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COLUMN: Travel With A Conscience

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Recently, summer has become a strange concept for me. Unlike before, I’m beginning to see it with a lot of different expectations and emotions and responsibilities.

No longer is summer the free-for-all, fun in the sun, time-of-my-life that it was when I still wore pigtails and light-up sneakers.  Now, summer means work, a time to pay for school.

It means trying to see my high school friends as much as possible when we’re not working.  It means missing my new friends and my new home.  It means trying desperately not to lose that spirit of summer that I had all those years ago.

Yes, summer has become more anxiety than relaxation this time around, but one piece of summer remains that helps me push through: travel.

Saint Augustine is the patron saint of my school, and I admit that we have a rocky relationship.  However, there is one topic on which we are in complete agreement: The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.

For me, travel is first and foremost what I want to do with my life.  Forget the house, the job, the money. All of it means nothing if I cannot see the world.

I yearn to see places untouched by man, places built by man, places where man is all there is.  I want to know the feeling of being scattered, pieces of me left behind in a million different people, a million different cities.  I long for the day when I can no longer respond to the question “What’s your favorite place?,” because I will have loved them all.

Each place I have ever been has taught me a new way to see the world and given me a new appreciation for all that travel can offer.

I am not a fearful person, but the one thing that terrifies me is that I will not see enough of the Earth before I leave it.  The hugeness, the vastness of where we are and what there is beyond has always fascinated me.

One of my favorite things about travel is the sometimes gentle, sometimes overwhelming reminder of how small I am.  In our daily lives, it is easy to get caught up in ourselves and our personal trials and travails; easy to forget that the earth extends beyond everything we know to be true.  For me, the mountains provide both a humbling and peaceful reminder.

If a normal mountain is a gentle nudge, Santis—the tallest peak in the Swiss Alps—is a slap straight to the face.

From the path where my siblings and I stood, the trek up to the base of the mountain did not look too far. Two hours and copious amounts of sweat later, we stood next to the wall of rock, stretching up, up, past our visual capabilities and disappearing into white collections of condensation that hung both heavy and light in the sapphire sky. In the other direction, the earth was unraveled before us, an endless patchwork carpet of green and brown.

In that place, caught between limitless earth and infinite stone, I was miniscule. I was two feet tall, two inches, a single atom. My world, my universe, extended far beyond anything I would or could possibly know or imagine. I was reminded that there is, must be, more out there than myself.

While travel can be beautiful and life changing, it can also be harmful.  People tend to ignore the imprint their footsteps leave each place they go.  As travel becomes easier and tourism continues to be one of the world’s most important industries, culture and nature are turning into things that can be bought and sold, rather than experienced. In Paris, tourist capital of the world, this was more than apparent in the many lovelock bridges.

The locks were everywhere, every bridge carrying the weight of love. A few weeks before I arrived in Paris, the original lock bridge had collapsed after, like an overbearing mother, love had built up and built up until the weight became crushing.

As I crossed bridge after bridge, I noticed the evidence of this fate in the future for many of the other structures connecting Paris over the Seine. Their fences sagged, growing weary from the burden of vows kept and broken. Many of these locks were put here by tourists—couples on their honeymoons or anniversaries— determined to understand the fuss behind “The City of Love.”

What they failed to think about, are the consequences of such an act. The key that they threw into the river to symbolize their everlasting love now sits among the rocks and sand, collecting rust, and continuing a hundreds-of-years-old tradition of pollution. They do not understand that when the vessel for their devotion crumbled into the river, it was the city of Paris, their gracious hosts, who needed to pay to have the bridge restored. And yet, from where I stand, I can still hear the clink of promises made, and the plunk of careless lovers.

For everyone out there this summer, who is deciding between a new car and a plane ticket, I implore you to travel, but travel mindfully.  Focus not on the differences, but the similarities.  How we all smile when we are happy, cry when we are sad, and laugh at things we think are funny.  How, since the beginning, we have all done our best to explain the universe.  Recognize that everyone travels with baggage in the form of bias, but do your best to push it aside, and accept a different way of thinking.  There is no right or wrong, only those who understand and those who do not, those who limit themselves to one belief, one place, and one people.

When September comes, know that you did not just pay the bills and get a tan.  Expand your mind; no one has ever regretted learning too much.