Jewel of Travel Award Winning Essay

Jewel of Travel Award Winning Essay


By Steven A. Martin, PhD

First published as Great Expectations in 1999 by the International Honor Society, this experiential essay explores how the dream of world travel matches up with the reality.

Great expectations

As a young man in the 1980s, I was confident that the more I knew about the world, the more I would enjoy life. I dreamed of visiting the world's iconic places, having fun, and getting a global education. Then, in 1998, I met a man from the US State Department on a bus ride en route to the Dead Sea. He told me, “Travel makes you smarter but less happy.”

Jerusalem, Israel | 1998

My dream of international travel

In my early thirties, I was lucky enough to be able to realize some of those dreams. I visited the Far East and the Middle East. I paddled a boat through the Amazon Rainforest, drove a camper through the Australian Outback, and trekked through the Tibetan Plateau. I saw the Great Pyramid at Giza, skateboarded along the Great Wall of China, and saw the sunset at the Taj Mahal. I crossed the Yangtze, cruised down the Nile and studied the archaeological sites along the Indus. I visited the great museums and historical sites of London, Paris and Rome.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India | 2001

Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt | 1998

Great Wall of China | 2002

The first 10 countries

In the first three years, I visited ten countries, approaching them with a romantic and optimistic mindset. My great expectations were fulfilled – I was seeing the world, having fun, and living my dream of travel.

Surfing in the Bay of Biscay, Spain | 1993

10 to 20 countries

With the next ten countries, I became increasingly aware of the serious issues facing our planet. The more I saw, the more I needed to see.  At the same time, I felt increasingly concerned about the many interconnected threats to our world – such as climate change, pollution of the air, soil, and sea, economic inequality, terrorism, racism and religious bigotry.

Napo River, Ecuador, in the Amazon Rainforest | 2003

Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa | 1997

20 to 30 countries

Between 20 and 30 countries, I was in a process of personal realization.

Along with fulfilling my colorful dream of world travel, I had directly encountered appalling acts of deliberate pollution, manufactured poverty, environmental disruption and human suffering.

In every corner of our world, I found a one-sided, undeclared war against nature. I realized that my own jet-set carbon footprint was contributing to the problem, and that I, like almost everyone else, did not know how to be part of the solution.

Johannesburg's South-western township (Soweto) South Africa | 1997

30 to 40 countries

Beyond thirty countries, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. My enthusiasm for travel was tempered by my growing sense of impending doom for our beautiful world. Everywhere I met experts who told me that our world was imperiled, if not already damaged beyond repair, and there seemed to be very little I or anyone else could do about it.

Soweto, South Africa | 1997

Santo Domingo, Ecuador | 2004

Surat Thani, Thailand | 2007

Global issues

I had seen DDT powder scooped into baskets with bare hands in markets in Ecuador, and found gold- and oil-mining companies spilling mercury and lead into Amazon tributaries. I had witnessed organized religion tearing apart a Holy Land.

I had endured air pollution in China so thick that I could feel my life expectancy drop with each breath. I had witnessed violence, sickness and hunger in India and Africa. I had seen sewage, plastics, and nuclear waste dumped into our seas and oceans.

Everywhere I had met people who were concerned about these issues but could offer no solutions.

Cambodia's great lake, the Tonle Sap | 2007

I began to realize that the troubles of others are also my own. How can anyone be truly happy when others are suffering? How can anyone in the world be safe as long as there are people – or corporations – damaging our health and the global environment?

Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, China | 2000

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa | 1997

Mekong Delta, Vietnam | 2014

Burden of knowledge

Travel has taught me that I must, without surrender, be grateful for whatever happens.

Albert Einstein explained that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is all comprehensible. Those who want to understand the current state and complexity of today's world are destined to carry the burden of that knowledge.

As I confront the geopolitical, economic and environmental issues that are harming our species and our planet, I inevitably feel deeply concerned and accountable. The more I know, the more I owe.

New Delhi, India | 2001

Coca, Ecuador | 2003

Xian, China | 1995

On the flight home from a trip around the world, I gazed through the airplane window, and reflected on my travels. I had explored forty countries and heard the tones of as many languages. I had spent my life savings and learned many things about our world, some of them fantastic, others unsettling and several terrifying.

I had to agree with Shakespeare that the jewel of experience comes at an infinite price.

Mount Everest, Tibet | June 2000

The Jewel of Travel was originally published as Great Expectations, in the 1999 International Honor Society Anthology Nota Bene. The essay also won top honors in the 1999 Hawaii Community College Literary Competition and the 1999 State of Hawaii League for Innovation Literary Competition.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided.

Thank you,

–Steven Martin

On expedition to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in western Amazonia