In the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning political upset in America, I am more convinced than ever that travel is critical to a free and open society.
In America, today, fewer than 40% of the populace has a passport, and even fewer put it to use. Beyond that, education is crumbling. Secondary education is for the wealthy. As comedian Davon Magwood on Twitter commented about the election results, “This is what happens when you make education a privilege.”
But in the absence of education, travel. See the world. Experience new cultures. Eat exotic foods. Challenge assumptions. Meet people. Defy expectations. Overcome adversity. That’s travel.
“American exceptionalism” is a disease. We hear this all the time, “only in America” can someone come up from poverty to lead a better life. “Only in America” is a platitude spun by politicos who want to delude people into thinking one must ascribe to the American way of life to have a good life.
If you travel, though, you know this is untrue. People defy poverty around the world. Good quality of life abounds in other countries, despite poverty. Socialism can yield a safe, clean, happy, prosperous society that has nothing to do with communism, as demonstrated in Northern Europe. Federal medical systems work in all kinds of countries, including places like Mexico, when funded by government.
Talk to anyone who has traveled the world at length and they’ll often tell you the biggest lesson they learn is how much we have in common rather than what we don’t.
But in places like America, where so few people travel outside the borders, they’re more likely to believe what they’re told about “us” and “them”. When they are told who’s a bad guy, that it’s anyone with a different culture, different color skin, then they’ll latch onto that story, because they’re unexposed to diversity and it’s an alien enemy they can process.
When media talks about “Muslim extremism,” it’s easy to convince an under-educated, under-traveled public that it means all Muslims are extreme. They may not know any, so how can they decide differently?
What they don’t realize is that Muslims are some of the most gracious, generous hosts a traveler can ever encounter. Muslims often share anything they have, welcome you into their home, feed you until you’re bursting, even give you their bed, because that is the kind of generosity their faith demands.
They don’t realize how little other people in other countries might have, but how much those foreigners are willing to share. I’ve stayed in a 450-square-foot home with a family of four who insisted I take the parents’ bed, because I was a guest. Kindness of strangers, it’s a glorious thing and it’s often experienced by those of us who travel.
Still, Americans are taught that the rest of the world is dangerous, while the reality is America is the least-safe Western country, thanks to gun laws. When I traveled in central Mexico, after being in a town where militarized police executed nine teachers, it was only Americans who scoffed at my worry over the lack of safety. “Back home we can be killed just seeing a movie,” one said to me, as if that were life-as-normal.
But in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Italy, parts of Mexico, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and more countries, I’ve walked alone at night as a single female and felt safe. I can’t say I’d feel the same in an American city these days.
Travel exposes you to new experiences, and the biggest lesson one takes away from all of those is, most things are worth doing at least once. But, in America, where the clock is ticking and vacations are not mandatory, exceptionalism leads people to thinking many things aren’t worth experiencing, or worth our time, or won’t give us anything meaningful.
But almost all foreign travel is meaningful and worth doing. It’s then we learn that nearly every culture and faith in the world has the same golden rule: Do unto others as you’d have done unto you.
I’ve had strangers give me money on buses. When I thought I’d lost my wallet getting onto a plane, the entire plane wanted to give me money and help me get where I needed to go. When lost in Scotland, a woman took my arm in hers and walked me where I was headed. When struggling with luggage on stairs, I’ve had strangers help.
People, it turns out, are inherently decent and kind if you give them the chance to be. But, at home in our bubbles, we’re taught to fear the world outside.
The less we travel, the less we realize that simply doing things, experiencing life, is the greatest gift. We discover owning things isn’t important, so we stop clamouring for the best toys, the best houses, the best cars. Instead, we see how little other people live with, and how all those people feel they need is a great meal, lovely people to surround themselves with.
Instead, at home in North America, we are driven to addictive distraction through everything from reality TV and Netflix to sports teams. So many of us don’t entertain at home anymore, we don’t share our house or embrace family and friends in the old-world way, and we wonder why life isn’t fulfilling.
Today, in the wake of the most unsettling election of our times, I wish people back in America could see what I have seen — countries ravaged by fascism, still trying to claw their way back to solvency four decades later. I wish they could see that hatred leaves scars in the landscape its citizens never forget. I wish they could stand in places like Auschwitz firsthand, or squares like Praca do Comercio in Lisbon where slaves were once sold to merchants heading to the new world, to realize something of that horror lingers for decades, even centuries later.
It’s in travel that we realize horrors never fall away, they just take more explaining as time passes by.
Today, Germans embraces their history. They do not shy away from how Hitler came to power. They have no illusions about the entitlement and anger that allowed Hitler to commander their country. It was ignorance and a belief they “deserved” better on an individual basis, rather than an understanding that they were in it all together, that drove Germans to adopt Fascism. This makes Germany an incredible country to travel in, and explains why they’ve gone from the most hated country in the world to the most popular.
Travel teaches us that we all have the same basic needs. Clean water, good shelter, access to healthy food, medical care, education, the ability to provide for ourselves — all fundamentals everyone must have. Why should I deserve more than you? Is your best effort at work any less meaningful than mine, just because I have a fancier job than you? We both go home drained at the end of the day. We both give our all.
When we travel, we see the abject poverty that others live under, the lack of options they have, the little choice available to them. Instead of judging immigrants for coming to our country, we understand why they need that choice, and we relate then to why they’re willing to work the worst jobs for insane hours. We’re more likely to appreciate their bravery and resilience, and therefore welcome them as potential future citizens, rather than dismissing them for turning to our nation for a chance to excel.
Travel opens our eyes, broadens our minds, and makes our hearts swell. We see the best in people and see strangers as friends we’ve yet to meet.
If there’s anything America could use today, it’s seeing the best in all people. It’s having open minds, broader hearts, and understanding that none of us deserves more than our neighbor. We’re all in life together, and what benefits some of us should benefit us all. Without mandatory vacation time, and with so few passports in use, these lessons they are unlikely to learn any time soon, but one can hope.