Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why Travel

Here's another winner from the Creatavita Birthday Contest.  Dan Stroiman asked me to write on the importance of travel for creative people.  Gladly, Dan!

Let's start with some fun facts:

- Most of the 1.3 billion citizens of China don't know about Orange is the New Black. But 36 million of them do know about If You Are The One.

 - Indonesia, with a population of 252 million, is the world's fourth most populous country on the planet. Yet only 28% of the country's population uses the Internet (that's 71 million).  Compare that to the US, where there are 318 million people and 81% (or 257 million) use the Internet.

 - The average dinner time in the US is 6:06 pm.  But in Spain? Good luck finding a restaurant open before 8:00 pm.

180 million people not online? Dinner at 9:00 pm? That's exactly why I travel. Despite the fast pace of globalization, the world is still full of people whose lives are vastly different from mine. Living in the midst of this, even for a few days, feeds my soul in ways that a week on the Internet could never match.

I am a fervent believer in the benefits of travel for anyone, but for a creative person, travel is more than fun and rejuvenating, travel is crucial. Why?  Read on.

My first opportunity to travel internationally came when I was in my mid-twenties. I sold all of my earthly possessions and headed to Europe with one goal – to soak up the culture. This was the mid-80's and while Madonna, McDonald's and blue jeans had made it over the Atlantic, Europe still felt like a foreign place. A passing knowledge of at least one foreign language was still necessary and the currency changed at every border. I loved it. After all the hard work of putting myself through college and graduate school, life felt luxurious as I rode train after train, slept in cheap pensions, wore holes in my socks walking through museums and historical sites, and attended countless concerts and operas.

I realized the true value of my European adventures months late when a colleague at the San Antonio Music Festival said, “What happened? You sound like a real singer”. All those nights in the cheap seats of opera houses throughout Europe, whether the singing was good or bad, had put new ideas and sounds into my head, my heart and my throat, and was of much greater value than hauling my you-know-what to endless auditions that I wasn't really ready for anyway.

We Americans live life in a big way with our big houses, big cars, and big appetites. Not every other country on this planet does that. Even here within the borders of our country, there is huge variety in attitudes and cultures. If you're lucky, experiencing another culture from the inside can give you an understanding and appreciation for your life you have, and just as importantly, build empathy and respect.

Here's a story I've held onto for years. It was told to me by a doctor who generously hosted me while I was a resident artist in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Having previously hosted a guest from India, and being a typical Oklahoman, he proudly took his guest to see some of the surprising highlights of the area (including, not one, but TWO Frank Lloyd Wright buildings). The Indian guest then asked to be taken to see where the poor people live. So the Oklahoman doctor proceeded to drive through the poorest neighborhood in Bartlesville. The Indian guest, stunned by the prosperity of the neighborhood, remarked, “Poor people don't live in homes as nice as this in India.”

You think you don't have enough because you live in the USA, the country where there is always someone who has more stuff than you. Travel anywhere else on this planet and you'll realize how much stuff you actually have. You might also realize that stuff is not really fulfilling your soul.

And then there's the empathy you develop. I once rented a bedroom in an apartment in Leipzig, Germany. The middle-aged couple who hosted me were true Germans, extremely polite and respectful, and obviously happy to have the extra income. The room was clean, the breakfast was delicious, and even though the building was probably built in the 1960's, my room was heated by a coal stove. A modern one, not a cute replica. As I fell asleep that night,I found myself thinking how strange it was that not even five years earlier, this lovely couple were a part of “the enemy” simply because they lived in Communist-ruled East Germany. A wall falls down, governments change and we're no longer enemies.

Our work, while usually deeply satisfying, requires intense concentration and energy. Being able to drop all of that and get out of the routine, while at times anxiety-producing, is good for us. It's easy to get all tied up in my First World problems (when am I going to the grocery store this week? Should I go to that audition? How many likes do I have on that Facebook post?), but travel puts my head back on straight.

Having my brain hijacked by a completely different environment is such a marvelous feeling. On most of my travels, I couldn't work if I wanted to; I'm too taken by the sights and sounds surrounding me. Although there have been times when a solution to a vexing problem has presented itself. I grab the nearest notebook or device, jot it down and continue on my merry way.

When I return from a vacation, I am aware of a freshness in my work. Failures that felt catastrophic before just don't feel as monumental. Even better, I am again reminded of the value of my work, both for myself and for the world.

Even though we love our work, getting off our hamster wheels of creating, rehearsing, auditioning, and networking is good for us. Stop the wheel. Live a different routine. Get up earlier. Take a nap. Spend the day looking and listening, not posting. There's a whole world out there, waiting for you.

There's a transformation waiting to happen deep inside of you. It will happen when you walk down a street, enter a home and step into a room. There you will stand, in the same space that one of your heroes occupied, and you'll feel it. That something indescribable, that communication of the human spirit. Like the time I stepped into the house where Oscar Hammerstein did most of his writing. I was expecting a relaxing weekend away with a little bit of history on the side. Instead, my breath was taken away. Crazy as it sounds, I could feel Hammerstein walking on this floor, standing in that room in that spot and laboring over those wonderfully optimistic lyrics of his.

And then there's St. Thomas Church, back in Leipzig, where JS Bach is buried (after having spent the last 27 years of his career).  Of course it was different when I visited in the early 1990s. Or the battlefield I explored at Shiloh, Tennessee (where, in April of 1862, 23,000 soldiers died in one day). It too was different.  Of course change had come to both places over the centuries, but that distinct feeling, that what happened in these places years ago still mattered for humanity - that was present; unseen, but unmistakable.

You cannot get these feelings through your computer. I don't care how many photos you look at or how many videos you watch on YouTube. You start to live when you get the dirt on your shoes, feel the breeze in your hair or recognize a new scent in your nose.

There isn't a specific travel moment where I can say I found myself. But I can think of many moments where I found another piece of what I call My Self. Here's the thing to remember: no matter where you go on this planet, you always take YOU along. That said, getting out of an environment in which you have lived your entire life (I'm talking to you, most of Philadelphia) will expose you to aspects of your personality, both positive and negative, that you never realized you had. So will you find yourself? Well, you've been there all along, but if going somewhere helps you arrive at that realization, then take that trip.

I think I've given you enough motivation to start dreaming and planning for your next travel adventure.  Let me know where you go.  I'm always curious to hear how you Creataviters are doing.


  1. Thank you, Shelly. It was challenging to distill all of my thoughts and experiences for that post. That's probably how you felt about all of your marvelous photos from your recent trip to Africa.

  2. Wow, Heidi! Well done. I finally got around to reading this and it was very nicely written, and I could hear your voice at every word. Very comforting to hear. Well thought out, and I especially love the parts "Stop the wheel" and "Well, you've been there all along, but if going somewhere helps you arrive at that realization, then take that trip." Well said. Thanks for the post. :)

    1. Thank you, Dan!!! I was hearing YOUR voice as I was writing it. I'm really glad you picked up the "you've been there all along" idea. True, isn't it?