2016! This year the world took a turn to the dark side that’s left many in a state of whiplash. Politics and global events turned 2016 into a depressing catastrophe we’ve only begun to wrap our heads around. Orlando, Istanbul, Nice, Brussels and Berlin saw terrorist attacks unimaginable ten years ago. And the deaths of several beloved creative forces have deepened the losses—Edward Albee, Umberto Eco, Elie Wiesel, Prince, Harper Lee, Bill Cunningham, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher to name a few. Americans put their trust into the hands of an inexperienced egomaniacal despot, Brits have filed for an unrequited divorce from their European allies, and human suffering and humanitarian crises continue to reach new lows in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Somalia. Racism, bigotry and hate are on the rise. If that weren’t enough, environmental issues continue to deteriorate and some experts estimate that up to 2/3 of the world’s current species could go extinct as soon as 2020, with lion, elephant, rhino, giraffe facing challenges to their existences we haven’t seen before. Anyone looking to support a charitable cause in 2017 will have no shortage of options.
Even for the most chipper of Pollyannas, it’s difficult to remain positive in the face of such hopelessness. For the rest of us “snowflakes,” the struggle to manage anger, depression, fear and despair is very real. Many are struggling to find ways to be vocal and pro-active but still preserve sanity, focus, and maintain functioning relationships with family members who’ve exhibited a lust (or worse, an apathy) for the new hatred and fear. Doing so will be the ultimate challenge of 2017.
But what does this all mean for travelers? And can a travel writer like me contribute to a better world. If so, how?
For starters, I think it’s important for everyone to speak out more often and ask uncomfortable questions. Journalists—even lifestyle journalists like me—need to write more frankly in 2017. We need to examine the owners, shareholders, and landlords of hotels, and restaurants more often. We need to #boycottbetter on large and small scales. And we also need to advocate for minorities in our stories, because governments may not. Small steps can make big changes, even when working against oppressive systems.
I’ll start my own frankness by saying that American travelers should get used to the idea of foreign strangers asking them why Donald Trump won. Since Trump started making the headlines, I’ve been inundated with questions from foreign strangers during my travels. Some are innocuous queries like “Why do Americans like him?” which I was asked in Japan, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea this past year, while others had more blasting critiques like “Why are Americans so stupid?” a question I’m constantly asked across Europe. Constantly! It’s not easy answering this question, because I’m put on the defense, but I now ask myself the same question daily.
Why are Americans so stupid?
Maybe a less caustic question is why are we Americans unable to see the world from a more global perspective? Why don’t we care what the word thinks? Why don’t we play well with others? And where is the line between American bashing and criticizing a prodigal, bully country that needs to be frequently reminded that it’s not the only nation on the planet?
I have some ideas.
One of the first things my husband Ralph said to me the morning after the election was “All Americans should be required to live abroad for a period.” Impractical as the idea is, I’ve been unable to shake it. According to U.S. State Department Statistics, it’s estimated that only 46% of Americans have passports. That’s a low figure compared to the UK, where 95% of the population have passports. What does this say about us Americans? Does it suggest a apathy towards the world? An ignorance of globalism? An innate American arrogance? Um, yes it does. I feel strongly that travel is both a privilege and a duty. It doesn’t matter how big the United States is and how worthwhile its tourism sights and national parks are, 56% of Americans have, by inaction, given a big middle finger to the rest of the world. 56% of Americans don’t feel the need to see anything beyond their borders, so why should the world care about them? Yet these same Americans insist they are living in the best damn country in the world—the land of the free and home of the brave, the greatest nation on earth. (More on that later.)
The dawn of Trump suggests that American fear has replaced American curiosity and the consequences of that may be long-lasting and interfere with solid alliances we’ve built over the course of the last few centuries. Would more Americans getting passports solve the world’s complex problems? Of course not, but it would be a good step toward rekindling a curiosity of the world and transforming fear and vitriol to understanding and tolerance.
