As soon as I turned 18, I went on my first solo overseas adventure. Destination: East Africa. The sales pitch — first from the travel companies to me, then from me to my concerned parents — included whitewater rafting and bungee jumping in Uganda, climbing into the highlands of Rwanda to see silverbacks and following migrating wildebeest in a hot air balloon from the Masai Mara in Tanzania to the Serengeti in Kenya. I’d been waitressing and saving for two years.
I remember my mother asking, “Can’t you go somewhere a little less dangerous?” No, I could not, would not. I had lived a very loved and sheltered middle-class life in Brisbane and there was a whole world waiting out there — known unknowns and the much more frightening and exciting unknown unknowns.
The touristy highlights are what I have photos of and they’re the stories I tell at parties, but they’re not what challenged and changed me. What profoundly impacted me was witnessing mission schools, which offered children food and lessons in exchange for control of the community and the small matter of the children’s undying souls. There was also a sobering lesson from park rangers — that it is not only poaching that puts animals at risk, but also the underregulated explosion in tourism that is degrading their habitats.
Most notably, my guides spoke about the ongoing devastation wrought by colonisation. In 1885, when the European powers carved out new nations for allotment among themselves, they didn’t follow existing social or environmental lines. I learnt that, in 1919, the British mandated that Kenyan men wear a kipande (identification document) around their neck. The things I learnt about colonial rule in Africa are lessons I should have learnt about colonial rule in Australia while I was at school. I was asking questions over there that I needed to be asking here.
When I finally returned home, I was so changed that my best friend and housemate at the time referred to me as “Bri 2.0”. An improvement, she assured me. I had taken the first step towards gaining some perspective and was beginning to shrug off the annoying, nervous energy of an insecure person. I was also hooked. I went on to spend a year in China, visit North Korea, ramble around Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, and travel up and down the east coast of America. Finally, in the years before the lockdowns began, I did some of the “easy” stuff, like England and France.
Every time I travel to a new city or country, I find myself relearning the same lesson: the importance of leaving presumptions at home. Every place has a history to learn; cuisines deserve respect and customs must be followed. There’s a reason American tourists have such a terrible reputation overseas, and it’s not just because they’re loud. It’s something British and Australian travellers often do, too: we expect people to speak English. There is nothing more excruciating than hearing a tourist repeat themselves in English — extra loud and extra slow — to someone who speaks the local language (and often more than one) fluently.
When I was a teenager, I worked for hundreds of hours to save money for my airfare and accommodation, but it never occurred to me to spend even a dozen hours with a phrasebook. I didn’t appreciate the incredible value of language: it gives you a chance to engage with your surroundings and the people you meet so that you might appear a little less blundering, a little less imperial. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
In the documentary “Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain” (2021), we see how travel profoundly changed the late American chef and writer. Bourdain, who had seen little of the world before he was catapulted to fame with his book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” (2000), went on to embrace travel, averaging about 200 days away each year, and he didn’t stop until his death in 2018. The documentary is deeply flawed in the way it tries to understand and explain Bourdain’s suicide, but it does offer an incredible insight into how a person can be changed by a place. Or, in Bourdain’s case, by hundreds of places, visited over almost two decades.
After a while, Bourdain grew uncomfortable with how much his television programs were about him. He spoke of an ideal version of his show “Parts Unknown”, one that would not have him in it. In the documentary, there are painful scenes that show the chef and his production crew inserting themselves into tense environments marked by poverty and violence and, in doing so, making things worse for the locals.
We may never get another Bourdain-like figure and that may be a good thing. The world appears finally ready for people to tell the stories of their own countries and cuisines. We’d rather our guides to these “parts unknown” be actual locals.
But what Bourdain understood is that travel changes us most wonderfully when it simultaneously increases our capacity for understanding while minimising our ego. It makes us bigger and smaller at the same time. This is true of all types of learning, especially languages, but travel is special because it makes us aware that we’re more than just brains floating in jars — we have a body and it is connected to our mind, tastebuds and eardrums. Engagement of the senses, sometimes to the point of overload, is such a rare and special thing. It gets the heart pumping and reminds us we’re alive.
Travelling across space also does something to us. While I’m sure nobody missed sitting in commuter traffic during the lockdowns, I did hear plenty of people talk about how impossible it was to switch off at the end of the workday. We move our bodies to separate work from home. We get in a car or hop on a train as wife, mother, daughter and we get to the other side as doctor, chef or manager. For the same reason, we often mark milestones — graduations, weddings, retirement — with trips away; we intuitively know that when we return there may be something new and different waiting for us, or inside us.
The proof of this change is in its opposition. Take, for example, the way we revert to a previous version of ourself when we return to the family home. That thing you do when you hear yourself saying words you used to say and behaving like a kid again? It’s referred to in family systems theory, which highlights the “equilibrium” family members fall into. Psychologists say these deeply ingrained behavioural patterns can be very difficult to break out of. For most of us, that feeling is compounded by location. Going back to one’s hometown is almost like travelling back in time. According to experts, specific settings, like a family dinner table, can exacerbate the regression.
Over the past two years, lockdowns have kept many of us within the borders of our home state or stuck in a five-kilometre bubble. Never have I had itchier feet. Never had I realised how much I had taken travel for granted, for how it allowed me to reset, refresh my inspirations and reflect on life. When Sydney’s lockdown finally lifted last October, I immediately booked a Taste of Afghanistan and Syria tour — no airfare required. Run by Taste Cultural Food Tours, a not-for-profit that supports migrants and refugees, the tour gives Sydneysiders a chance to eat their way around Merrylands in the city’s west, home to some of the best Afghan and Syrian food you’ll find anywhere.
The beauty of this globalised world is that with just a half-hour drive from Sydney’s CBD you can have a culinary and cultural adventure that could once only be experienced with a long-haul flight. If I learnt one lesson from the last lockdown, it’s that the transformative power of travel can be found closer to home, if you know where to look.
When I was that 18-year-old setting off for the first time, I dreamed of eventually ticking off every continent. Now it is the journey itself I long for. The rarest thing in a privileged life is to be truly surprised. Travelling keeps me humble; it reminds me of how small I am in the face of history and geography, yet it also shows me what a difference I can make — for better or worse — with the resources I have. My compass is set to “curious” and I am forever seeking that ultimate delicacy: the unknown unknown. May we all grow bigger and smaller in the right ways.
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health struggles, seek support from an organisation such as Beyondblue (beyondblue. org.au) or Lifeline (lifeline.org.au).