An American in St. Petersburg

I’m sitting in a hostel in St. Petersburg, Russia, surrounded by 12 travelers from all over the word. To my right, a young guy from Holland, who took a bus all the way from Lithuania. Next to him, a Brazilian national who has spent the last two months researching oil prospects in Siberia. On her side, an Argentinian woman who has seen more of the U.S. than I, and on her side, two brothers from rural England who’ve been on the road for weeks.

There is the Irish couple who are making their way across Russia piece by piece, the New Zealand woman who just took the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing over the last month, and then the guy from Quebec who seems to have a photographic memory for the layout of this town, developed in under two days.

And then there is me. I’m the odd one out, but this isn’t a strange thing as an American abroad. About 30% of Americans have passports these days, but many of those Americans use their passports for quick jaunts to Mexico or Canada, as a passport is a recent requirement for these trips. Before that was law, the number of Americans with passports was hovering around 20%.

Anecdotally, from past trips, I can say that it’s unusual to meet other Americans on the road, but statistically, this is simply a fact. I’m surrounded by people for whom traveling to Russia might be a bit quirky, but by no means unfathomable – yet, the response from many people I told about my trip was something to this effect: “Russia…Are you crazy?!” (Yes, probably, but not because of Russia).

So why is it that we Americans are so isolated? Why don’t we travel?

We could say money, but lets face it, we live in a pretty heavy consumerist society – the average household has 2.5 TVs, and more than 30% of households have four. Lets just say, for arguments sake, they are cheap TVs – $100-$150 or so – So say that most households have, at some point, spent between $300-$500 on televisions alone. Lets add in cell phones (about 80% of Americans, 30% with smartphones), cars (2 per household), and we could easily say that we spend a lot of money on these things.

Now, I know what you are thinking – TV’s are relatively expendable, but not cars or cells – that’s probably true. But all I’m saying is, we spend a LOT of money, on a lot of things, and its not all totally necessary. (Check out the Story of Stuff). Travel costs money, sure – but most people would be surprised to find that living abroad in parts of South America or Southeast Asia is far more affordable than they think –most travelers average around 10-15k for a year on the road, and that includes just about everything – planes, food, places to stay, and fun. Its not that most Americans can’t afford to travel – it’s that they choose not to. (And, the average income of a lot of people in the world is less than a dollar a day – 10/15k is in the extravagant range for most people).

There are other reasons I think we Americans tend to stay close to home. (Estimates are that 4 in 10 never leave their own state, by the way). America itself is a ridiculously huge, and beautiful, country. I don’t deny it. I’ve spent magical moments at dawn looking up to a glacier outside of Juneau, Alaska, and cruised through the Badlands of South Dakota. My own town, Boston, is a veritable history lesson, and Washington, D.C., where I grew up, is equally fascinating. I’ve lived in Saint Paul and Austin, Texas, both amazing cities full of things to do and see.

But to me, the U.S, while different from state to state, has nothing on the mind-boggling diversity of the world – The Ganges River in Varanasi at dawn, as thousands of people perform morning ablutions, or the countryside of rural France, or the dazzling architecture of St. Petersburg. America IS beautiful – but the world is fascinating, and diverse, and endless – it’s hard for me to imagine being disinclined to experience at least some of it.

I would guess another major reason why Americans don’t travel is fear. Our media is a frenzied landscape of paranoid reporting: Terrorists here, kidnappers here, disaster zone here, war zone there: it’s a wonder we ever leave our houses. And yes, there are terrorists – and war zones – and kidnappers – but most people are pretty frigging good. And lets face it, most travelers aren’t going to war zones or terrorist sanctuaries. In the U.S., I was told, numerous times, that I would be robbed on the Trans-Siberian. But I’m sitting in a room full of people who just undertook it, and all found it to be one of the best experiences of their lives. No robberies of which to speak. And a whole lot of amazing experiences full of culture shock and good people.

We can’t prevent every bad thing from happening, not even from home. We can make choices about how we spend our money. And, of course if doesn’t have to be on travel – to each their own – but making travel happen financially is doable for most.

But to be an American in a room full of people from every corner of the earth – that in an of itself is fascinating. But more than that, a room full of people who are not just motivated to travel, but are hell-bent on it – and it’s a nice change of pace.

3 thoughts on “An American in St. Petersburg

  1. Amen. The fact is, we are, in general, a provincial society. We’re also pretty much an island, which imagines itself the center of the world. Why travel? Back from Italy, which included volcanic Aeolian islands and a tonne of gelato. Happy travels!

  2. Not to argue with either the fact that Americans don’t travel outside of the US that much or with the fact that it would be better if they did. But I do think that it is worth commenting on the fact that in my experience most non-Americans do not necessarily travel all over the world just because they want to see different things and experience different cultures. (sorry,there might be too many double negatives going on in that last sentence for it to make sense…) My point I guess is that many of my friends from Europe or South America have been all over the world out of necessity rather than just desire to see/experience things. Job opportunities or educational opportunities force them to leave their homes, or the fact that friends and family have left home for these opportunities force them to do lots of traveling to see them. Some of my non-American friends love to travel and choose to plan trips all over the world whenever they can. Others travel because they must (to see friends or to see family, or for work) and to be honest I’d guess that if they didn’t have to travel they wouldn’t (or at least not as much or at least not to as many different places). So perhaps Americans also just don’t travel due to the fact that there is not a necessity…they and all of their family and friends can usually find jobs in The States or even within one state.

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