The viral xenophobia that’s spreading—not just in the USA but all around the world—is pretty shocking to us travelers. We see the world’s differences as its greatest asset. If more people engaged with the world, perhaps it would be a more understanding place. Americans not playing along is a big, noticeable missing link. And by engage, I don’t mean go to taco Tuesdays at your local Tex-Mex joint or wash down tacos with margaritas at the poolside bar with other Americans at the W Hotel on Punta de Mita. I mean eat tacos in Mexico prepared by a Mexican for other Mexicans! Food’s capacity to open our minds to other cultures is gravely under utilized. How can you hate Mexicans and Muslims if you love tacos and falafel? (More on that in an upcoming post on my favorite meals of 2016.)
Now is a critical time for American travelers to get out there and experience different cultures and other perspectives. Traveling is the opposite of nationalism, the antithesis of chauvinism. An act of travel is an act of tolerance. It is kryptonite to bigotry. As Huck Finn writer Mark Twain said in his book Innocents Abroad: “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.”
So is America the best country in the world? Dictators like Trump say it is as a tool to manufacture a new breed of nostalgia-based fear and hate. But even Obama and Hillary and numerous left wing politicians say it frequently. There’s this false notion that America is the most free or most diverse nation on the planet. It’s neither. It’s 2016 freedom of press ranking is #41 out of 181 ranked countries, it’s literacy rate is #7 in the world, and it’s only the world’s 85th most diverse country trailing far behind more culturally pluralistic countries like Peru, Somalia, Singapore, and Switzerland which has double the foreigners per capita than the United States. We need to remember that America is not the world’s only melting pot. And saying America is the best country in the world is at best, an insulting, lazy lie.
We Americans are so deeply chauvinist, we don’t even know it. (Many don’t even know what that word means.) America is not the best country in the world. It never was and never will be. There is no such thing as a best country or best city in the world. What utter garbage to think that. The planet is made up of about 196-plus countries, thousands of cultures and languages, hundreds of cities, each uniquely different from the next in uncountable ways. It’s great to be personally drawn to one country or place, but to claim one is better than another is absurd, and frankly sort of lame. To claim it’s better because it’s the only country you know is downright ignorant.
But never fear America, you’re still number one at a few things: You’re home to the highest population of severely obese people in the world. Your ranking of domestic gun-related violence is at the top of the list. And you’re #1 in energy consumption per person.
America, I challenge you to get off your ass and go see the world. Slap down $110 for a passport and go visit the countries you keep claiming are inferior to you. I bet you will find more things you love about them instead of things that support your idea that America is better. Enjoy the differences, embrace the unknown, try a dish you’ve never heard of, attempt speaking a foreign language, and visit a holy or sacred site that does not represent your own religion. This world is here for everyone, and we should all enjoy and take care of it together. Stop filling up your bucket list. Kill your bucket list, and fill it anew.
Inevitably there were be a chorus of readers who will counter that traveling is too expensive. That’s also not true. It’s never been cheaper to fly overseas. Roundtrip airfare to South America or Europe from several U.S. gateways runs as low as $350! I’ve not seen it cheaper than I have in 2016. Airbnb.com makes it possible to rent out your own house and pick up some extra cash while you’re gone. Europe is filled with decent hotels for under $75/night. Ditto for the rest of the world. Couchsurfing.com is free. So too are monasteries, convents, farm stays and other volunteers vacation options. Still need more money? Sell something on eBay.com Pick up an Uber.com shift. Get out there. What are you waiting for? There’s no time like the present to go see the world. If you’re not seeing the world, how do you know you’re the best?
So without further ado, here is a list of my own destination highlights of 2016 and several forthcoming posts about my favorite hotels (starting at $60/per night), meals (including a hospital and an airport), train rides and flights of 2016. And because sometimes traveling is a big pain in the ass, I’ve also created a list of my biggest travel pet peeves. I hope it inspires a few readers to get out there, and love the great big world, instead of living in the very un-United States of Fear.