Travel, the Anecdote to Prejudice

This famous quote by Mark Twain has long been one of my favorites: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

While I know that what he says is true, I have been pondering lately about the extent to which it manifests itself. A friend of mine recently left Oregon to visit the Southeast of the United States. He is a straight white male, and was traveling with a black male colleague.  When they got to their hotel, a man at the hotel front desk told them that he was surprised that they had not been arrested yet. They looked at the front desk worker quizzically, and it turned out that he was making the reference to the colleague being black, and to their both being from Oregon, and traveling in the South. 

My friend knew on some conceptual level that racism exists in the South and perhaps in a different way than it does in the Pacific Northwest, but being there and seeing it firsthand was a completely different story.  It was eye-opening, to say the least, how overt the negativity and racism was that they were experiencing, and that exists for so many Americans as well as other people around the world on a daily basis.  Of course, it went beyond just this experience with this front desk worker. On the streets he saw more confederate flags than he ever saw in his life, as well as overtly racist bumper stickers. 

When he told me about his experiences, I instantly thought about my favorite Mark Twain quote. Many people around the country, especially those who live in somewhat isolated liberal pockets, say that they know that racism like this exists, but it is so different when one sees it firsthand, and to this magnitude. It is seeing it firsthand, and having a personal connection to it, that can provoke someone to action, and to becoming a champion for a cause, when before it was just kind of something that they knew theoretically.  Travel, as it turns out, is not only fatal to prejudice, but to complacency as well. 

Of course, another way that travel is fatal to prejudice, is that as we travel, and we see and interact with people who are quite different from us, we also can’t help but see shared commonalities, struggles, values, interests, passions, and more. It is the realization of our shared commonalities that opens our hearts, and helps us appreciate cultures and accept people who perhaps priorly seemed only vastly different from us. 

Owning Zoom Vacations, a gay group tour company, I am made aware of this all the time. For instance, I write a monthly newsletter, and in this newsletter, I always interview one of our recent travelers as a featured traveler. One of my favorite questions to ask is how the destination was different than how they expected it would be. The answers are always the most fascinating to me. One of the most reoccurring themes in this answer, is that so often no matter how exotic the destination, it is always more similar to their home country than what they thought it would be. Now, obviously one of the greatest joys of traveling is immersing oneself in a different culture and having new experiences every day, and while this is certainly the case, I am only pointing out that as different as things are, so many of our basic needs and values remain the same.

Singer AniDiFranco sings, “I know there is strength in the differences between us, and I know there is comfort where we overlap”. She is singing about romantic love, but I always think about this lyric while I am meeting new and different people. As I travel around the world, I get so excited to see people living differently than how I do at home, and I get further excited when I see that while we all may take a different path, we are all yearning for the same thing, and that thing is connection

While traveling in the South, I know that my friend saw a dangerous ripple getting in the way of the connection of various people in our country. Anyone paying even a little bit of attention right now, can see this divide. It is palpable. At the same time, I don’t think he ever felt as connected as he does now to the friend with whom he was traveling. He has a whole new understanding of his struggles, challenges, and triumphs. This is so similar to the feeling I get about people of different cultures and countries around the world. We all want love, but don’t always know how to acquire it.  We all want a sense of belonging, but sometimes feel separated. We all want security, but sometimes fears, different as they may be from place to place, get in the way. The solution for achieving the connection that we all desire is in actuality very simple: having an open mind.

As Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India said, “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

While packing for your next trip remember to bring your most important belonging: an open mind.