Since the moment I first boarded an airplane for my very first flight to Palm Springs, I have believed one thing: Travel is magic.
My first “real” job as a semi-responsible adult may not have been mind-blowing, but it was certainly mind-expanding. As a recent grad in my early twenties, I was lucky enough to be hired by United Airlines as a Travel Specialist. (Translation: I was an airline reservations agent). My starting salary was a whopping $105 a week but also included full health benefits and, most importantly, unlimited free travel. Not only on United but on every other airline that flew out of San Francisco International.
I booked family vacations, business trips for executives and flights home for veterans after tours of duty in foreign countries I only knew by name. I handled happy honeymoon couples, disgruntled traveling salesmen and excited high school students booking their inaugural trip to new college campuses.
Despite our meager income, my husband and I took every opportunity to fly (free) anywhere we could afford to pay the (also-reduced) hotel rates. Of course, there was still the eating thing to contend with and admission to museums or other attractions wasn’t always free, so we didn’t have much of a “travel budget.” When you’re earning $420 a month and your husband is a full-time student, the cookie jar is pretty empty after you pay the rent.
We made the decision to travel anyway and to take advantage of every trip posted by the water cooler. (These were the days before instant messaging and email blasts). Rome for three days and Paris for a long weekend were called Familiarity Packages for all qualified airline employees (so we could describe destinations to prospective travelers) and the costs were ridiculously cheap.
What did I learn from these extraordinary sojourns? Only the most important lessons of my life.
Other might disagree, but I came to believe that people in this vast world we share are the basically the same. We all want the same basic things from life: A roof over our heads, enough food to feed our families, to feel safe and keep our loved ones safe.
I was exposed to a variety of religious practices, learned to respect every one and appreciate the right to pray and believe in your version of God.
I experienced exotic foods I was sure I would be forced to spit out – but didn’t – so I wouldn’t insult or hurt the feelings of chefs excited to share their recipes.
And my most significant takeaway from traveling all over the world is that most people are genuinely good, kind and helpful. In the words of Ibn Battuta, “Traveling leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller.” So, I’ll share a quick story to prove my point.
Long ago, my husband and I joined four of my United Airlines co-workers on a four-day trip to Tokyo. We were enjoying the city, the shopping, the gardens and the food as we walked all over this huge city.
After a late lunch, we needed a taxi to return us to our hotel and all raised our hands to begin the universal hailing ritual. One stopped almost immediately but informed us he could only take three of us in his small cab and suggested perhaps another cab a block behind could take the rest of us. Three of our travel party jumped in and we told them we would meet in the lobby.
The rest of us continued to watch for another cab and noticed a similar-looking vehicle two just two cars back. We opened the doors, jumped in and told the driver we needed to go to the Omni Hotel. He smiled, nodded in agreement and quietly drove on.
But after several minutes of travel I noticed there was no meter in the car. The four of us had jumped into a private citizen’s vehicle and demanded he drive us to our hotel! Of course, we spoke limited Japanese and he spoke absolutely no English, but that didn’t stop us from repeatedly expressing our apologies.
The upshot is this kind man drove us safely to our hotel at which point my husband quickly jumped out and flagged down the doorman to explain the situation. We wanted to pay this generous Samaritan, but he only shook his head and told our translator he could not charge these lovely Americans for the ride. He wished us well and drove off.
I will never forget this story; not only because it’s amusing, but because it illustrates one of the true gifts of travel. There’s no doubt that traveling has become more challenging and, often times, even frightening. But we need to remember the huge percentage of good people we’ll meet and interact with when we pack our bags and head off for foreign lands.
My advice to you is simple: Travel as much as you can. Travel when you’re young. Travel when you’re old. Travel with your kids. Travel with your dog. Travel with your friends. Travel by yourself. But, by all means, travel.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson