I was incubated in the Hunter Valley, just outside Sydney, but I learnt how to be a person by, for example, dancing on a cathedral rooftop in Mexico City on New Year's [Eve], and by walking daily past the Rosetta Stone, while I worked at the ticket desk in the British Museum, dazzled by a history I could scarcely comprehend.
If I know anything at all, it is because I exposed the blank slate of myself to the world and allowed the world to leave its mark. Travel is life-changing. Taken seriously, it can change a person into someone unrecognisable, change everything about them from their accent to their moral compass.
Paul Theroux said it best: "You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back."
Perhaps this seems like a banal observation, but as tourism becomes increasingly commodified, focused on leisure, souvenirs and luxury, it strikes me as an important point to emphasise. Many people travel because they want to see something new, acquire new knowledge.
Travellers want to return home a little bit wiser, with an enlightened understanding of their place in the universe. In this way, I think, travel can make us better people. It is an antidote to small-mindedness and provincialism, or unsophisticated thinking.
I am reminded of this fact whenever I read those increasingly frequent accounts of somebody dismissing Muslims with a single blanket statement such as, "Islam is a religion of violence." Anybody who makes such generalisations has clearly never travelled much.
They have never been to Oman, for instance, where I once passed two illuminating weeks wearing a dishdash in the Wahiba Sands and Nizw, learning about Ibadi Islam, a sect motivated by peaceful coexistence and the acceptance of other beliefs. Omanis were, without exception, welcoming and hospitable, about as far from al-Qaeda extremists as I was. The idea that one could dismiss them out of hand is ludicrous to me because I have met them face to face, individuals with hopes and aspirations.
I could cite countless other examples, ways in which travel cancels out ignorance. Once, at an art gallery dinner in northern NSW, I sat next to a woman who was decrying those Sri Lankan Tamils crossing the Indian Ocean and tangling with our navy. Australian tourists are visiting Sri Lanka, the woman announced to the table, therefore everything is obviously fine and they have no valid claim for asylum here.
"Have you been to the Jaffna Peninsula?" I asked her. Many of the refugees were from the towns of Jaffna and Mullaitivu. She had not. If she had arrived in Colombo and headed north, away from the tourist hoards, who generally go south, perhaps she would have noted, as I recently had, the barbed wire rolled along beaches, and signs notifying pedestrians of live land mines, and heard about Tamils unfairly imprisoned and still prevented from returning to their homes several years after the official end of the civil war.
Perhaps, with a little travel, this woman would have been a more generous person, inclined to think deeply about why a person might risk their life crossing a vast and terrifying ocean on a rickety boat. Travel incites reflection. It is an education. It is harder to dismiss somebody when you've sat in their living room and eaten lunch, and harder to shrug off an entire population when you've driven through desperate shantytowns and felt the presence of despair. What I am trying to say is that travel exercises the empathy muscle, making it grow.
Another reason travel makes us better is the exposure to history it provides. Walking through the ancient streets of Rome, examining skulls of Australopithecu in Nairobi, visiting universities five times older than white settlement in Australia. Travel can't help but burst our misguided presumptions of self-importance. It creates perspective.
It is no coincidence, I think, that the most jingoistic nationalists often seem to be the kind of people who refuse to get on a plane or go anywhere except their own backyard. People are disinclined to hear any evidence that undermines their case. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes. Of course, Australia seems perfect, impossible to improve, and better in all conceivable ways than every other country, if you've never actually been to any other country.
Given this country's multiculturalism, visiting origin points such as Britain, Greece, Italy and Vietnam can only produce a richer, more nuanced understanding of home. It is hard to trumpet isolationism once you recognise that half of Australia's richness comes from somewhere else, that it was our willingness to open borders in the past that makes Australia an interesting and dynamic place today.