Why travellers are more open-minded

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."

So said the oft-quoted Mark Twain, having recently visited the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The American writer's eyes had apparently been opened by his travels, his thoughts and ideas changed by the things he'd seen and the people he'd met overseas.

As an experience, it's something that must be as old as travel itself. Surely even the earliest explorers had their minds irrevocably changed by their treks into the great unknown. Everyone from Marco Polo to Captain Cook must have been forever altered in their assumptions and knowledge of the world.

Travel changes you. Anyone who's been away overseas for an extended period of time and come back to a reverse culture shock, to the realisation that nothing and no one in Australia has changed in the slightest, would understand this. 

There's huge frustration when you come home to find that no one else has seen the things you've seen, and no one thinks the way you think. The world is an exciting, fascinating place. Travellers know this.

Mark Twain was 100 per cent right.

And that knowledge changes you. According to Twain it makes you a more tolerant, open-minded person. It removes your prejudices and makes you appreciate the essential similarities that everyone in the world shares.

I've always agreed with this point of view. I don't know how you could travel and keep a closed mind. So much of bigotry and xenophobia is a product of ignorance, a fear of people and places unknown. 

Once you see those places, meet those people, the fear is taken away.

To me this seems natural. I've written before about the way travel makes you less conservative, more open-minded. It's logical to me – and apparently to Twain – that travellers would tend to lean towards the left side of politics, to social equality and a humanitarian outlook.

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There are people who don't share this point of view, of course. The conservative columnist Andrew Bolt once criticised me for something I wrote about five years ago, when I claimed, again, that travellers would tend to lean to the left of the political spectrum.

Everyone will have their own experiences travelling, and there's no right or wrong way to do it, or be influenced by it. Bolt must have seen different things to me, claiming that his extensive travels have confirmed and hardened his conservatism, rather than open him to a more socially progressive view of the world.

To each their own. In my case, the more I see of the globe, the further to the left I swing. 

I'm sure Twain's argument is correct.

Try spending time in the Middle East, for example. If you'd just stayed at home and read the news you would have thought it's a place of permanent jihad, of warmongers and zealots on crusade.

But after even a couple of days in a Middle Eastern country you come to realise that with the vast majority of people there is nothing to fear. In fact it's the opposite. They're the kindest, most welcoming  hosts you could hope to meet. The world is a bubbling pot of ideas and beliefs, and travel is about seeing life through a prism of those alternative points of view. You meet a million different people, you hear a million different opinions. You might take some of these opinions on as your own. At the very least you'll have challenged most of the things you've always taken to be true.

The world becomes smaller when you travel, but it also becomes much larger. You can appreciate the breadth of humanity, the differences and similarities in all of us. Narrow-mindedness can't survive an experience like that. 

It must be almost impossible to see the wider world and still believe that your little corner of it is the only one that matters. 

It has to make you flinch, for example, when foreign aid is carved up by the Australian government in favour of bonuses for our babies. It must bother you to see people just like those you've met overseas being held indefinitely in detention for the crime of trying to find a safer, better life for their families. 

Mark Twain was 100 per cent right: travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. And many of our people, right now, need it sorely on those accounts.

b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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