Photo: Ulisse Albiati
I WOKE UP MARCH 22 to the news that Brussels just suffered a massive terrorist attack, leaving upwards of 40 people dead and 200 people injured. I felt a piercing sadness, I was horrified, and yet I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t shocked because this devastating news comes just over three months after the world was rocked by ghastly ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad last November, followed by another attack in San Bernardino, California, in December and a suicide bombing in Indonesia’s capital in January. The world is in a state of turmoil and tragedy, and people are living — understandably so — in a perpetual state of fear.
If anything is clear, it’s that terrorism can happen anywhere — in a Paris concert venue, at a marathon in Boston, at a train station in Madrid, in the London tube, at a company holiday party in California, at a funeral in Baghdad, at a hotel in Mumbai, in a suburb in Beirut.
Every time I hear of another attack, I feel a crushing sense of loss and concern for the victims’ families and loved ones. But after the immediate sadness subsides, so many of us begin to consider our own safety and it’s easy to panic.
In the Facebook travel groups I’m part of, messages about travel plans and safety are flooding the community pages. People are frantically posting asking for advice on what to do about their upcoming travel plans to Europe. Should they reroute their trip to Italy and Switzerland instead of Greece and France? Should they skip Europe altogether and book new flights to central America or Australia instead? Or should they scrap the whole trip and wait it out at home, wherever home may be?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m not qualified to counsel anyone on which countries are currently safe and for long they’ll stay that way. But I do know this: we cannot allow fear to dictate our travels. If we took into account every moment of violence that’s ever taken place in any given destination, we’d never leave our bedrooms. The world is unsafe. There is widespread police violence and frequent mass shootings on a regular basis throughout the United States, and yet people are still booking flights to San Francisco and road-tripping to New Orleans. There are tourists and locals alike getting mugged and robbed throughout the world, yet people are still walking Dubrovnik’s city walls and touring Rome’s coliseum.
But for all the danger and senseless violence that occurs around the globe, there is 10 times as much love and generosity present. There are kind strangers in every corner of the world ready to share their homes and cities with us, ready to dispense advice about the best breakfast joints in town or the prettiest viewpoints, ready to offer directions to a lost tourist, ready to lend a hand in a crisis, ready to prove — with their thoughtful gestures and their encouraging words and their kind hearts — that humanity is inherently good.
This is why I won’t stop traveling and exploring. As a citizen of the world it is my duty to meet the people who will teach me more about their culture and lifestyle, and who will act as ambassadors for their countries. I consider it a responsibility now more than ever to know the world intimately and to break down the racial, cultural, and stereotype-based obstacles that stand to divide us.
I can only truly understand another culture by having the willingness to immerse myself in it, to ask questions, and to patiently observe without judgment. I can only build relationships with other communities by approaching them with an open mind, determined to cast out my own presumptions and opinions along the way. I can only join hands with other people and move forward as a united force if we have compassion for one another — if we trust one another.
To trust someone you have to know that person. To know that person you have to understand that person. To understand that person you have to develop a connection with that person. The most fulfilling and most certain way to develop connections with people from other parts of the world is to visit those other parts of the world.
Travel is essential in eliminating the hatred and fear that permeate our planet. The more we learn about one another’s plights and triumphs, the more we can learn how to better help and empower one another. The more we seek to understand rather than blame, the more we play a part in dissipating fear and breaking down walls, in creating communities instead of tearing them apart.
So be smart and be cautious. Stow away your naiveté and your carelessness. Do your research and heed global travel advisories. Make practical, informed decisions about where you go.
But go, nevertheless. Get on that plane or bus or train, know that you are living not without — but in spite of — your fear, and show up to your destination with an open mind and a little bit of hope tucked in your back pocket. Actively seek out examples of kindness, empathy, and love wherever you go. Be these things yourself. Give freely, be compassionate, and limit your judgment. In this time of ever-present panic and fear and desperation, it may be the most important thing you do.