When people head out on foreign vacations this summer, many of them take the tried and true path: visit the big monuments, tourist attractions and stay with their tour groups. Our guest has spent many years of his life traveling the world and he suggests that for a better and more memorable trip, you should rub shoulders with the locals in the country you’re visiting. We’ll hear his thoughts on why it’s important to learn about the culture of the country you’re visiting, how freedom is interpreted in other countries and how you can help the people you meet better understand America and you.
Andrew Solomon, journalist, author of Far & Away: Reporting from the brink of change – seven continents, twenty-five years.
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Travel, People and Freedom: A journalist’s travels inform his life
Gary Price: You’ve finally made plans to travel to that country you’ve always dreamed of. You’ve got the tickets, booked the hotel, found a few tours you’d like to take and maybe even learned a bit of the language. It’s a good start, but world traveler, Andrew Solomon says that you should also think about engaging with the people once you’ve arrived.
Andrew Solomon: Knowledge is power. Learn as much about the place you’re going as you possibly can. The second thing is, figure out what it is that interests you. Maybe it’s guitar music, or maybe it’s football, or maybe it’s whatever else it might be, but find out whether there’s some of it there and see whether if you go to the place where whatever it is that interests you tends to happen, you can begin to talk to people. Maybe it’s business and you can set up some meetings with some business people, but try to make some contact with local people, and when you make contact with them try to show them that you’re really interested. Remember, always, as a friend of mine says you have two ear and one mouth, and let them do as much as the talking as they’re able to do in your first interactions.
Price: Solomon is a journalist and author of the book, Far & Away: Reporting from the brink of change – Seven continents, Twenty-five years.
Solomon: Be prepared to discover that this place that you’ve always admired actually is kind of problematic in some ways, but equally be prepared to discover this place that you thought of as being a black hole, could turn out to be pretty fantastic. I went to Afghanistan and I thought it was a hardship posting. I loved Afghanistan. I went to Libya, I met a lot of Libyans I loved but I hated Libya – at least Gaddafi’s Libya. I found it unbelievably oppressive and a very, very unpleasant place to be. So you have to sort of go with an open enough mind so that you can be surprised to think something other than what you expected.
Price: Solomon’s wanderlust developed when he was just a young boy living in New York.
Solomon: I was curious about the whole world and I was also a little bit afraid of the larger world, and travel seemed like a way to get over my fear and discomfort and to become at home in the world. I wanted to see the world from the time I was a very little boy. I was an Anglophile, I loved English children’s books and I loved stories about England and later on I went and lived in England for a while and I eventually got a second passport.
Price: Solomon says that “travel” is more than just showing up to see the sights. While reporting for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Travel and Leisure and other publications, he spent time in beautiful cities and war-torn countries but he always tried to build relationships with the people who lived there, sometimes taking bold steps when the situation called for it.
Solomon: I think that the only way to really travel is to make sure that you’re always thinking about reciprocity. You’ve come to see some people who live in a different way and to see their world and their life. You kind of need to give something back, too. Otherwise you’re just a tourist looking out at it as if it were a show. So I’ve tried very hard in the places where I’ve gone really to interact with people and really to get into some kind of a relationship with them and to be as generous to them as they often had been to me. So when I was in Russia in the Soviet Union in its very final, waning days I was with a group of artists who helped organize the resistance to the Kremlin coup of August 1991. And they all went out and stood up against the tanks that were approaching the barricades and I stood hand-in-hand with them as much as I could.
Price: Not everyone has the courage or the opportunity to stand up against oppression like that, but just becoming involved in cultural events or other occasions where you can meet local residents and perhaps help out can create bonds of friendship and understanding. Solomon says that in his travels, he’s found that the people he met are as anxious to get to know him as he is to know them, and this has changed his idea of how he, as a journalist, approaches his subjects.
Solomon: The people I’ve met have always been curious about me, not because I’m an object of such remarkable curiosity, but just because I was coming from someplace else and they were trying to understand the place that I came from as much as I was trying to understand the place they came from. It’s striking to me how much intimacy there is that comes out of sharing back and forth that there isn’t if you’re just a journalist asking questions. I mean, you know, one of sort of central rules of our profession is journalistic neutrality and I never loved the idea and over time I’ve completely given up on it. I feel like you’re there, you’re entering someone else’s life, you’re asking them to be vulnerable before you, you’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable back and to give them whatever counsel, advice or wisdom you have. Not to sort of get down to paying people whom you interview, but helping them and dealing with them in a loving fashion, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s the only way you’ll ever understand them.
Price: A story Solomon tells in his book underlines the importance of understanding people and their cultures. It was when he interviewed former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, years after the Vietnam War ended.
