The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Matador Network.
I awoke in Copenhagen the day before I was planning to fly back to America — only the America I thought I was returning to had in fact changed irreparably overnight. The election of Donald Trump threw my concept of America into chaos. While I’ve always been aware of the structural racism, homophobia, sexism, and Islamophobia plaguing America, I guess I believed that, at heart, we were working towards fighting that. I hadn’t fully realized how compelling Trump’s simplistic logic was to voters nationwide — it’s not us, it’s them. We don’t have to change; they do.
Part of the reason why the Muslim/Mexican/scary-Other-of-the-day narrative works so well is because people don’t actually know these people they’ve Othered. They’re simply scared of them from afar. But travel has taught me this one simple truth: at the end of the day, though we pray differently, eat different foods, celebrate different holidays, and wear different clothes… all of that is just white noise. What matters is this: we all want love, security, respect, and health. Our common humanity is something no vote can ever take away.The best way I know of getting back in touch with that root humanity is through traveling.
Travel adds color and nuance to a black and white world.
The millions of Americans who voted for Trump are fearful. They’re fearful that some scary outside force that they don’t understand is coming for them. Usually, that “scary outside force” is the Muslim world.
But go to Istanbul, Turkey. See the women giggling freely as they walk arm in arm down Istiklal Caddesi with shopping bags smacking against their legs. Some are in hijab; others have long, dazzling curls blown back by the wind. Look at the men studiously playing tawula, puffing on flavored tobacco from nargileh in between sips of tea. See the painstaking care the patrons of Chora Church are taking to protect the immaculate mosaics, despite the fact that Turkey has a population of less than 1% Christians. Do you really think they’re at war with the West?
Go to Prizren, Kosovo. See the minarets jutting skywards, like satellites reaching towards heaven. Stop and admire them, and accept the invitation to enter the mosque by a group of Muslim men chatting outside, who wave away your insistence that you don’t have a proper head covering to enter. After you admire the building, smile as the men gather together with their arms around one another, insisting you take a photo of them. Again, I ask you: do you really think they’re at war with the West?
Are these people really part of the 1.6 billion people that President-elect Trump has vowed to banish from entering our country?
Travel creates situations in which you have to trust in strangers.
Even the best-laid plans run into unexpected roadblocks. No matter how detailed your itinerary (and believe me, I can be quite the type-A traveler), at some point, at some time, something will go wrong and you will feel powerless.
One day I was in Prishtina, Kosovo waiting for a bus to Peja that wasn’t going to run. I had forgotten it was Eid al-Adha, the day of the feast, called Bajrami i vogël in Albanian. After briefly speaking with a man who saw my dilemma, he quickly got on the phone to arrange a ride for me with an older Albanian Kosovar woman — all the way to my destination almost two hours away, without asking for so much as a penny.
Travel reminds us of the many lives lost to hatred.
I spent two months traveling through the Balkans this summer. I witnessed graveyards in Mostar, Bosnia where thousands of executed Muslims were buried in 1993, the bloodiest year of the Bosnian war. I learned about the genocide in Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia, and how to this day they’re still discovering mass graves buried haphazardly by Serbian forces.
In Berlin, I wandered through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, surrounded on all sides by alienating stone slabs. My heart caught in my throat as I felt some semblance of the suffocation and claustrophobia that millions of Jews, Roma, disabled people, and dissidents felt as they met their ends in concentration camps. I thought of how my uncle was born in a refugee camp in Poland after the war had ended. His parents miraculously reunited there after they both survived the Holocaust. His siblings did not. They died before his existence was ever even a possibility.
I’ve been to the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where human life was so devalued that a bullet was concerned too valuable to be wasted. Babies were swung by their feet against a tree (headfirst for efficiency) and unceremoniously tossed into mass graves alongside their mothers.
As macabre as each of these sites are to visit, I truly feel that we need these reminders of history. Otherwise, we may be doomed to repeat them.
Travel gives us empathy for the less privileged.
Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-immigrant xenophobia to power, aimed squarely at Mexicans, despite the fact that immigration is actually dropping in America and has been for years.
But go to a country that’s less privileged and you’ll understand why the word America gives people stars in their eyes. Go to Siem Reap, Cambodia and see dusty three-year-old children who don’t attend school, spending their days trying to sell bracelets to backpackers. Go to Krabi, Thailand and see dead-eyed masseuses rubbing the backs of tourists on the beach for $5 an hour. Go to Oaxaca, Mexico and see women desperately trying to sell grasshoppers to tourists who view this not as food, but as an exciting cultural oddity.
Then when you fly home, take an Uber from the airport, and go home to your house with its security system and central heating, remember those faces.
Travel can inspire us to fight for change.
Even in Trump’s America, we still have the right to free speech and trials in a court of law. Meanwhile, around the world, demonstrations are occurring — from the streets Venezuela to Nicaragua to Hong Kong — all in countries with systems that protect their citizens far less than the liberties we take for granted in the United States.
When I look at the bravery of people around the world fighting for regime change against the most unlikely of chances, it reminds me there’s nothing we can’t do at home. Together, we can fight against willful xenophobia and the tyranny of ignorance. Trump may be America’s next president, but he doesn’t have to represent you. Let your love for this beautiful world and all its beautiful inhabitants trump hate. Look around the world and see that the people from around the world are not as different from you or me as the Trumps, the Pences, and the Giulianis of the world want you to think. That journey can start with a simple plane ticket.
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