black / girl / abroad

The power of travel


There was this loose metric I’ve heard over the years — only about 10% of Americans have a passport. To write this piece, I double checked — that was probably true fairly recently but as of 2016, America has made it to 40%! But look at the sudden rate of increase … I wonder if it’s a shift in immigration that’s caused this. People inbound from other countries who are already travelers, who ensure when they arrive that their spouses and children get passports, too. That then of course could drastically influence the numbers. Data points to consider:

The 2010 Census reported 308.7 million people in the United States, a 9.7 percent increase from the Census 2000 population of 281.4 million. that means that in 2000, there were about 281M people — but only 48M passports in circulation. In just 16 years, we’ve gone from 17% of Americans having a passport to 40% — that’s more than double the number of passports in circulation in just 16 years!

Valid Passports in Circulation (1989-Present). Source: US Dept of State.

Valid Passports in Circulation (1989-Present). Source: US Dept of State.

I think this is a wonderful thing, because the more people who end up travelling, the more diversity of thought and exposure to information — education — people have. Also, more exposure to just wonderful experiences.

But I don’t have insight into the slices across age groups — are some of these folks under 18? What are their demographics? Are they mostly military, State, or Department of Defense forces — meaning that the majority of those with passports have so because of their job? What would we see if we just looked at the civilian population?

Reinventing yourself with passport in hand

I got to thinking about all this and the doors open to more and more Americans willing to think and look beyond their own borders because of this video … which is basically about a woman of privilege in America having a personal crisis and using travel as her personal method of healing and a tool to reinvent herself. See below.


And what she said spoke to me. Because, honestly, in many ways I feel the same way, and I’m not a skinny white girl who was on TV. Travel is a healing experience — it can be stressful, and difficult, but it can also be elevating, and my saving grace.

When I am in one place for too long, I become complacent. Stagnant. I forget who I am. When I am exploring — out of my element, challenged to explain myself in new ways or navigate new terrain from a subway map to the subtleties of eating in someone’s home — I’m suddenly evolving. From the me that has a job and pays the bills and sees the same people generally every week and weekend, to someone different, whoever I say I want to be. Whoever I want to try being.

With my passport, I’m unlocking a newfound power to rebuild myself into a new story, a new image, that no one has heard of where I’m traveling to. When I meet you for the first time in Vegas, I can tell you that I catch fish for a living and my name is Barbara. When I travel to Paris, I can tell you that I’m a food blogger and that my name is Sylvia. I can lie outright, bend the truth, tell you my whole story, tell you none of it.

At home, I can feel boring, uninteresting, uptight, shy.

Abroad, I can reinvent myself into sophisticated, fascinating, easy-going, gregarious. I can paint, and write, whatever story I want.

StockSnap / Pixabay

I can put different skins on. I can play with my identity, in a place where no one will tell me “You seem different today,” or “Um … are you okay?” No one where you’re going knows the pattern you have when you’re at home. You have no rules, and a blank canvas. At home, adjusting who you are has ramifications — it can upset people, even as it can delight them.

Case in point: One day I started wearing makeup to work. For years, I hadn’t bothered, because I hate the effort and I’m a bit of a tomboy. Comfort before beauty. But as I got older and realized all the people around me were getting younger, I knew I’d have to step up my game and remind people that I AM glamorous, I AM fabulous, even if YOU don’t think it, I’m going to put on some sass to remind MYSELF that I am. People noticed. Some made comments.

But mere months later, it was perfectly normal to see me with makeup. These little shifts are YOUR shifts, a story you tell as you want to tell it.

Going anywhere away from home gives you a laboratory — a world-wide stage in which to define yourself as you see fit, with your audience utterly rapt and clueless as to whatever role you played before.

There is nothing more powerful than the story you tell yourself about who you are — and travel can be a critical tool in helping you find that story.


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