Solomon: I met him late in his life and I asked him about a trip he had taken when had gone to Vietnam, so 25 years after the war, and met with a lot of his Vietnamese counterparts. And I said, “What was the conversation like?” And as he recounted it he said, “You know, I never understood why you did X.” And they said, “We did X because you had done Y and we thought, well if you’re going to try escalate things we have to respond.” And he said, “No. I was trying to de-escalate things when I did Y, but then when you did X I thought that that was because…” and they went back and forth and it was like a French farce. There was the sense that each side had completely misunderstood what the other side was doing. And it would have been kind of comical if there hadn’t been so very many people who had died. And McNamara said to me, “We were talking in the language of war, which I wrongly thought was a universal language. And it turns out that war is not a universal language. And it turns out that those misunderstandings can actually have really catastrophic effects.” And I thought, okay, but you know before you got us into that war, at least escalated our involvement in it, maybe you could have somehow spent enough time or had enough people who were of Vietnamese origin around you so that you could interpret what was going on. Talk about “lost in translation.” There, we’ve go a million lives lost in translation.
Price: People in the West assume that other countries, once they’ve been liberated, want freedom and democracy the way we have it here in the U.S. When traveling to countries in the Middle East and Asia, Solomon found that this wasn’t always the case.
Solomon: In the first place there’s an assumption that if you just take away all of the things that are getting in the way, that everyone’s natural default state is democracy. That isn’t true. Democracy is something that has to be cultivated and tended. People’s natural default state is chaos, and when we’ve knocked out governments in places like Iraq and Libya without having anything to put in afterwards, what’s ensued is chaos. I also think people don’t recognize that the habits of freedom take a while to learn. Toni Morrison once said “you have to learn to be free after you’ve been granted your freedom,” and I saw that over and over again as I went from place to place.
Price: He saw it first hand when he took a trip to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002.
Solomon: And sitting with a group of three women who had shown up for our conversation wearing burkas. They took them off when we were inside and I said, “Okay, the Taliban has fallen. Why are you still wearing those?” And the first woman said to me, “Well I’m still wearing a burka because if the Taliban comes back to power, they may punish anyone they find didn’t wear one.” And the second one said, “I’m afraid of being raped, and if I get raped because I’m not wearing a burka, everyone will tell me it was my own fault.” The third one said, “I always thought when the Taliban fell I would burn this thing and I would never put it on again. But over time, you get used to being invisible, and after that it’s very stressful to contemplate being visible again.” And I thought it’s very stressful to contemplate being visible. It’s very stressful to contemplate being free if you’ve lived in a state of un-freedom, and there are people who are intimidated by it and they need a lot of support and encouragement and help.
Price: Another thing that’s wonderful about travel is that you can be whoever you want to be in a new locale. If nobody knows you, Solomon says it’s a good time to take stock of yourself and see if there’s anything you can improve.
Solomon: And I think especially for young people that that’s an incredibly valuable experience because you suddenly discover, “What are the things I can’t reinvent? Oh, those must be the things that are absolutely fundamental to me. What are the things that I can reinvent?” and you think, “Oh, I didn’t realize I could reinvent that. I didn’t realize I could live differently. I didn’t realize this is how I’d feel if I were starting from scratch.” You know, I think that if every young person in the world were required to spend two weeks in another country at some point before the age of 30, that half the diplomatic problems of the world would disappear because so many of them result in people not understanding what it means for people to live in a different place with different values. And some of it comes from people not understanding who they really are, who they are as individuals, who they are within the social context they live in, who they are as nationals of the country they come from. All that gets revealed to you when you leave familiarity behind.
Price: Solomon says that people in other countries will have heard all sorts of things about Americans from the media and elsewhere and they can make generalizations from that as easily as Americans make generalizations about others. The point is to travel with an open mind and help others to understand your culture as well as learn about theirs.
Solomon: Americans is a pretty big a pretty big category of people. You know some of the most wonderful people in the world are in this country, and there are some pretty horrifying people in this country. And, similarly, I think in a lot of the political rhetoric that’s flying around right now, there’s a lot of talk about “Muslims think this,” or “Russians want to do that.” When you go to a country you can’t help discovering that it’s complex and layered and that there isn’t anything that Indians want to do. And there isn’t anything that sort of is “the position” of Zimbabwe, that there are people in every one of these countries with a diversity of opinions. There may be more of them who think something different from what you think at home. My purpose in the book, really, was to make people reckon with the persistent humanity and individuality of people wherever you go.
Price: You can read about journalist Andrew Solomon’s travels, the fascinating people he met and his thoughts on culture, art and politics in his book, Far & Away, available in bookstores and online. You can also visit his website at AndrewSolomon.com. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.