Embrace Differences

I love to travel. Why you ask? Is it the cramped airplane seats where if the person in front of me drops their seat too far back, their head is almost resting on my lap? Is it because of the free pretzels the flight attendant whips at me as a snack during the flight? Or perhaps, it’s the dry air that saps all the moisture from my hair and face no matter how little time I’m stuck in the winged aluminum can?

It’s none of those things.

It’s the food, the landscape, learning about the history, and the people who live there. For me it’s seeing how other people live: that small window that is raised where I get a momentary glimpse as a visitor of how other people’s lives in countries differ from my own.

I’ve had watermelon juice in India for breakfast (yummy!), boiled potatoes in Portugal, pastries in France for breakfast (dessert for breakfast would never be a problem for me!), dried cod in Iceland (not for me), and cheese pie in the AM before I boarded a returning flight home after visiting relatives in Greece.  Breathtaking landscapes can be found everywhere whether that’s Vic in Iceland (bring your Parka!), The Adirondacks in New York State, or the pristine and protected beaches in Ocracoke, North Carolina.

The food and landscapes make things interesting for me. But the history of a country provides the framework for understanding the people who reside there. Before I visited Portugal, I had no idea they had an earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon in the mid 1700’s.  When we were there, you could clearly see the division between the old part and the new part of the city that was rebuilt.

It was also in Iceland on a bus tour that I learned there were 70 active volcanoes on the island. Sure, I knew about the geysers and that much of the island is fueled by thermal energy. But I had no idea how extensive the volcano system was in Iceland. Suddenly it was clear as to why before we travelled there, a volcano had erupted (Bardarbunga) that resulted in part of the island being closed to visitors.  A few years earlier, a volcano had gone off in Iceland creating chaos at European airports that resulted in delayed and cancelled flights throughout the continent. We mistakenly believed an eruption was not likely while we planned our trip because one had recently occurred. We were wrong and found out only after we purchased our tickets. We still went – but some sites were closed to visitors.

I was surprised the first time I visited London, England as I had been told that the “Brits” tended to be unfriendly and cold. I was perplexed when, for my husband and I, this was not our experience. We found Britons were right from the start, willing to talk to us. We had a lengthy conversation with a cab driver on the way in to the city from the airport who told us many details about the city. Years later when we travelled there again and made a failed attempt with our Oyster Cards to get through the gates to the tube, several people stopped to help us figure out whether we needed to tap or swipe the cards even though they themselves were attempting to make trains to their destinations.

I travelled to India for work more than a decade ago, and I had never felt so protected and well taken care of by people I had never met before. The company I worked with provided a car to pick me up at the airport and my co-workers called me the first day I arrived to ensure I had everything I needed at the hotel. (I had travelled for more than 24 hours, so what they got was probably a disjointed, garbled conversation because I was napping.) Their phone call alone, probably doesn’t seem exceptional.

But it was a Saturday when I arrived in India. The other purpose for that first call was to make a plan as to what I wanted to do the next day. Yes, you read that right: A SUNDAY.  Two women from the Finance section of the company willingly gave up their Sunday. And their commitment to me wasn’t simply a little breakfast and a toss back to my room; no, they spent the full day with me showing me their city, taking me to the market, helping me negotiate prices to purchase some souvenirs, and then took me to lunch. At one point as we passed a river, one of my colleagues turned and pointed in the direction of what looked like a canyon and said, “That was a river.” I was surprised by this as I had never noticed so clearly the impact of global warming.

When my husband and I travelled to Philadelphia, we saw the Liberty Bell. But what I remember most of that trip was a re-enacted lecture we saw at one of the sites. I don’t remember where it was, or the name of it as it was several years ago. But it was a showcase of American History and touched on the American Revolution, the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, and the American Civil War. The lecture was not one of the grandness of America but it was about the hard fought rights of liberty and democracy – and the ongoing fight for liberty for all that continued hundreds of years later for Native Americans, to abolish slavery, and with the Civil Rights Movement. Their was honesty within the history lesson that’s stayed with me years later.

I’m not an American. I’m a Canadian. But as I left the auditorium the building blocks of America swept through my mind and I felt misty eyed and tired on behalf of my neighbours.  Because they have a long and complicated history, with many hard won battles, and their people continue to fight for the ideals of freedom.

With each country I travel to, I find many people are typically keen to stop and help a visiting stranger in providing directions, offering advice, or starting a conversation with a stranger who is travelling alone so they’re not so lonely. We are different. But in many ways we are also the same. The differences shouldn’t separate us. It offers us the opportunity to share and to learn from one another.  That’s what makes this, “A Wonderful World.”

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