Ten lessons I learned from traveling — or why Democrats must vote in U.S. midterm elections Tuesday and WIN!

Me in Laos. When you travel alone it's never crowded.

Me in Laos. When you travel alone it’s never crowded.

The United States has probably the most important mid-term elections in its history Tuesday. They’re so important, I even voted in them for the first time. My country is a dumpster fire. It’s divided like no other time in my life. It’s the Korean peninsula with better baseball. America during the Vietnam War was tea at Buckingham Palace compared to now. Today the U.S. is rife with racism, the likes of which I have never seen — and I was socially aware in the ‘60s. I owe it all to without question the worst human being ever to serve in the White House.

I get asked around the world how this Cheeto-faced cumsickle ever got elected. The quick answer is America has too many racist, uneducated, morally bankrupt, hypocritical morons. But here’s the answer behind that answer.

Americans don’t travel enough.

According to Forbes, only 42 percent of Americans have passports. That’s a massive increase from 4 percent in 1990 and 15 percent in 1997. Why the jump? It’s not due to increased global awareness. In 2007, Canada and Mexico required American citizens to carry passports. Now Americans need it if they want that all-inclusive Mexican beach resort where they never leave the compound and, you know, actually meet Mexicans.

Also, the 42 percent pales in comparison to Canada’s 66 percent and the 76 percent for England and Wales. Australia, home of the most well-traveled, open-minded people on the planet, boasts a percentage of up to 70 percent.

In Slovakia's High Tatras.

In Slovakia’s High Tatras.

It gets worse. According to the market researcher OnePoll, 40 percent of Americans have never left the country. An incredible 11 percent have never left their home state, according to CheapOair, a travel website.

You can cite all the reasons you want: costs, fewer vacation days in the U.S., America’s size. But the biggest reason is a total lack of curiosity about anything or anyone different.

Traveling is more than just collecting souvenirs and getting a tan. It’s about broadening your view of the world, about accepting new ideas and ways of life, about getting out of your comfort zone. When people close themselves off from what they don’t know, you get functionally illiterate rednecks berating immigrants for speaking their native tongue and people more concerned with a wave of desperate Latin Americans trying to reach the U.S. than a white extremist shooting up a synagogue.

I always said that if every American had traveled overseas for six months we never would’ve invaded Iraq 15 years ago. But no one listens to me.

However, maybe someone will read me. This is my 40th year of international travel and through 100 countries I’ve learned a few things. Here’s a list of my most poignant lessons, some personal, some whimsical and some every American should learn:

A tea leaf picker in Sri Lanka.

A tea leaf picker in Sri Lanka.

1. Just because someone is different doesn’t make them better or worse. They’re just different.

In 1994 I was in the mountains of Albania where I visited a member of a hill tribe, the ones who for generations kissed the muzzle of a gun and settled blood feuds with real blood. It was a year after Albania’s communist government fell and the reign of vicious dictator Enver Hoxha had officially ended. Through an interpreter the tribesman and I sat in his small stone home and talked about life in the U.S. as opposed to life in Albania, about poverty in his country and violence in mine. We ate borek, Albania’s delicious filo-dough pastry, and drank raki, Albania’s vicious moonshine. We told stories. We laughed. Two people from different worlds with mutual respect for each other’s way of life. Who was I to tell him my country was better? Which brings me to …

In Liechtenstein. You don't have to be big to be great.

In Liechtenstein. You don’t have to be big to be great.

2. America is NOT the greatest country in the world.

Well, it may be for you. It may be for your corner bartender or your accountant. But it may not be for a shepherd in France, a Buddhist monk in Thailand or an accountant in Australia. It certainly isn’t for me. If you love life in America, live there. It’s the greatest country in the world … for you. But nothing chafes me more than Americans saying, “We’re No. 1,” especially if they’re part of that 40 percent who think a pound is only a unit of measure. When an American says we’re the greatest country in the world, they are shoving their value system down other people’s throats. Sorry, Yanks. Not every human wants to live in a country that doesn’t take care of its sick, where 33,000 people die from guns every year and where the average American gets only 15 vacation days a year.

Me and the monk in Laos.

Me and the monk in Laos.

3. People don’t hold your government against you — except Americans.

I’ve traveled under seven U.S. presidents. None were more unpopular overseas than George W. Bush and Hair Hitler. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, locals from Brazil to Beijing shook my hand telling me how much they liked them. I’ve never met ONE person overseas who thought Bush and Doofus Von Fuckstick were anything more than cartoon characters holding a bomb. In Laos last year I asked two young Buddhist monks what they thought of Agent Orange. They started giggling. Buddhist monks, who take vows in humility and compassion and kindness, laughed at our president. However, after they gathered themselves, after Italians asked me “CHE CAZZO! (WHAT THE FUCK!),” they all accepted me for who I was and not who I represented. Meanwhile, Americans boycotted French products when French president Jacques Chirac denounced the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And do you see how many Americans back the Muslim ban by our Mango Mussolini?

