“Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by traveling. — Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish poet and philosopher.
A few days ago a woman from Europe posted to an online travel group that she was terrified of her upcoming trip to America because of the color of her husband’s skin. This is what our country has become. Like most Americans, my heart breaks for people who are suffering at the hands of violence and bullets of hatred. I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I agree with Señor de Unamuno. Traveling is one way that we face fears of the unknown, learn about past mistakes, and find common ground even when we don’t understand or agree with others’ beliefs. Here are some of the ways I’ve seen how travel begets tolerance.
Bear witness to past atrocities. A thick fog hung over the fields of Gettysburg National Park, Pennsylvania. I toured the park on a rainy fall day listening to the audio tour. Much of the visitor experience centers on statue memorials and re-enactments. But one landmark stopped me in my tracks – a place called The Wheatfield. The billowy grass was covered with a delicate dew; there were no physical scars of the horrors of that place, one of the bloodiest locations of the Civil War. Yet it’s truly haunted, not in that spooky, campfire story way, but you can literally feel it. Standing on the edge of the field, the spilt blood still stains the air with a coopery smell, the cries of pain cling to the sound of the morning’s gentle breezes, the conflict lingers like an invisible smog – smoking, stifling, felt in your core like the rumble of thunder. And I thought We did this to ourselves. Never again.
Dispel rumors. In speaking with a group of Canadians during a trip in the Amazon, I was shocked to discover that their travel vaccines were covered by their insurance. They all said they had great health care. “But don’t you have to wait like 5 years to get treatment for issues?” I asked, a common assumption among Americans. They said NO and looked at me like I was crazy… probably the same look I gave an Australian tour guide when he asked me what type of gun I owned. He assumed all Americans own guns. Amazing what you learn first-hand from people.
Overcome prejudice. Indians are very family-oriented. Arranged marriages, low divorce rates, expectations for what a life well-lived should look like. I feared how Indians would react to my single lifestyle. I even practiced responses so as not to appear rude nor invite further questioning if anyone asked. My first morning in New Delhi I caught an auto rickshaw, driven by a chatty elderly gentleman. When he asked if I had family back home I replied, “yes.” He asked “how many children do you have?” I blurted out with a hint of disgust “I don’t have any kids.” Then I winced. That’s not how I practiced answering the question. I braced myself to be shamed, questioned, chided for my non-conformity, or worse – kicked out of the rickshaw in this strange neighborhood. But he simply carried on the conversation, asked about my travels, and even tried to convince me to abandon my walking tour plans and hire him as a driver for the day.
Absolutes are a myth. George Washington was a venerated general and a slave owner. Indira Ghandi had a a vision for a stronger India and a massively misguided ego. Eva Peron was a sinner and a saint to Argentinians. Nelson Mandela was wrongfully imprisoned, and wrong about communism. Christopher Columbus was a bold explorer, or a disease spreading rapist, or perhaps a Sephardic Jew fleeing persecution. Traveling helps us examine the complex nature of being human. Learning about multi-dimensional, iconic figures gives us the freedom and skills to stretch those muscles, smashing rigid black-and-white thinking and creating space to accept and respect the dynamic characters in our everyday lives.
Uncover similarities. India is religiously diverse, and it was my first exposure to Hinduism – with its devotion to about 300 million gods and its sacred cow. In the riverfront town of Orchha we attended a nightly service at the Ram Raja Temple. The story goes something like – a woman devotee of Ram Raja was forced to leave her home until she returned with a baby version of the Lord Raja. After months of searching, not even certain what this command actually meant, she grew frustrated and desperate, and threw herself into a river to end her life. That’s when the Ram Raja appeared as a baby, saving her, telling her he’s been with her all along. If you’re Christian, this may sound like the Footprints poem. If you’re not religious at all, perhaps Dorothy’s realization in Oz that she had the power to go home all along is a better analogy. The point being, things that at first appear mysterious, odd and in direct conflict with our own beliefs are actually quite similar when we’re open to learning more.
Sit with the discomfort. My friends and I had been shoo’d out of a dive bar in Casablanca. We later learned that the only women who frequent such places are prostitutes and that we needed to stick to touristy places like hotel bars. In visiting the gorgeous Hassan II Mosque, we learned that men and women pray in separate locations – the vast floor serving up to 20,000 men and the surrounding mezzanine for 5,000 women. Our guide, a lovely young woman, explained that this was not to discriminate against women. With a tone of logic in her voice as if she was explaining that the earth was round, she stated that a man could not be expected to pray to God when there was a beautiful woman in front of him. There were fewer spaces for women because they were permitted to pray at home while they took care of the children and the household. This devotion to home also meant that we saw almost no women gathering at the outdoor cafes, only men. I was told that women gather in connection with household chores like laundry, not in public settings like cafes. Later, we walked through the family farms nested in the valley of the Todra River, hearing stories about property rights for women – more like the lack thereof. I was equal parts fascinated about these antiquated and foreign concepts, horrified of the power-dynamic between women and men, and grateful that I live in a country where I am free to live my independent lifestyle. I’m still conflicted about how I should feel – women should have more rights, countries should be free to function sovereignly, I should do more to help shape the world I want to see, I should let other cultures determine the future for themselves. That’s ok. I don’t need to have the answers.
Be inspired. The houses along Auburn Avenue in Atlanta are preserved the way Dr. Martin Luther King would have remembered them (acquired with the help of the organization that I work for). In that same neighborhood is the King Center, dedicated to the practice of nonviolence. It’s hands-down the best museum I’ve ever visited. It uses videos and interactive displays to draw the visitor in. It features content at child-height level to engage younger visitors. It’s not simply a testament to Dr. King’s legacy nor an admonishment of racism, it’s a call to action for all of us.