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Freedom

How travel gives a voice to those who can't tell their own stories

By Stefanie MichaelsSeptember 10, 2015

Stefanie Michaels looking ahead
Stefanie Michaels looking ahead Stefanie Michaels

Somewhere between 2 and 4 AM, I am jolted from sleep. I think about the Earth in crisis. I wonder how we are supposed to hold it all together—the world, that is. I call this time my witching hour. 

I am an American. I’m also a journalist who is lucky enough to travel for a living, and blessed to be succeeding at it. I get to sojourn to some pretty posh places, and explore spectacular destinations. I am free to follow my dreams, yet painfully aware how rare that freedom is for many.

Stefanie Michaels in Santornin
Stefanie Michaels in SantoriniStefanie Michaels / Facebook

As worlds collide, and as I experience our globe as a writer, I often run into things that haunt me. There was the time I came across a poached rhino carcass, and the time I saw malnourished children sitting on a dirt road all alone crying for their mom. I’ve seen sex traffickers at a truck stop on the Namibia-Zambia-Botswana tri-point border— the women holding babies, waiting for the next John to pick them from a line-up. Sad empty eyes, that’s what I remember most. 

Malnourished children in Myanmar
Malnourished children in MyanmarJonas Gratzer / Getty Images

These things hurt my heart. Scenes I cannot erase, and wish I had not witnessed. They stay with me always. Imbedded in my mind, deep into my soul, these are the horrible excerpts that keep me awake at night. 

I’ve seen desperation in these other countries, and greed, and a lack of education. I’ve seen how the unlucky live.  

So, I ponder nightly what it is, this “American life” I am lucky enough to lead.  

I believe it is freedom

As Americans we simply have it. At birth, we’re given it without having to do anything to have earned it. That’s pretty amazing.  

The iconic Times Square continues to draw tourists with its entertaining and carnival like atmosphere.
The iconic Times Square continues to draw tourists with its entertaining and carnival like atmosphere.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Freedom takes on a different meaning for everyone. Some say money is freedom and dream of it, while some who have financial independence find themselves more restricted.   

Either way, debating about it, that’s freedom. 

Traveling is freedom, so is free speech. The Internet is freedom, opening up the opportunity to connect to those with and without freedom themselves. 


Traveling and experiencing the world as others do enables understanding and empathy.

Freedom is one of those things we can easily take for granted without even knowing it. We wish it for the rest of the world, but rarely take the time to sit and think about it, until a national holiday or anniversary pops up to nudge us into remembering all who have fought and given their lives to protect it. 

I say if there is ever a question as to what freedom really is, go travel. Explore outer regions and less-trekked areas. See the world and how other societies live. Traveling and experiencing the world as others do enables understanding and empathy. Meet people. Hear their stories. Share their tales, because in a way, you will be giving a voice to those who can’t tell their own stories.

Freedom is a pretty cool thing. It’s certainly worth fighting for.

And it's important that we never, ever forget what it means to have it.