Every day as I post nice photos of beaches and write about fun things to do around the world, I’m afraid it seems a little tone-deaf while the situation in our own backyard is so extremely uneasy. There’s more vitriol, more division than there’s been in my lifetime. Half the population of the United States feels like they’ve been ignored for too long, and half is terrified about having their rights taken away and scared for the overall future of our country. And that’s the very reason why it’s still important to travel. Even if it’s too raw to build bridges to our immediate neighbors right now (there’s so much more screaming than listening), we still must be open to the possibility of learning and growing and seeing what the world has to show us.
Travel makes you smarter
At a very rudimentary level, travel helps you learn about the world. In elementary school, I had to memorize all the countries of the world and their capitals…and locate them on a map. In the over 25 years since I’ve gone through that exercise, countries have changed, borders have shifted, and conflicts and ideologies have come and gone. In the time Lance and I have traveled together, I cannot count the number of times I’ve needed to look at a map to see exactly where a place was. Knowing where a country sits on a map is a pretty simple thing. But, without that, you can’t know who its neighbors are or who its allies might be. If you can’t find it on a globe, how can you make judgments about its people?
By far, our greatest travel learning experience was our trip to Egypt in 2011. We had booked the trip in late 2010, and in a few weeks, the country turned upside-down. On January 25th, Egyptians picked up on the unrest happening elsewhere in the Arab world and began their occupation of Tahrir Square, demanding that Hosni Mubarak resign after 30 years in office. For three weeks, we watched as 300,000+ people protested.
We were transfixed by the news coverage. For the first time, we paid attention to the strategic location of Egypt and its role in the Middle East peace process. We learned how important it was to have stability there and what people had coped with under 30 years of what was essentially a dictatorship. We might have given it a passing glance under normal circumstances. But since we were still planning to go, we were deeply invested in every development and became more knowledgeable for it.
Travel challenges your preconceived notions
In many ways, travel is a political act. It helps you learn about different places and cultures, improves understanding between people, and puts a face on “the other.” These are all things we need more of in the world, no matter what country you live in or what side of the political aisle you sit on.
Travel has the ability to challenge even the most basic cultural assumptions. Latvia was one of the first post-Soviet countries I visited. I expected everything there to be “heavy.” I was ready for cold weather, cold people, gray architecture—everything I associated with the “Evil Empire.” And I was flat wrong on every account. Riga turned out to be my favorite city in the Baltics thanks to its beautiful squares and unique Art Nouveau architecture. Part of the reason I loved it so much was because I was constantly discovering something unexpected.
It gets much deeper than that, though. Travel can challenge the idea of deep cultural and religious divides. Our first visit to a Muslim-majority country was on a brief day trip to Morocco from Spain. As we walked through the market area of Tangier, we clearly stood out from the local population—the first time we’d ever felt that conspicuous.
But the day of our visit happened to be an historic day—it was 2008, and President Obama had just been elected for the first time a few hours before. Everywhere we went, men in their traditional caftan robes and fez hats wanted to show us the front page of their local newspaper that declared Obama’s victory. They shouted “Obama! Obama!” at us with enormous grins as we walked through the streets. Though they didn’t know any English, they wanted to share their happiness and connect with us in the best way they could. It could not have been a warmer welcome. Don’t believe it when people say there are whole countries or religions that “hate Americans.”
Travel makes you see your own country differently
America is far from perfect. We have made plenty of mistakes abroad. And I won’t list all the issues domestically, but suffice it to say that there are many. At the same time, Americans have freedoms and conveniences that don’t exist everywhere. From the right to free speech to the ease of picking up mail, we are privileged in big and little ways that it can be easy to overlook. Most of the time, most things work. Nothing has made me appreciate that more than some of the things I’ve encountered abroad from a non-functioning toilet in rural Peru to a lack of clean water in the Dominican Republic to a memorial to those killed standing up against the government in Egypt.
It’s also been enlightening to learn about how others see us. While we certainly have better relations with some countries than others, we’ve seen pro-Americanism pop up in unexpected places. In Albania—a country with a Muslim majority that’s still recovering from four decades under Communism—there is a statue of President George W. Bush and a handful of businesses named after him in the town of Fushe-Kruja. Why? Because he was the first president to visit after the fall of Communism.
In neighboring Macedonia (formerly part of Yugoslavia), we watched a woman well up with pride because President Obama mentioned the country once in a speech. Such a little thing meant so much to her. And in Kosovo (another Muslim-majority country), a statue of President Clinton stands proudly by an American flag. Major streets in the capital are named after him and President Bush (43), and there’s a dress store named after Hillary. It’s been fascinating to see how these countries pay tribute to the U.S. when they are so far off the radar for most Americans.
Travel promotes understanding
Regardless of what the governmental relationship is, people themselves tend to be welcoming. Talk to them. Rent an Airbnb or try out couch surfing as way to get a glimpse into local life. If that’s not your style, take a tour and really talk with your guide about their experiences. Strike up a conversation at a bar. It might surprise you.
We always encourage people to get out of their comfort zone, but be safe. Listen to your gut. For the first time this year we’ve decided not to travel to a few places because of unrest (not because of blanket State Department warnings that say things like “don’t go to Europe”). Don’t go places that you’re fundamentally uncomfortable, and always be aware of your surroundings.
Keep expanding your world. Think about pushing the envelope, meeting people, and trying to understand them just a little bit, even though your time may be limited. What we all need now are bridges between people (no matter where they live), more understanding, more citizens of the world.