I came across an interesting blog yesterday “20 Things I’ve Learned From Traveling Around the World for Three Years”, by Gary Arndt. It was pretty much on target with my observations from my very short journey of a little more than 3 months.
But it got me thinking about what I have learned on these travels. To travel is to experience and learn and also an opportunity to show other people from other cultures what an American (U.S. citizen) really is, beyond the news, the music and Hollywood movies.
1. People are good – Like Gary, I’d have to agree that for the most part most human beings are good. Sure there are schemers, con artists and thieves in just about every culture, but for the most part – people are good.
2. Government policies don’t always reflect who the people are – U.S. citizens are not all warmongers and not every Afghani is a terrorist.
3. The media exaggerates – Because we all get our news these days in abbreviated and sensationalized TV content – it’s distorted. I almost changed my plans to go to Thailand because of the coverage of the political unrest, which in actuality was contained to only certain sections of Bangkok.
4. There aren’t just “ugly Americans” there are “ugly tourists” – people around the world seem to equate badly behaving tourists as “ugly Americans”. I have found bad behavior is not solely exclusive to “Americans” or U.S. citizens – I have witnessed really bad manners from all types of tour groups – French, German, British, Japanese, Argentinean – you name it. I think it is more of a reflection of a “group” dynamic than a cultural one.
5. U.S. citizens are misunderstood – I find this is more common in countries that are more “westernized” than countries where you would think more of a discord would be present. For example – I found the people in Egypt friendly, curious and informed, unlike other “westernized” countries where the attitude was more of one of disdain. In other words, the more “westernized” a country was there seemed to be more of a preconceived yet narrow minded and naïve attitude about what an “American” was.
6. Cultural naiveté – Guess what folks – when you join those tour groups and they take you to the “untouched villages” along the Amazon River or to the hill tribe villages in the mountains of northern Thailand – they’re probably bringing you to government sanctioned tribal villages where the people have made it a business of “dressing up” for you. Some locals that I met referred to these places as “human zoos”. It’s kind of like expecting to see everyone in the U.S. wearing cowboy attire – I mean outside of Texas and Montana that doesn’t really exist anymore.
7. The Internet has changed the travel experience – you can pretty much get connected anywhere – anytime. My blackberry worked in some of the most remote places in the world. I could almost always get a cell signal – the irony was that I didn’t always have electricity to charge my battery. If you want to really get away – leave your laptop, iphones and blackberrys behind.
8. Go with the flow – don’t focus on what you miss from home whether that is a Starbucks coffee or a hamburger – discover the richness of the country you are in – the food – the music. As we become more and more connected with each other across the globe – we are beginning to lose our cultural differences.
9. I am a diplomat for my country – sure there are things that I don’t like about my country, the United States. But when I travel, I feel that this is my opportunity to interact with the people where I am visiting and to give them perhaps a more true picture of what an American is – beyond what the news and Hollywood portrays us as. That is if people give me a chance – if they haven’t closed their mind.
10. I am grateful that I can travel – and I think that everyone should travel – outside his or her country and culture. Don’t just visit the tourist sites but try to get out of the cities and interact with the people. The best thing about this journey is that our purpose was not to see the sights but to connect with the people. That made it meaningful and memorable.