I used to think travel meant going to a far-off place where the sights, sounds, and smells could snap me into another version of myself. Only travel, I believed, had the power to make me more plucky and intrepid, less prejudiced and blinkered. In that hallowed space of geographical and cultural difference, my fellow travelers and I would be inducted into an exclusive club of global sophistication.
The more I travel from my home in Seattle and the more I think about travel in an unequal world, the less compelling I find this narrative. Travel isn’t about how far we go physically; it’s about how far we are willing to go in our hearts, minds, and convictions. I’ve met people whose passports are peppered with stamps and yet are quite provincial in their worldview. Conversely, I know people who have rarely left home and are far more cosmopolitan in their thinking.
When I visit a new city or country, everything can feel unfamiliar. Yanked from comfort and fluency, I’m forced to become a better observer. As I meander through Dakar, Senegal, I notice how my South Asian brownness presents itself in the racial and cultural mix of West Africa. While browsing street markets in Rio de Janeiro, I consider how being a woman feels, based on local gender norms. I reflect on the various privileges I am awarded due to my U.S. passport, the dollars in my pocket, and my own global mobility.
Travel brings these nuances to the surface precisely when I am an outsider. To wear brand-name sneakers and tote a fancy water bottle would loudly proclaim my urbanity and access to resources, especially when I visit less wealthy places. Since forming relationships is my priority as a traveler, I’d rather tone down my privileges and dial up my desire to connect. I cannot undo all the global inequities around me, but I can make small choices about how I show up in new spaces. I carry a nondescript water container and wear the kind of footwear that other women my age do. Sometimes, this leads to unexpected feelings of connection, as I remember happening on a muggy day in Tiananmen Square, where I was surrounded by Chinese elders. Despite a lack of shared language, their broad smiles offered grace and camaraderie. Other times, I stand out and simmer in discomfort. A walking tour of low-income neighborhoods in Mexico City left me feeling agitated and unsure about how to process the planet’s many unfair realities. Both scenarios encourage me to pay attention to my feelings as well as my surroundings.
I cannot undo all the global inequities around me, but I can make small choices about how I show up in new spaces.
I am trying to live my life at home with a similar consciousness I feel when I’m on the road. How can I use the gifts I receive while traveling to live more mindfully at home?
With a beginner’s mind, I enjoy the comforts of home and take in my familiar surroundings as a curious outsider. When I listen to the calls of robins and chickadees in my local park, I wonder which communities in my city have fewer green spaces and why. I notice the people around me as I reach for tomatoes at the grocery store. How monocultural is my life, I ask myself, and why, especially if my city is celebrated as being so diverse? At the library or café, I intermittently close my laptop and remind myself to look up. I try to connect with people, starting with a nod, a soft gaze, and an easy smile. I avoid the automatic greeting, “How are you?” Instead I ask, “What’s something you’ve been thinking about lately?”
Mindful travel in an unequal world isn’t about getting on a plane to go somewhere; it’s about paying attention to who feels a sense of belonging, opportunity, and acceptance, and who is denied such dignities—and why. It is about understanding that, due to history and accidents of birth, some of us have advantages others are not afforded.
None of us has a manual for dealing with the ways our privileges or lack thereof make us feel, or how our identities might play out abroad or at home. We do, however, have the ability to engage more intentionally with the people and world around us. In the process of attending more carefully to one another, we come closer to justice. And we might even heal a bit of ourselves, too.