strangers we sit shoulder to shoulder and pretend not to notice anyone’s wayward flatulence.
I cannot sit here and say that we have regressed, because I know the risks of the sea, especially back then. Yet, from where I sit, 37,000 feet high with a couple hundred of my closest friends within coughing distance, I cannot help but feel we have paid a price for our freedom; because, the accessibility of the modern airplane is nothing if not freedom. I mean think of my great grandfather’s trip across the ocean as compared to mine 130 years later. When I left my home in California for Australia I expected to return. I was leaving, yes, but not for good. Rinaldo Puccetti did not have that privilege. Instead, he left home at the age of 15, only to return to Italy once in his lifetime, and 40 years later at that. After his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage, Rinaldo left a family where he didn’t fit and took up an uncle’s offer of work in an arid land, far, far away. I followed my heart to another dry land and, even though a global pandemic put a pause on my ability to return for three years, still, eventually, I was able to fly again.
After three years apart, Kane and I quit our jobs in Western Australia to free ourselves from the time shackles of the modern working world and to fly back to the US for two months of reconnection with loved ones abroad. These metal tubes that can feel like such a burden to deal with – all the lugging of bags and waiting in lines and eating overpriced, terrible airport food just for the privilege of not brushing your teeth or sleeping nearly enough – these metal tubes that we call airplanes made that possible. Without modern air travel I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to leave everything I’d ever known to move to Australia with the love of my life. Hell, without modern air travel I probably wouldn’t have even met Kane in the first place, because he never would have made it to that little salsa room in Guatemala.
So yes, air planes and long haul travel have problems, they are bloody uncomfortable (by modern standards, at least no one is getting cholera on board, unlike the steerage travel of the past) and they have very outsized carbon emissions, but to fly, to travel in them, is a privilege that we cannot forget, that I cannot forget, no matter how much I’d really like to be done with this current flight (got 6 more hours of a 14 hour flight to go and haven’t slept in more than 24 hours).
The privilege of travel is something that I think about often, trying to figure out what it means and how I can fully acknowledge it’s presence in my life. I have been so very lucky to be able to travel as much as I do, to have the freedom to look to the horizon and think “what if?”. I grew up well off. I grew up speaking English as an American citizen. I grew up with a family who loved me and who was there. I grew up with so much more than so many people in this world that for a long time, I felt extremely guilty. “Why do I deserve this?” I would think as I stepped onto the magical cobblestone streets of Siena. “Should I feel bad?” I thought as I learned to scuba dive on Utila Island in Honduras. “Does this make me a bad person?” I mused quietly to myself as Kane and I’s plane touched down in Australia in late 2018, wedding rings on our hands and a visa in my pocket.
I have spent a long time feeling guilty; but, I think, that maybe guilt is not the point…gratitude is.
Yes, international travel is a privilege, but it is a privilege that can teach us so much. International travel broadens our horizons in a way that nothing else can. International travel brings people from so far away together to realize that people are really just people everywhere; they are good, some are bad (in my experience these are in the minority), and they all have dreams. International travel is not accessible to all; it is expensive in both money and time, but it is so worth it, if you have the means to make the choice to pursue it.
Though, if you think about, international travel is more accessible to a wider population now than at any point in history. In 1950 there were 25 million people who travelled internationally, as measured by international arrivals; compare that to 1.4 billion in 2018 and there has been a 56-fold increase in global travel in only 68 years. So how do we reconcile the duality of the inaccessibility of international travel to some, while embracing and appreciating the widening accessibility to many? No longer will most people in this world be born in, live in, and die in the same small town. With increasing global mobility more and more people move for work, for love, and for the sheer sake of adventure, that incurable wanderlust that afflicts some of us rather incurably. Good and bad has come from this, as good and bad has come from every technological advancement since the wheel. The existence of problems within something, carbon emissions, unequal access, does not negate the wonder within it, the families that it reunites, the beauty that is shares, the global understanding and peace that it encourages. So with that waffling, sleep deprived rant I think I have come to my main point, that, yes I travel a lot and I understand what a privilege that is; but, I also think that the more people who grab that privilege with both hands and jump into the world, the better, because the more people in this world who explore beyond their borders, who are curious about the experiences of others, who want to see and learn and feel, the better off we will all be.
I am grateful for my life. I am grateful for my desire to explore, for that part of me that will always choose curiosity. I am grateful for my privilege – and yes, I am grateful for sitting on a plane for 20 hours and eating microwaved eggs that resemble rubber, because it is my ticket to the world, and I am happy to pay that price.
*In an interesting side note that I found while pulling links for this post, but couldn’t find any better way to incorporate than as a footnote – the first tourist to go around the world was Gemelli Careri, an Italian who traveled eastward from Naples between 1693 and 1698 and paid his way on ships heading around the world, though apparently he crossed Mexico by land. Go Italy!