We’re in the midst of another political season in the United States, which means pages of emails and forests of newspapers are devoted to discussions, debates and diatribes about the candidates, the personalities, the red vs. the blue and sometimes even the issues that our country faces. Having seen the world outside of our borders, and even within, I believe now – more than ever – travel can shape your politics, almost as much as your gender or your race can. This happens in a manner that is two-fold.
First of all, when we travel we see that we are not the only country in the world. “No duh” you might respond, but as much as we get that intellectually, only by leaving our borders do we really understand the notion that not everyone does things the way we do. Remember being a kid and going to a friend’s house and seeing that they don’t allow white bread or TV in their home? “Weird,” you’d say, but then you’d think “okay, that’s something different.” Maybe not better, not worse, but different; travel is like that.
Traveling increases your tolerance for "different". It helps define what a change really means. In Norway, the national holiday is marked with parades of children going down the major street of each town, dressed in the bright costumes that Norwegians have worn for hundreds of years. A holiday looks much different in Australia, where Christmas is usually celebrated on a beach, sharing stubbies from your esky with some mates, while firing up the barbie.
Getting groceries in Switzerland can feel pretty similar to going down to your local supermarket, except that in Zurich you have to either pay for your bags or bring your own. But try getting food in Vietnam, well, it’s a mish-mash of open markets, poorly lit grocery stores with tubs of live fish and a woman on the corner selling fresh baguettes from the back of her motor scooter. Try having the same political beliefs about trade and environmental policies after seeing how they work elsewhere.
Even issues like immigration seem more complicated after traveling in various countries. Many Americans ask why someone would leave their country and come to ours, if they aren’t going to live like we do? The idea that there is a choice of whether to come or not seems purely American, since in many cases the utter lack of opportunity, not only to be a doctor or movie star, but just to live to adulthood, pushes people into a country they wouldn’t live in, except for the need to survive.
I believe you haven’t seen the depths of poverty (as good a reason to immigrate as any), until you have a malnourished four-year-old holding his naked infant brother, pulling on your shirt for a few riel in Cambodia. I know that an economy like Egypt’s, which is heavily steeped in baksheesh, has nothing to do with you personally and everything to do with perceived wealth and desperate need. These situations are maddingly human, and in turn, political.
On the flip side, despite how wacky things seem to get in America during an election year, travel allows us to see we’re not alone in the universe of politics gone wild. Rather, we’re running with the pack. In 2005, Italian voters ousted their leader Silvio Burlesconi, only to vote him back in again a couple years later. Thailand has more political drama than any episode of Survivor, talkabout making alliances. Watching a telecast of Britain’s House of Commons at Question Time is like catching a glimpse of dinner theatre. Shouting, booing and laughing at and along with the Prime Minister is not something we get to see Congress doing, though it could jack up the ratings on C-Span. And I suppose the fact that we bother to have elections, unlike North Korea, Libya, or Monaco (where King Rainer III has been ruling since 1949), should leave us with a small dose of hope for our country.
I think the traveler becomes an engaged citizen, not by walking door to door, but by moving from country to country. It’s almost impossible to hear the news and not connect it to where we’ve traveled. After traveling, American politics does not look so much like red and blue, or even black and white, but shades of grey.
Loey Werking Wells writes her travel blog and is a contributor to BootsnAll and My Health Gate. In 2005 she
and her husband sold everything they owned and traveled the world with
their eight-year old daughter. Favorite stops included Tibet, Thailand