On Travel

You ever notice how, when certain people travel, they go wherever they please without a second thought? From Ethiopia to Tibet, from Vienna to Baton Rouge, from Moscow to Santiago, they step off the plane or train or whatever got them there, they look around, and they feel well, not exactly at home, but entitled to be treated with a measure of dignity? These are the people who rise up in indignation when they’re challenged at borders, when they run into snags or problems, when their dignity is not recognized.On the other hand, you ever notice how, when certain other people travel, they pick where they want to go? They avoid certain places, they pick certain routes, they travel by specific forms of transport where security is the norm and not the exception, and when they step off the aeroplane, they prepare to be treated like immigrants or criminals or worse? These people may rise up in indignation when they’re challenged as well, but it’s not because they are shocked into that state. It’s because they’re all to familiar with their dignity not being recognized, and they’ve just become tired of it all.I’ve been travelling a lot lately. Now I’m not one of the people in the first group. I tend to expect border officials to be unfriendly, to be unwelcoming, to try and intimidate me into not blowing up whatever it is that they have. But lately I’ve been reminded that travel is good for you, despite the security clearances and the surly immigrant immigration officers who patrol the US border and the puffer machines and the various other beeping things. Travel is good for you.It doesn’t just open your mind, it blows it.On my recent trip to Trinidad, what blew mine is how fundamentally similar we Caribbean people are. While we Bahamians like to draw imaginary lines around and between us, aligning ourselves with northern people and assuring ourselves that we’re nothing like the Others, we lie to ourselves; even white Caribbean people (I met some in Barbados) are like white us.On my recent trip to Britain, what blew it then was the fact that London has become a European city. Never mind the rhetoric of the tour guides and the joshing that happens every now and then; every waiter who served us in a restaurant, half the ushers who seated us in the theatres, and every employee in our hotel was from Europe. And the pedestrians now walk on the right side of the sidewalks in London, and trot up the right side of the stairs of the Undergound, and London appears to have given in to it. Rare and far between are the signs instructing pedestrians to Keep Left; the Battle of Britain, at least in London, has been lost.But we — and by we I mostly mean Bahamians, but not entirely — don’t travel. Don’t get me wrong. We go places; we go shopping. We take planes and trains and we carry lots of money with us and several empty bags, and wherever we follow bargains and objects for consumption. But travel, the kind of travel I’m talking about, the travel that is part of one’s education, that stems from basic curiosity, that involves the discovery of unfamiliar places, is not a part of our cultural vocabulary.The thing is, it’s part of other nations’. It’s fundamental to their self-definitions. Europeans and Canadians include travel as part of their socialization in the world. Consider this. There are far more British and French and German and Danish and Austrian teenagers who are familiar with Africa and its various cultures than there are Bahamians, whose ancestors were brought from Africa. Young Europeans take summers and even years to travel around or even live and work in countries and cultures as different from theirs as they can possibly find. They learn other people’s languages, and they collect other people’s customs. Canadians do the same thing. Even Americans, who (apart from us Bahamians, who imitate Uncle Sam in every possible thing, good and bad, and bad more than good) are some of the most geographically challenged people in the universe, include summers in Europe or visits to Latin America as important parts of their exposure.There’s a reason for this, and it’s a far bigger reason than one might usually imagine. It’s so big I can’t possibly begin to address it in this article. But it’s so big it’s fundamental to who we are and where we place ourselves in this world.Because this distinction I’ve noted, about the way different people travel, is indicative of who we are, where we stand on the world stage, and what we ultimately think about ourselves.And it’s not something that we have a whole lot of control over.But it’s important. It’s important because it has something to say about us, our identities, our self-esteem. That’s the Big Picture.Here’s the little one, the one most policy-makers and decision-brokers pay attention to. We’re in the travel business. We have built our industry on the comfort-traveller. This person is usually American, and is usually unadventurous. This is the very person who’s unlikely to dash out and get a passport just to be able to leave his country and come to ours. Because we don’t understand travel, come January 2007 we are going to suffer an economic downturn while the comfort-travellers who are like us get around to securing their travel documents. We want to keep our market share, to remain head and shoulders above the our competition. But until we understand why people travel, unless we can step into their shoes, we are going to stay right where we are, and other people are going to catch us up and grow taller.Here’s what we have to begin to understand. Travel isn’t just about beaches and shopping, sunshine and good roads, or Coca-Cola in our vending machines. For many people in the world, travel is exploration. For them, the world is an empty map, waiting for them to blaze a trail onto it. Uniqueness, not imitation, is important. And until we learn this fundamental truth, we are going to find ourselves challenged, at least for a little while. It’s time for us to learn about travel.