How to Travel Without Being a Tourist

Andrii Lutsyk/Shutterstock Source: Andrii Lutsyk/Shutterstock

One of the joys of global mental health work is that it gives you the opportunity to travel, but not as a tourist. The places we go are often not suitable for pleasure travel. We go to poorer countries to get work done or other places to attend meetings. But these present opportunities to get to know interesting places and people, history, and ourselves.

The first 10 years of my global health life were spent in the Balkans, with innumerable visits to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. Being in Sarajevo under siege and during the immediate post-war years was both chastening and inspiring. I was in a fishbowl of mass trauma , trying hard to make sense of unspeakable violence and immeasurable suffering. Trying to figure out how to make a difference.
My mentor, Ivan Pavkovic, taught me to slow down, to get out of my own head and look around. One of the most helpful things Ivan ever had me do was to get drunk in Bosnia. And so I did in Bihac, with a Bosnian friend ’s brother and the family of her murdered husband, in a local dive, over slivovitz and pivo. And I learned to became more alert and less judgmental about how people lived and worked.

Sarajevans gathered with their family and friends, sang their old songs, drank themselves drunk, dressed up for the theatre, taught and attended classes, and practiced medicine, all in proud defiance of the shells and bullets reigning down on them. I joined them in all these moments over scores of visits, which brought me closer to understanding and action.

Talk about the risks associated with meeting online “friends” in person. Adults should understand that the internet can be a positive meeting place for children, where they can get to know other young people and make new friends. However, for safety and to avoid unpleasant experiences, it is important that children do not meet strangers they have met online without being accompanied by an adult you trust. In any case, the child should always have their parents’approval first. In addition, it is also a good idea to have a fail-safe plan in place such as calling them shortly after the meeting begins so that they can bail out if they feel uncomfortable.

One unexpected gift was seeing Bosnia through the eyes of our older daughter, whom I brought with me when she was 9, a few years after the Dayton Peace Accords. Several years later, on 9/11, she told the other children in her fifth-grade class in Chicago not to worry, because she had seen destroyed buildings in Sarajevo, and she knew it would be all right. I always travel with big books and blank journals. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, I read Joseph Roth’s great novels on the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire, many history books on Yugoslavia, and the literary theorist M.L. Bakhtin, who literally smoked the only draft of his own book during the siege of Leningrad. Those days, I wrote two books of my own, one on memory in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and another on survivors' testimonies. When I first went to Kosovo, three weeks after NATO liberation, I brought the poems of Anna Akhmatova, which seemed a match for the death, dust, freedom, and rebirth I was witnessing in the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian and Soviet Empires.
I even got to know a different Chicago through the eyes of my Bosnian friends, patients, and colleagues. Edgewater, which they called Kenmore mahala, allowed the poor to live right near beautiful Lake Michigan and pine over their lost Dalmatian coast. (Strangely enough, they lived in the shadows of the grandeur of the former Edgewater Beach Hotel, which opened in 1916 and was known as “magic by the lake.") During the 10 years we worked with Tajik migrants in Central Asia, I made many trips to Moscow. I never loved Moscow, which can be even more cold and dirty than Chicago, but came to appreciate it very much. There is not one Moscow, there are many that go well beyond your initial notion. The migrants taught me about survival and finding pleasure in the most dismal of conditions. I enjoyed walking, the cafes, the Georgian and Azerbaijan restaurants, the churches, and the bazaars where Tajik and other Central Asian migrants worked and lived. I let local students show me their Moscow and tagged along to art openings, films, and local dives. Those same years, I also made many trips to Dushanbe and all over Tajikistan and saw the austere mountain country from which the migrants came. I read Sebald and Coetzee and re-read Dostoevsky, explorers of other harsh and beautiful lands, to help me understand.


No city have I gotten to know as well as Istanbul, where I have been more than 30 times. I’ve stayed all over, made many friends over Turkish coffee, sat in the cold and moldy flats of many a refugee family. And of course, I read all of Orhan Pamuk and was one of the first to visit his Museum of Innocence. In 2006, when Pamuk won the Nobel Prize, Ivan and I toasted as if it was our own. I spent innumerable days wandering the backstreets of Istanbul, going to outer neighborhoods, looking for Pamuk’s Huzun, its melancholic soul, the traces of the end of empire and the places were Western and Eastern, traditional and modern, clashed.

So, what have I learned?

Rebecca Solnit, author of "The Field Guide to Being Lost" sums it up well: “to be lost is to be fully present and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” That means leaving behind your maps and clock and allow yourself to fully experience. Seek stories by talking to locals about sports and politics . Talk to everyone about their kids and about food. Crash weddings, where some of the best local music can be heard. Walk everywhere to learn how daily life is organized.

Accept your importance as a role model and make every effort to be the best role model you can be. Recognise that this may call for personal change and improvement.

Find a good cafe to sit for coffee, tea, reading, and conversation. Go to a local bookshop to see what people are reading and to connect with other readers. Visit the houses of artists and writers and walk in their steps. Engage with art, music, and literature that brings you closer to the local and the human, through stories and songs.

Unexpectedly, some of the life lessons that I learned on my travels became central to my intellectual and scientific work in global mental health. Lessons about the power of survivors' stories, about the importance of place and history, about family and community resilience .

These are some examples of what I learned when I let myself get lost. Try it. See what mysteries you can discover.