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As an M.A. candidate, I spent some time in the city of Assisi, Italy working on my dissertation. It was wonderful. I woke up every morning in my clean yet simple convent room, opened the shutters overlooking the misty valley below, breathed in the fresh air scented with warm burning fires, got dressed, and made the winding walk through narrow story-book streets to the Basilica di San Francesco.

I sat inside the church all morning, gazing upon a multitude of frescos and contemplating their layers of rich significance. I watched the tourists who were shuffled by in their guided groups – and I knew that they were missing so much. I wanted to should out “wait! Your guide is not telling you that there IS more to say about this fresco! Why is he passing it up so quick? Where are you going?!”

I thought to myself at the time, “I could spend the rest of my life doing this.” It was heaven.

Then, in the afternoon, I would head to the little cafe around the corner, where I would order some Italian delight and sip my espresso, while pouring over my notes. From time to time I would look up at the Basilica and just smile. The peace I was enjoying was enhancing everything about my experience and drawing out all the beauty around me.

But one afternoon, a group of American women sat down near me, and instead of smiling I wanted to groan – and if I had the self control of a 2 year old, I may have thrown my now “Gerbered” food at them in a rather unappealing way!

“I am so tired,” one lady complained.

“Me too,” the other agreed. “It is not what I expected.”

“Me neither. I expected more.”

“The other cities we went to were not ‘all that’ either – don’t you think?”

“M-hmm. I really do not care if I see anymore. I am going to go back to my room today. You can go on with the group if you want.”

“No, I agree with you. I am going to my room too.”

When you love someone, and another person insults them or says something negative, you want to rise to their defense. And that was how I felt – how dare they insult my beautiful, amazing, enchanting, perfect Assisi? This place is incredible? Are they blind?

But I had to remind myself that yes they were blind – blind in a very incurable way. They were the product of the typical over-hyped, under-educated, and thoroughly cattled tourist industry.

They had probably heard bits and pieces about Italy, but never taken the time to really study it in depth. They had probably seen certain movies and watched certain books but never really educated themself on the history and culture. Their expectations were therefore insanely high but unrealistic. (Yes, Italy is a real place and it can be very dirty and grity and real! But if you know how to cut through all that, it can also be amazing.)

Coupled with the mass “cattling” that they were likely experiencing in groups, rushed about on buses, and expected to “ooo” and “awe” over the same sights within 2 minutes, snap pictures in another 2, and head out in 5 – it was no wonder they could no longer really see and appreciate what was before them. They were tired, exhausted, and did not know what to look for. All they knew was that right now their eyes were no longer affecting their heart, and so Italy was not all that they “expected” it to be.

I think all travelers, both the experienced and the inexperienced, need to remember that travel is not an “extreme thrills” sport (some of it is, but that is for another group). You do not step on a plane and suddenly your system is overwhelmed with massive amounts of chemicals screaming to your brain “isn’t this amazing?!!!!” (Well, ok sometimes you are – but it is not 24/7 instant thrills.)

Travel is something that has to be done from the heart. And the heart is a sensitive creature. If other parts of your body are overwhelmed and not thinking clear, your heart will be too clouded to really truly perceive what is around it.

So here are some travel tips to protect your heart so that it can help your eyes find the beauty and joy in each day’s experiences:

1) Go slow – do not plan rushed trips unless you understand that it can have a major affect on your entire experience that is not positive.

2) Avoid group travel – herded about like cattle in a group of tourists from the same country as you is like living in a dense fog – and everything that you see will be filtered through bias. After all, it is like you are traveling in a patriotic American bubble formed by people who do not realize they have left their own country. And why leave American just to stay stuck in it?

3) Take rests as needed – if you need a few days, or even a week to sleep in, relax, and just not deal with having to rush from site to site – do it! But do not let yourself get to the point that you do not care anymore about what you see because your heart is so strangled by too many other things.

4) Educate yourself – try to educate yourself on any culture you are visiting beyond what is blurbed about their history in the travel guides. And please – at least learn “Do you speak English?” in their language.

5) Be realistic – no place is perfect. No matter what the photos show, or the videos promote, no place, however amazing, is heaven. Only heaven is heaven – we are living on Earth. So don’t expect perfection and you can find joy in all the imperfections around you.

6) Remember you are not in Kansas anymore – always try to appreciate another cultures ways of thinking and doing things. You may not like them, or agree, but if you fight against them you might as well stay home and make a day trip to Wal Mart.

Let your heart breathe – protect it – let it beat slowly and peacefully at times through your travels – and your journeys will reward you immensely!


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