It’s election week here in the U.S., which of course nowadays means that hate speech and general anger is at its zenith. I think we can all agree that the last few years have been tough; not just in America but around the world. For a travel blogger that’s actually a problem. Writing about travel is fun because it’s an inherently positive experience. Many people consider their vacations and time off as the essential mental pressure valve in an otherwise stressful year. From my point of view, it’s my absolute passion in life and to have the opportunity to explore the planet and share what makes it so great honestly is a dream come true. Lately though, it’s been more challenging than normal. As the world erupts in turmoil, I think it’s slightly tone deaf to ignore current events and instead write a post lauding the benefits of Nutella or something else just as rosy. It just doesn’t feel right and it’s something with which I’ve been struggling. How do I find this balance? Should I find this balance? These and many more are all questions I’ve been trying to wrap my head around lately.
It would be easy to share fears about terrorism and how one city is more dangerous than the other. But I firmly believe in so doing, we let fear win. Right now around the world millions are facing a decision and it all revolves around the concept of fear. Do we let our innate suspicions of “the other” take control or do we make the conscious decision to expect the best from other people? It’s somewhat amazing that in a day and age when we can see and learn about anything on the planet, very old feelings of fear and distrust persist, and yet they do. That’s because while we may be exposed to others, we’re not really connecting with them.
In a world where I can be on the other side of the planet in a matter of hours or FaceTime with someone in Outer Mongolia, how is it even possible that in recent decades we’ve become less emotionally interconnected instead of the reverse? That’s really the key of course, emotional interconnectivity, not just economic or political, but feeling connected with people from other places on very personal levels. Technology is in large part to blame for our loss of personal understanding. Watching other tourists travel the world, I see a group of people more interested in getting a dramatic looking selfie to put on Instagram instead of looking around them and actually understanding a new place. I see people tethered to phones when they eat or when they’re in a foreign bar, instead of looking around and striking up a conversation. I’m part of that group too, I’m most certainly to blame, but it’s this subtle shift in the way that we travel that is also in part to blame.
People are everything
The real power of travel is I think the sharing that happens between people. Whether we like it or not, we’re all citizen ambassadors when we leave the country but it’s not a one-sided relationship. Meeting new people, learning about their stories and lives, that is I think the most important part of the travel experience. Through them we begin to better understand their culture and country, most times erasing misconceptions and wrong impressions in the process. While there are certainly outliers, I’ve learned that people are genuinely great almost everywhere in the world and that there is so much more that unites us as humans than what divides us along political lines.
It’s when we fail to connect with other people, whether we travel across our own country or across the planet, that we suffer. It’s also the foundation on which poor understanding of Others is built. It didn’t matter as much 20 or 30 years ago when the outside world didn’t really affect us that much. When there weren’t mass shootings or terrorist acts on our soil, when refugees by the millions didn’t cross borders in search of safety. When individual countries are (mostly) left to their own devices, being as interculturally aware isn’t as necessary. Would it be nice? Sure, but it’s not a predicate for a well-functioning society. Now it is. When bad things happen, whether it’s a flailing economy or terrorism or something else entirely, we as humans have always blamed Others, and that certainly hasn’t changed in the 21st century. It’s such a basic emotion it may be at the heart of the human experience. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it or stand idly by refusing to change those emotions. How we do that isn’t just by traveling, by experiencing other people, other languages and other cultures, it’s understanding them. There’s a big difference between those two concepts and understanding that difference is key.
Look around and you see a world in turmoil. I’m frightened by the dramatic increase in far right-wing politics in many Western nations, not only because I disagree with the intellectual policy positions they take, but because of the emotional basis of these policies. They are taking advantage of the fear and misunderstanding of huge swathes of the public, preying on us for their own personal gain. The way to combat this isn’t by arguing or yelling, but through education. By taking someone we’re related to or know and sharing with them our life experiences and what we’ve learned from people in other countries. Unless we address the core underpinnings of where our fears are coming from, then nothing will improve. Unless we as a civilization understand that more connects us than separates us, then nothing will improve. Regardless of our own politics or stances, this is all of our collective fault. We have failed each other but luckily there’s still time to correct that mistake. To take our fellow citizens and not try to change their mind about any one thing, but to open it to a world that’s not nearly as small and scary as they may think.