Travel During Political Uncertainty 7


Let’s face it, things in the US have gotten weird lately. It seems that the world is holding its’ collective breath and waiting to see what happens next. What does it mean to travel during times of political uncertainty?

I was exploring in Thailand and Cambodia recently, during the change of administration in the US. I was coming back to my hotel each day, basking in the glow of peaceful Buddhist temples and luscious food treats. Heavenly. And then I’d look at the internet. Protests. Bizarre new laws. Mass confusion.

While I was embracing the excitement of travel and new experiences, I almost felt guilty. The world is in turmoil and here I am drinking mango smoothies and having a blast at the open-air markets.

I’ve had some questions rattling around in my head. Is it appropriate to share happy and fun thoughts about travel at such a tumultuous time? Is that insensitive? Moreso, what is the role of a tour guide and travel writer going forward? What is the role of travel generally in the current environment?

Why Travel?

To start, I’ve been thinking of why it is that I like to travel so much. It could be that I enjoy the thrill of the new and foreign. I like adventure, exploring and experiencing whatever this world has to offer. Our lives are so short and this world is so wild and wide, I’d like to see everything my time will afford before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I’ve always felt like that was my primary mission, even when I was a kid. I don’t have time to worry about when the right time to travel is.

The cultures I’ve encountered have enriched my life and my way of thinking. There are small effects, such as enjoying exotic foods and cultural habits. There are larger impacts, such as seeing that other people in other countries are as happy, and sometimes happier than Americans, even if they have less in the way of worldly wealth.

My way of seeing the world has become broad, and that’s pretty normal for a person that travels for a living. I have friends from dozens of countries who inform my point of view.

Some basic lessons I’ve learned have changed the lens with which I see the world. Good and bad are relative. Quality of life is not measured the same everywhere. Happiness is free. God-given truths in your hometown may not be true across the world, or even across state lines. And that’s just for starters.

Travel has benefitted me greatly in my ability to understand a complex world with a long history. So, what is the role of a tour guide and travel writer right now?

The Tour Guide and Travel Writer Mission

Inspire. Get people off their sofas, out of their hometowns and off on adventures. New experiences are so good for you! It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures to discover something new that rocks your world, be it a big new idea or a new kind of cheese.

Educate. As an example, it is fun to see the Colosseum, it’s pretty and looks nice in pictures. Understanding the function of the Colosseum is more important. It was used as a tool for appeasing the masses, a sort of distraction that kept political dissent at bay. This is a technique that politicians and Roman emperors alike have always used. Distraction from political issues and problems. I wonder what Twitter would look like if it were a building.

Highlight connections. Part of education in travel is to try and see how everything relates in this world and the broader arc of history. History is not in the past when you see how events influence the present. Learning patterns of history can inform the public to make better choices. If the road we are heading down looks familiar, it’s good to know where it leads.

Give perspective. The US feels unstable at the moment, but the political forces at work are part of a much larger cycle as I see it. This isolationism we are experiencing is not a movement unique to the US, other countries are experiencing a similar thing right now. Ideologies tend to come in waves. With all of the history I’ve learned in my travels, I can see the patterns and connections. This moment in history is similar to the nationalism that swept 19th century Europe. For better or worse.

Open up to other views. As an American that is also a European, I can see the merits of opposing views. Maybe that’s more because I’m a middle child. But I do like to try and challenge travelers to leave their biases at the airport and see things through a new lense. It’s pretty fascinating to find out what other cultures really think about us. You’d be surprised.

That’s how I see my role in these strange times.

The Traveler’s Mission

What should the average American traveler do? Be open. Have fun. Be the best you and show the world how wonderful Americans are.

Don’t be afraid to talk to locals about politics. It seems that discussing politics in the US is always way too touchy and sensitive to go near. Nobody wants to start an arguement or offend anyone else. But that’s not how it is abroad. People in other countries love political debate. In Italy, I’m not sure what anyone would do with their time if they weren’t allowed to talk politics.

My experience abroad recently tells me one thing- the world wants an explanation. They don’t understand what’s going on in the US. People you meet may ask you. No matter how you voted, be prepared to talk about it. Don’t change the subject and don’t be ashamed, the more we can explain our positions the better off we all are. Mutual understanding is the foundation of peace.

In return, listen to what other cultures are saying to you. Ask people what they think of us. Ask them about politics in their country. The Brits are going through similar upheaval right now, buy a stranger a pint in an English village and commiserate. You may make a life-long friend.

I don’t see this moment as one to hide at home and stop exploring. This is a great moment to be out traveling in the world. People in other countries want to know if we are ok. They worry about us. They wonder why we don’t call anymore.

It’s our mission to go see them, look them in the eye and tell them, yes, America is ok. We are going through a rough patch, but we are scrappy and resourceful. We may look divided but in the end we are one. And we’re going to be ok.


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


7 thoughts on “Travel During Political Uncertainty

  • Judith

    Your comment about twitter made me laugh out loud. Your writing always makes me smile, nod my head in assent and sometimes tear up.Thank you for hitting the bull’s eye once again.

  • Christine

    While it is important to keep myself informed of current political events, reading up on other people’s travels is, in my opinion, a much needed diversion. So thank you for sharing and don’t ever feel “guilty” about It. Your posts can help in ways you may not realize. 🙂

  • Gail McKelvie

    Sarah, another great post! So many people don’t have the resources to travel or the desire and their entire world is a 20 mile radius of where they live. I really think that narrows your view of the world. Getting out and experiencing things that may be out of your comfort zone is so important to a person’s personal growth, I think. And to also show the world that we are not Ugly Americans, and can be the best ambassadors for our country. Especially now. thank you!

  • Maria

    Thanks, Sarah for this pep talk. All your reasons to support travel by Americans are great ones. As a Canadian, I certainly have concerns for my near neighbors and have wondered how things will pan out globally…but one still has to move forward with optimism and plans.
    I do, however, disagree with some statements <> There are plenty of countries in this world where politics (along with religion, money and anything personal) is not comfortable discussion. I took a tour to Tanzania with another US based company. The drivers had a script with some basic information that would hopefully satisfy the clients. Asking questions about their politics had the guides break out into a cold sweat trying to find a answer. Even with no other African in the car, talking politics in Tanzania can get you killed. It just isn’t done. You can talk US politics to them all you want, but you won’t get replies. They are too busy making a living putting food on the table to know much other than a bit about Obama – there wouldn’t be ‘discussion’.
    I wonder how things would go if your Cambodian guide was taken aside and asked questions that wasn’t part of his talk? Would he really be comfortable discussing things that he hadn’t brought up first? There is a reason the old don’t discuss it and the young don’t learn about it. Do you think it is our place as visitors to bring all that up? Even an innocent question at the Georgia tourism bureau got me an answer that tells me that the Civil War is still an open wound for a number of Americans. Yes we want to learn about a country, but how do you not do harm in the inquisitiveness?
    I have learned, traveling in ‘developing’ countries, that many of the opening conversations that North American folks use to get to know a person is just not done there. Privacy in close communities is difficult to obtain so personal topics are avoided with strangers. One really should NOT ask an African ‘how many children they have?’ or about their families at all – it is just too complicated. Most North Americans would be aghast if they gave you an honest answer….better not to ask at all.
    This doesn’t mean that one has to travel with their lips buttoned, but perhaps to take cues from who we interact with. I believe there is a need for more than average filters when one travels – in order to be sensitive to them, and to save ourselves from embarrassment. It isn’t always easy to research and grasp the nuances, but they seem to be there. I won’t be discussing religion in Spain. It is clear there is still a ‘Moors and Christians’ sore spot even after 500 years.

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