Why, people ask, do I wander the world? Why do my wife and I spend time in other countries, seek out places that are different from those we’re used to and are comfortable in?
To start with, traveling gives us perspective. As we engage with the world, we come to realize that our way is not the only way, or even the best way. It’s just a way. This is probably why connecting with the larger world makes me a better writer.
Syria. Cuba. Iran. Burma. China. Greece. France. The USA. Countries full of people muddling along, trying to survive and find a bit of joy along the way. Leaders may be misguided, even worse, but what about the ordinary men, women, and children? Maybe they use funny toilets, eat with their fingers, dress in their own way, have different ideas about where humanity came from and where it’s going. Is that reason to fear or hate them? Or for them to hate or fear us?
I know people who think it’s wicked to be too open-minded, to risk absorbing wrong thinking, but I feel sorry for those who can’t open their eyes and minds to places and ideas beyond their own. And I fear for a planet on which anyone can still be so willfully blind. It seems to me that the best hope we have is to get to know each other – not just to tolerate but to understand and not to try to convert others to our own beliefs or ways, to respect each other, to beware of the disease of self-righteousness. Traveling, meeting each other face to face, eating, drinking, communicating together, can be a step in that direction.
There’s no pleasure to compete with the thrill of wandering unfamiliar streets, of discovering villages and towns unlike any back home, of meeting people who look, dress, speak, and think differently than we do. Although each of us is the hero of his or her own story, we’re only supporting players in every one else’s story. Never is this more apparent than when we’re traveling and are only bit players with a scene or two that no one else will remember. It should be healthily humbling – unless our egos get in the way, which may happen all too often.
SNAPSHOT: Mashad, Iran. An octagonal pit four feet deep and twelve feet wide in the center of a large room, nine boys ages 11 to 13 performing strenuous exercises as a muscular man plays on a drum. Flushed and sweating, the boys spin and jump and chant and perform ritualized calisthenics and acrobatics, often with a three foot stick they manipulate in various ways. Other times, they toss long bowling pin-like clubs aloft, catching and juggling them. Sometimes, one boy stands in the center, cueing the others as they dance and jump and toss the pins around him.
After more than an hour, each boy receives a handshake, a hug, and a reward from a silver-haired man in a gray suit and black shirt – a doctor, we’re told, who is in charge of this local “House of Strength.” The exercises are designed to use both brain and muscles. In 1220 CE, the Mongols invaded this land. The Khan decreed that no male could carry a weapon or train for war, so underground gymnasiums called Zor-Khaneh were developed for mental, spiritual, and physical training. Now, Houses of Strength flourish in Iranian towns, giving boys opportunities to train and prepare to become leaders in a very different world.
SNAPSHOT: Croatia, a farm near the border with Montenegro. A stone-walled kitchen, hooks for meat hanging from the ceiling, antique stone sink, Luko the farmer and his wife Mira. He’s tall, big-bellied, with salt and pepper beard. She’s slender, a little shy. They show us photos taken by neighbors of the devastation to their farm during the war with Montenegro and the Serbs. They had no warning at all when Montenegro invaded, Luko tells us. They never imagined that such a thing could happen.
“We thought they were our friends,” he says, speaking of the people of Montenegro, only a few miles away.
In the photos, we see the burned and gutted farmhouse, the ruined vineyard and fields. The film was smuggled to them in a jar of marmalade. Luko stayed to fight, but Mira and the children fled to Dubrovnik, a city under siege, where they lived for eight years. Now, years after the war, we can see almost no evidence of it, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten. Proudly, the middle-aged couple shows us the vegetable gardens, the new vineyards, the pastures and the sheep – although, Luko says, the herd still hasn’t reached prewar size.
“Our family pictures, furniture,” Mira says. “Gone. Burned. Nothing left.”
Of course, all of this raises questions, not necessarily doubts, but a neutral search for truth – which should be the basis of all travel. Can you tell me more about that? Why do you think that happened? Do you really believe that? Can you explain?
Are we better individuals if we learn more, understand more? Why does the world seem to be breaking into opposing camps? Them and us? What’s going on? As a writer, I want to know. As a human being, I need to know.
SNAPSHOT: Beirut, Lebanon. A sidewalk café in the rebuilt, once cosmopolitan city center, crowded with men and women, many of whom are too young to remember war, glasses of wine or espresso cups in their hands. A country part Christian, part Moslem. Armed soldiers still visible and, still, in the hills nearby, a Palestinian camp, surrounded by soldiers. How long have those men, women, and children been there? Are they there for their own protection, or…? Delicate questions. At one time, thousands of Palestinians sought refuge in Lebanon. Many have returned to Palestine, but not all.
Rebuilding is still in progress across Beirut and Lebanon, many years after the wars – the civil war between Moslems and Christians and the war with Israel. Will downtown ever again be the Paris of the Middle East? Should it expect to be, despite the reconstruction, despite the high-end stores slowly moving in, despite the sidewalk cafes and imitations of the classic old facades? Over it all lurks the tall, burned, shot-out shell of the old Holiday Inn, where journalists hunkered during the wars, a vivid reminder visible from many parts of the city.
History is relentless, but maybe open to interpretation. What we don’t remember can be as important as what we do. Exploring the world can raise questions, as well as provide answers. Maybe questions are better than answers. Maybe people are too quick with their answers.
SNAPSHOT: Small towns all over Iran: Martyr’s Memorials with photographs of young men who died in the eight-year war with Iraq, women in black still mourning their sons and husbands who died decades ago.
We travel because every new experience raises questions, because every answer is also a question in disguise. As Rick Steves has pointed out, it’s harder to fear people if you meet them and come to know them. It’s harder to be close-minded if we’ve met, eaten with, and talked with people who’ve grown up with different traditions, cultures, viewpoints than our own.
This is one of the themes of my book, Delphine, much of which takes place in the Middle East. Delphine discovers as she travels the world, particularly in Turkey and Palestine, that the better she knows people, the more she comes to care for them, perhaps even to love them.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, Published by Texas Review Press. Available at University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.