“Aren’t you afraid?”
Yes. The first time I set foot in an airport to leave my home country, I was terrified. I’ll never forget that no-turning-back, stormy-sea feeling in my stomach as the cabin door shut on my overnight flight to Lima, Peru. There were a hundred things to worry about that night: lack of Spanish fluency, pickpockets, criminal taxi drivers, and even Sendero Luminoso, the communist terrorist organization.
When I boarded that plane again, three months later, to return to my home in Tulsa, my eyes were filled with tears – tears of love, joy, and passion, not of fear. I went on to study abroad in Madagascar and Brazil, and to visit Ecuador, South Africa, and Nicaragua – a group not exactly deemed the safest of countries.
1. Understanding. What I heard from US news outlets was nothing like the reality of living in different countries. Because I entered my host cultures with an open mind, I was able to understand the reasons behind the actions. During the World Cup in Brazil, the rest of the world wondered about strange protests by angry Brazilians. I was able to understand the social harm the event was inflicting on the country, and to perceive the purpose and importance of the demonstrations.
2. Connection. Perpetrators all around the world, from everyday pickpockets to organized terrorists, want victims to feel alone and unconnected. Travel completely undermines that in a beautiful way. Because I’ve gained friends and host families in other countries, I can relate to and care about almost any world event, and I have a desire to understand it. Connection through travel brings us together, and that is one of the most powerful positive weapons on earth.
3. Peace-building. Travel taught me to love and communicate despite all obstacles, and that is the foundation of building a peaceful world. I once heard a speaker say, “We don’t go to war with our friends.” I believe that’s often true. Connection and communication are vital for building peace on a personal and global level.
4. Reality. Safety is a perception that may or may not be reflective of reality. In Rio de Janeiro, of all places, my forgotten camera wasn’t stolen; it was returned to me by a stranger. In Lima, I miscounted my money during an exchange transaction, and the clerk corrected me, to my benefit instead of his. On the other hand, in my safe suburban home in Oklahoma, my dad’s trailer was stolen out of our driveway. Villains exist everywhere, but so do everyday heroes!
Why do I continue to pack my suitcase and click “purchase airfare”? Because I, like so many others, have decided to reject fear. I am careful, yes. I make wise choices and take measures to protect myself, always. But I refuse to let fear of possibilities stand between me and my goals and passions. Choosing love and (measured) adventure over fear – that’s what makes life worth living, in any country.
Elissa Stiles is the current Marketing Coordinator for the CGE, a three-time study abroad alum, and a passionate world traveler.