The world is huge. There’s so much to see in a lifetime, that you could easily avoid the rougher edges if you wish. Foreign excursions can be limited to all inclusive resorts or just Canada.* That’s fine if that’s your bag.
For me, it’s not enough. In fact, I find a certain lure in a discouraged destination. These are typically places that are discouraged because of leftover baggage from older generations (Cold War nostalgia) or due to overly simplistic international representations in local media. If there’s one thing American media doesn’t do well (and there are too many to list here), it’s solid international coverage. Thus we’re unfairly left with a bad image of the world, at best exploring postcard destinations.**
Again, fine if that’s what you want to do. Hell, I’m up for seeing the Eiffel Tower at some point, too. But I’m also interested in seeing another side. That was the impetus of El Salvador, which was immediately validated as it became one of my most rewarding travel experiences. This was topped only by India, primarily because India was my first substantial international experience. Of course India for many is still a discouraged definition. I remember a friend’s mother telling me after I returned, “I would never let me daughter go to India.”
“Why not?” I wondered to myself. “Adverse to different experiences?”
I touched on some of this when I wrote about why you should forget politics when traveling. My brother*** responded in agreement, noting that travel humanizes people. That’s essentially my motivation for going to what U.S. Americans typically see as discouraged destinations. The impetus of shunning these places generally can be traced back to some political dispute.
I for one have no interest in letting politicians guide my traveling. I’ll still go to Texas even though the governor is a nutjob who thinks the United States military is about to take it over — even though the United States actually already owns Texas. And I’m as interested as ever in going to Iran, although they have a slew of questionable domestic laws themselves. I know what you’re thinking — the ban against alcohol. How’s someone who also writes about craft beer supposed to survive!?
I’ll survive by meeting the people behind “My Stealthy Freedom,” a Facebook page created primarily for Iranians to show themselves breaking laws they think are stupid, like not wearing the hijab in public or dancing on a train. Of course, we don’t hear about groups like this, because it doesn’t mesh with the narrative that Iran is without exception evil and scary and no good and very bad and, and…
The reality is that politicians rarely represent the true heartbeat of a destination. Everyday people are the heartbeat and we won’t find that unless we travel there and search for them, introduce ourselves and shake hands — or whatever the local custom is for introductions.
“I WAS TERRIFIED”
I’m sure there’s also a connection to the fact that I come from a discouraged destination — Cleveland. American cities in general suffered from (and continue to in some respects) an insistence that you shouldn’t go. Cleveland, however, was up there with Detroit as a city you simply need to drive or fly around. Crossing the city limits was tantamount to asking for a bullet**** and I realize now there were all sorts of racist connotations behind the reasons I was given to avoid Cleveland. Sporting events were the exception to the rule. Otherwise, stick to what you know — Applebees. They are your neighborhood bar and grill, after all, right?
Embarrassingly, I fell victim to this perception longer than I care to admit. Despite being a mere 45 minutes away, I never spent any time in the incredible city of Cincinnati during my four collegiate years. Why? I was terrified. Only after making the effort to learn some of the city’s history and to visit a few times did I understand what I was missing, not only in Cincinnati, but in the world.
Now my gauge when hearing people discourage traveling to a certain destination isn’t blind agreement, but rather wondering what’s really there. What’s it like to ride the metro in Tehran? How about riding a bike in Detroit? What’s day-to-day life like in Palestine?
These are questions I need to answer for myself and enjoy sharing with anyone who cares to listen in hopes we’ll make our world just a tad smaller than it is. Because with all the issues that continue to threaten our planet as visible as ever — climate change, war, Justin Beiber***** — we’re not going to solve them by further entrenching ourselves in our man-made political borders. They’re gong to be solved because we know about some good ideas coming out of Iran that can do amazing things when meshed with this principle in Colombia and some American technology improved in Japan.
*I love Canada, but it’s hardly more foreign for me coming from the northern United States than much of the south or even southwest.
**Postcard destinations being place that you see on a postcard or in your friend’s pictures and decide you want to do the same exact thing.
***Also a writer, except with more interesting thoughts. Check him out at LostCaws.com.
****Of course going to a suburb is never seen as tantamount to asking for a car accident or drug problem.
*****Weak joke, I know. But I’m minutes away from hiking in Parque Nacional Tortuguero and he was the human equivalent I first thought of when pondering the destruction caused by climate change and war.