Here is the full transcript of Luis Vargas’ TEDx Talk presentation on Travel More & Buy Less at TEDxPortland conference. This event occurred on April 15, 2017 in Portland, Oregon.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Good morning, good morning. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
So the idea that I want to share with you this morning is a very simple one, and it’s to travel more and to buy less. Thank you.
And I want to challenge each of us to invest in experiences instead of more stuff.
I was born in Mexico City in the hot summer of 1975. And when I was around five years old, my family had had enough of the noise and the traffic and the haste and decided to immigrate to the United States. So we hopped in my mom’s Renault 5 and made the journey north.
Now, in many ways, San Diego was a beautiful place to grow up, and I really had a happy childhood where I was loved, and I was supported, and I had opportunities to grow, learn, and have fun.
But growing up, I felt stuck in between two worlds. I didn’t really feel Mexican and I didn’t really feel American. A lot of the influence and the ideas that I was getting from my peers and from the media was that Mexicans are criminals and dangerous, or lazy, or this idea of a wetback and a beaner coming to steal jobs, or even a narco trafficante indiscriminately spreading violence.
But the polarization kind of went both ways; I’d go spend the summers in Mexico and my cousins would call me a gringo. This idea of being uncultured or arrogant or biased or even racist. Ultimately, I felt like a citizen of nowhere, like I didn’t have a place where I truly belonged.
Now I felt the pull of travel from a really, really young age and I have vivid memories of being in my room and reading the biographies of these incredible explorers and adventurers, people like Jacques Cousteau, Amelia Earhart, Shackleton and Hillary and Tenzing. And I knew from a young age that exploration and discovery and adventure are essential elements of the human experience and rarely are we more alive than we’re out exploring and discovering.
So I decided to see the world and adventure answered. I got a job with a British overland company who for some reason on the second day of a three-week training trip thought I was ready for the road. So I got my assignment, a six-week trip starting in New York going to Los Angeles and back to New York. I got on a flight from LAX to JFK and I arrived at the Hostelling International on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 1:30 in the morning.
At 7:30 that morning I met my group of 13 people from six countries ranging from ages 18 to 64. All right, you bought the ticket; now let’s take the ride.
That first day, city tour of New York, take the Staten Island Ferry, pass the Lady Liberty, air high-five, get on the New Jersey Turnpike, get to Philadelphia, lunch at the Liberty Bell, all in time to get to DC for dinner, and a night tour of the mall. I had only been to New York City once.
I was so green that I thought the only time that you had to put the tarp on top of the van was when it was raining. So I’m driving down the Turnpike and sleeping bags and backpacks are falling off of the back. Now somehow those guests and I survived and very very soon I knew that I had found my calling. And over the course of just over a year I had the opportunity to see all 50 states and I had a new job with a new company to lead in Mexico and Latin America. But more on that in a minute.
Let’s talk about how much do we actually travel. Only 35% of Americans have passports. Here in Oregon, it’s about 40%; in Mississippi, it’s about 18%. And of all of the travel, only 30% of it of international travel will go outside of the United States and Mexico. So that’s to say that less than 10% of the U.S. population will leave the continent in a given year.
Why? Well, I think it has to do with three main reasons: work, money, and fear. I know it sounds like a dope hip-hop album but it’s not, it’s not. Let’s unpack these a little bit.
The first one, we are a nation of workaholics, right? If I was to ask many of us how we’re doing, including me, what would our answer be? I’m busy. The glorification of busy is real and it’s a problem. We don’t take vacations. 15 days is the average amount of vacation we take and that’s down from 21 days in the year 2000. 169 million days of unused vacation a year valued at over $52 billion. This idea that we go from high school to college, to career, perhaps have a family, at the end we accumulate some wealth, and that is how we get respect. This idea that making money and having things is much more valued and celebrated than having enriching experiences.
Who here knows what a gap year is? Who’s been on a gap year? Keep your hand raised. I’ve see some hands. Well, very simply, a gap year is taking six months or a year off after high school, or maybe after college before starting your career and making a deposit of epic awesomeness to your mind, your body, and your soul. Yeah, right?
In fact, in a study of hundreds of people that had gone on a gap year, these were the top three outcomes. I have a better understanding of who I am; I have a better understanding and empathy towards others; and I have some more context to help me choose my path and to build skills to carry forward.
Let’s talk about the second reason people don’t travel, and that’s fear. I was watching the Super Bowl — I was watching the Super Bowl last year when I heard the advertisement for this television show, and it said Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Americans travel, study, and work abroad but sometimes they never come home. And this is what millions of us are watching before we get a bed at night.
