It all started with a bit of small talk at a local shoe store. A man and wife browsing for deck shoes made mention that he once had a pair of boots made while on vacation in Mexico. Since he wore a size 14, the boot maker joked that he would need a whole cow to fill the order. The man with the very large feet laughed, and I laughed…reluctantly as he relayed his anecdote. That story led quickly to the couple's visit to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The man (who did all the talking as his wife looked on) told of the magnificent grandeur while looking out upon Paris – surely a sight to behold. He made a point of telling me one has to watch out for pickpockets around the Eiffel Tower. From there, the man regaled me with his train travel across Italy. Just as he warned me about the pickpockets in Paris, he made a point of warning me about Italian train bandits. According to him, the best place to put your money and valuables is in your socks. At this point, I was able to get a few words in edgewise and wondered aloud if the Italian bandits hadn't already gotten word about the socks. According to my big footed friend – no. At this point, I was tiring quickly of the big footed man. I then told my tale of roughing it in the Philippines – no air conditioning (the horror!), sometimes no indoor plumbing, the thrill of riding in a jeepney or tricycle, the pleasures of Manila smog, and the comfort of sleeping on a concrete floor. The man quickly lost interest in my story as I had lost interest in his. It seems our experiences were so different. He and his wife were merely tourist and saw the world as tourist do. They take the "guided" tours, led around by people who are paid to be nice. They are never in danger because danger for the most part stays away from tourists. They look out upon Paris and think they "know" the French. These would be the same people that if invited on a guided tour of North Korea would come away with a "misguided" view of its Dear Leader and its suffering masses. Without a real connection to people, they just might come to believe that Kim Jong un is one of those benevolent dictators and the mass starvation/human rights abuses are just vicious propaganda from the West. In the end, the gentleman left me none the wiser with all he had to say.
Of course this ignorance is dangerous, but it can be deadly when it pervades our professional diplomatic corp. Contribute enough to a winning presidential campaign; an ambassadorship can be yours for the asking. It makes little difference that you have virtually no knowledge of the country and its inhabitants. You have staff for that inconvenience. And while a professional staff may know the geography of a country, how well do they know its people and the current political and socio-economic climate? Professional diplomats have failed us time after time because they have failed to read the tea leaves and the literal writing on the walls of upstart political movements. Sometimes due to security and personal safety concerns, diplomatic staffs are confined to so called Green Zones cutoff from the reality of day to day life for much of that country's citizens. Also having enough staff who can speak Arabic would be of tremendous help in the wake of the Arab spring and the continuing menace of Islamic-fascism. So how can diplomacy work when ambassadors who are not familiar with a country's language and people rely on staff that is ignorant of the political pulse and machinations going on within that country? The president has to rely on their recommendations and that of senators and congressman who ride in bullet proof cars led around by handlers. Bad diplomacy leads to bad decisions which sometimes lead to bad wars.
And while I don't consider myself a seasoned world traveler, when I do travel abroad I go in with the mindset of a journalist. I ask a lot of questions, I want to travel off the beaten path; I want to connect with the populace. But most of all, I want an enriching experience. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt doesn't get it for me especially when the t-shirt wasn't even manufactured in the country I visited. I usually collect rocks when I'm off in a foreign land – something real, something tangible, a connection to the people and the land. In college, I used to seek out foreign students and inquire about their experiences and their ambitions. Iranians, Russians, Indians, Turks, Greeks, Mexicans, and the Chinese – I learned from them all. There were times when I would read passages from various travel guides describing their respective countries. More often than not, I would hear derisive laughter because the people who wrote those travel guides were so off the mark with their characterizations. They wrote for the tourist, not the traveler.
And while one may remain an ignorant foreign traveler, how well do we know our own country? Take Hawaii for instance, the birthplace of Barack Obama (birther movement claims notwithstanding) and the ultimate tourist destination. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot to borrow a line from an old Joni Mitchell song, but beyond Waikiki, Pearl Harbor, and a big fat Hawaiian playing ukulele and singing about a little grass shack, how much do we know about the Aloha state? Well if you got off the big island for any length of time, you just might learn a few things. Twenty years ago, I worked briefly on the island of Molokai. It used to be the place where Hawaiians got away from Hawaii. Most famous for the leper colony founded by Father Damian, it was a place barely touched by commercialization at that time. And to my amazement, most of the native populace was fine with that. You see, tourist dollars don't solve everything and haven't made much of a dent in an alarmingly high poverty rate the state has experienced for decades. While there, I learned of various Hawaiian sovereignty groups who have always been just beneath the veneer of smiles, leis, and welcoming hula dancers. Trouble in paradise? Perhaps, but I learned a lot more about Hawaii while staying on Molokai than I ever would by strolling the beaches of Waikiki.
With instant communication, satellite images, Google street views, we have certainly come closer to the global village concept than at any time in history. But that's also problematic. We'll just take the "virtual" tour or maybe like the characters in the Barry Hannah short story, we'll just opt out entirely.