A few years ago, an otherwise progressive friend of mine posted something troubling on Facebook. “I don’t know why anyone would ever travel to a Muslim country,” he wrote.
I responded with some kind of rebuke about travel and person-to-person diplomacy as the solution to some of the world’s social and political ills. Although it was something I truly believed in, I hadn’t yet tested my own theory. I hadn’t actually tested my own travel mettle when it came to difficult or uncomfortable situations. Places where I would clearly be seen as an outsider. In the years since that mini-Facebook argument, I’ve worked to correct that.
My first passport is full of stamps from Europe. At the time, I felt it was really important to leave everything I knew behind and that nothing from where I came was as good as what I could find elsewhere. This was at the start of the Iraq war, after the clusterfuck of the hanging chads, well before Trump, but well into the American Embarrassment Experiment.
In the subsequent decade, I have redirected my interests, largely back to my own hemisphere. My newer passport has stamps from Caribbean countries, Latin and South America, and Senegal (90% Muslim, by the way). And I’m here to tell you, my theory was correct. The person-to-person diplomacy that occurs when people travel and immerse themselves is the most worthwhile way I can think of to spend my time and money.
Connecting with people, especially in moments of great geopolitical upheaval, has been revealing and comforting.
My family and I have been in Colombia for just less than one week. Before we left, people expressed deep concern about our plans. Even I started to feel like I had made a huge mistake, dragging everyone along on this journey with me. But, in the short time we’ve been here, we have seen the most beautiful country, and met wonderful people. People deeply affected, but not defined, by a violent past. People eager to welcome you into their home, to show you that TV shows don’t tell the whole story.
I am well aware that travel is a privilege that not everyone can take advantage of. But these kinds of connections can be made anywhere, and are equally important. After all, we are all in this together.
I am guilty of falling into a pattern at home. I keep my headphones on when I walk to work, I give a cursory hello to my neighbors, and the lady at the grocery store. But for the most part, I stay in my bubble.
Travel forces you out of the bubble, it requires you to be uncomfortable, and to seek connection in the unfamiliar. And that’s where the work, and the magic, of being a human happens.
Travel good, and travel often. At the very least, say hello to someone new in your day-to-day routines. Posting on Facebook does not a real connection make. Let’s do what we can to be good neighbors, across fences and oceans.