Now it is nearly impossible to consume media across any channel and not hear about terrorism or ISIS. Now that is not to say that these horrifying things aren’t happening, but of the 1.1 billion people that will travel internationally this year, very very few will encounter any of this. And of course, there’s always a health scare somewhere in the world.
I spent two weeks in Brazil last year and I didn’t meet anyone who had first-hand experience with Zika. And again it’s not that this is not happening, but perhaps they’re not reasons not to go.
The third reason we don’t travel: no money. We don’t have any money because we spend it all on stuff. In 1930, the average American had nine outfits. Now we have over 30. In the UK right now the average woman has 22 unworn items in her closet. We have so much stuff it doesn’t fit in our homes. We’re spending over $24 billion a year on storage, over 2.3 billion square feet of it in the United States making it the fastest-growing segment of commercial real estate over the last 40 years. And it is often less expensive to travel outside the United States, and my wife and I took a six-month honeymoon in Nepal, India, and Thailand and we spent just over $4,000, all to say in this quote by one of my favorite writers Pico Iyer that one is reminded at a level deeper than all words how making a living and making a life sometimes point in the opposite direction.
Now travel is the ultimate truth teller, mythbuster and stereotype killer, because after I had the opportunity to spend extended time in Mexico and collect my own first-hand data, I realized that Mexicans aren’t lazy. In fact, they’re some of the most entrepreneurial, ingenious and hardworking people that I had ever met. And in all of my time in Mexico, I never felt in harm’s way. In fact, looking at the data Mexico City is safer than many American cities. In fact, the Yucatan Peninsula is safer according to the FBI than many US states, including Oregon.
And of course, I also got the context to appreciate and be grateful for the opportunity to having grown up in the United States and becoming a US citizen. And that idea of a gringo completely shattered by the experience of driving around the 50 states with a van full of international tourists and the most common reaction that we would get is a big smile and the question where y’all from, often followed by an invitation to a backyard barbecue, and an appreciation for the natural beauty and open space of the backyard and that ultimately regardless of where we sit in the political spectrum that we live in a country where we can raise our children with our values and our ideals and our beliefs.
Now travel has truly transformed me. I met my wife almost 20 years ago in a campground in southern Mexico in Palenque, Chiapas and I stand before you on this stage right now a proud Mexican-American. But also with the knowledge and the greatest gift when we go out and see the world is that it doesn’t matter if we’re Mexican or American or Canadian or Syrian or Australian but ultimately that we are all human. And that what we want and dream and desire is so much more similar than it is different.
So what about — what about you? Well, I invite you to make thoughtful choices, so perhaps instead of going to Cancun, travel a little further north and visit Isla Holbox and swim with whale sharks. Or, instead of going to Las Vegas, extend your stay and visit Zion National Park and walk this beautiful red rock to the top of angel’s landing.
Or, instead of going to Hawaii, or to Honolulu, perhaps consider the Big Island of Hawaii and see lava flow literally the earth forming at your feet. Right now with an American passport you can visit 174 countries without a visa or get a visa at the point of entry. Even with the challenging things that are happening in the world, it is an extraordinary time to be a traveler.
So what does this mean? If you’re young, it means go. You’re living a moment in your life where you have more freedom and flexibility than you may ever have before. Right now the lights are shimmering over Kuala Lumpur and a group of young people are enjoying a cocktail and a laugh. Why are you not there? Why?
But if you’re older, it also means go; it’s likely that it will take more planning but you have more resources than you had before. Right now in a remote Rolandic fjord the chef is ringing the bell and calling you to a three-course locally sourced dinner; why are you not there?
Now if you have young kids, you’re fucked! That’s not true. I stand here. It’s not a vacation but it is a trip and it is a fuck. And as a father of three, five and under, it takes a lot of work, but family travel can be extraordinarily rewarding.
So whether you’re in your 20s and taking a gap year, in your 30s working to take a month off a sabbatical in your 40s, looking towards a retirement and perhaps living abroad, there is never a bad time. And it’s no judgement and no competition on the level of epic or the length of time, because what’s adventure to me and to you and to you are all different things.
Ultimately the idea here is to travel more and to buy less. Say no gentlemen to that man cave of your dreams. Say no.
And ladies, the she shed — the she shed, it’s not that sexy; say no, and say yes to a transformative travel experience. This is not about checking things off a list; it’s about having meaningful experiences.
So now I want all of us to make a promise and in your mind’s eye picture a place that you have always wanted to visit, picture it clearly. What do you see? Who are you with? What do you hear? What do you smell? What’s the temperature of the breeze that’s hitting your cheek? Can you picture this place that you’ve always dreamed of going?
Now make a promise that this year or next year as soon as you can, you will stand in this moment and you will be there. Now raise your hand, who’s in? Who’s in?