Since the U.S. presidential election, there’s been a lot of talk about how certain groups of voters—from the “liberal elite” on the coasts to folks in the rural heartland to the tech establishment in Silicon Valley to the media that covered the election to anyone who gets their news solely from Facebook—are living in a bubble.
But isn’t it true that everyone’s always lived in a bubble? That’s the reason why we travel—to get outside the bubbles we were born and raised in or currently inhabit, see how other people live and think, and broaden our worldview. Whatever your political leanings, I think this election reinforced how important it is to experience new places (especially within our own country), connect with people who aren’t like us, listen to different perspectives, and find common ground. As Mark Twain put it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
With America’s role on the international stage unclear, though, some people are wondering how they will be treated when they go abroad now. As someone who has traveled in a number of risky countries at times when U.S. government policies were not in favor, I’m here to tell you that, in my experience, as long as you don’t behave like an “ugly American,” people don’t judge you based on your government. That’s because they don’t want you to judge them based on their government.
I can also tell you that, in countries that depend on tourist dollars and don’t see lots of U.S. travelers, people are particularly nice to Americans because, simply put, the American visitors who do travel there spend more money and tip better than other tourists.
When I went to Istanbul during the build-up to the Iraq War—a period when people were worried about anti-American sentiment and experts were advising not to fly on U.S. airlines or stay in Western hotels—everyone I met, from waiters to carpet merchants, told me that while they might disagree with U.S. policies, they love American travelers since they are more interested in learning about Turkish culture than other tourists who go straight to the seaside on cheap package holidays.
Later, during the Iraq War, I found myself in Kurdistan in southeastern Turkey and, again, nobody I met equated me with the foreign policy of the nation I live in. I was treated as a fellow human being first.
The same happened when I traveled in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In fact, I’ve found people in the Middle East to be among the most welcoming and friendly people I’ve met anywhere in the world. As Aldous Huxley said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
It’s a good thing I saw the sites of Syria when I did; today it’s off-limits, as a result of a brutal and tragic war. Lord only knows what the ancient city of Palmyra looks like now. I’m always telling people: Go while you can.
That’s why I’m taking the family to Sri Lanka this winter. Yesterday I asked my husband, Tim, if he’s having any second thoughts about that. “I was in Nicaragua during a war when Reagan was in power,” he replied. “After that, anything’s easy.”
People overseas are already wondering how they will be treated if they travel to the United States in this new era. We’re already seeing foreign governments issuing warnings to their U.S.-bound citizens to exercise greater vigilance. Will State Department travel warnings for outbound travelers change? It will be interesting to see.
In the meantime, here’s how to interpret travel warnings. And, if you’re concerned about safety in a foreign country that’s perceived as risky, here are steps you can take.