With new friends in Iceland.

With new friends in Iceland.

4. The best way to respect a culture is through language.

I’ve written about this before but I can’t emphasize it enough. In every country I travel I learn a few words in the local language. I don’t care if it’s Northern Europe where nearly everyone speaks English I try to learn something. Before I arrive I learn things like “Where is …” “How much?” “I would like …” and, when in Sweden, “I want to father your child.” With those few phrases you can get along anywhere in the world — some places, of course, better than others. Seriously, English speakers are an entitled lot. We have an arrogance about our international language. We think the world should speak it, even when we’re the only ones in the room who can speak it. Locals may giggle at your fractured syntax or accent but they all appreciate the effort. Yes, even the French. Who’d a thunk it?

In Panama's San Blas Islands.

In Panama’s San Blas Islands.

5. I’m my own best company.

I’m a loner. I admit it. I like being alone. I like traveling alone. The only people I’ve ever traveled with are girlfriends. I traveled with one platonic female friend and that was a disaster. Never would I travel with a guy. Why? “OK, there’s the sunset. Let’s go get a beer.” Forget it. Those who are insecure, who get lonely too easily and hate themselves for it, should get a passport and hit the road. In college, I couldn’t go to a 7-Eleven by myself. I had the independence of a new-born chicken. But upon graduation I bought a ticket for London. I was terrified as I stepped on that plane. However, I learned the hardest step you ever take is the first one alone heading to a strange land. Turns out, I enjoyed the challenge of finding hotels, managing money, handling border crossings, making friends and finding adventure. A year later, I’d traveled around the world alone for a year. And it changed my life forever.

My new friend in Mongolia. Photo by Bertrand Linet

My new friend in Mongolia. Photo by Bertrand Linet

6. Patience is the key to handling any conflict.

My father was the most impatient man who ever lived. When I was a child he berated so many waitresses during family vacations I often spent lunch waiting in the car. Ever since, I’ve been the nicest guy in restaurants. Also, that patience pays off overseas where every transaction seems confusing. If it’s not a language barrier, it’s a cultural barrier or legalese you don’t understand. Train stations in India are horribly confusing, with the range of tickets wider than tickets to a sports event. It took me 15 minutes talking to a ticket agent in Agra to get on the right train. I learned a sure-fire trick to ease the conflict: I smile. I was once in a restaurant in Nairobi and saw a raging argument between two friends near my table. The younger man totally disarmed his friend by smiling while making his point. It wasn’t a condescending smile. It was like, Look, this isn’t that big a deal. I’m not mad. I respect you. Living in Italy, a First World country with Third World public services, I smile a lot.

Eating insects in Cambodia.

Eating insects in Cambodia.

7. Be an adventurous eater.

I never liked yogurt before I went to Sweden. I never liked vegetables until I traveled through Southeast Asia. I never liked snails until I went to Paris. In fact, I never liked water until I moved to Rome. It’s amazing how you stop being a picky eater when you’re living on $15 a day. Backpacking for a year I lived hand to mouth. I counted every penny, pence and lire. I ate anything that was put in front of me. I once got picked up hitchhiking in Yugoslavia and at the driver’s home I ate a dish that looked like something that bucked up from his kitchen sink. I don’t know what it was but it was terrific. This has broadened my palate to all corners of the globe where I will try anything once. I may not try it twice but I will try it once. (Some things I will no longer try. I am the only person in Rome who hates carciofi (artichokes) and melanzane (eggplant). I blame my mom, the worst vegetable cook in the history of the human race. She scarred me for life.)

On Italy's Amalfi Coast

On Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

8. How to manage money.

In 1978-79 I traveled around the world for a year on a little more than $4,000. Yes, you could do that then. I ate out of grocery stores in Northern Europe. I hitchhiked when my Eurail pass expired. I spent more time in North Africa and Southeast Asia, where lodging and food are priced for the local poor. In turn that taught me that the more you spend on accommodations the more you get away from the local culture. If you stay in Marriotts everywhere you go, you can travel around the world without ever leaving America. Managing money overseas bore fruit later in life. In one year I saved enough money for a 16-month sabbatical in Rome from 2001-03. From 2010-14 I saved enough to retire here. How? I cut down on my drinking. Cooked more. Invested well. Of course, having no wife, no ex-wife, no kids and a real smart broker helped. But the biggest step is keeping track of your spending. Even today I keep daily, monthly and yearly ledgers. Meanwhile, I read 20 percent of Americans have more credit card debt than savings. You don’t need a new car, pal! Women won’t like you any more.

Trekking in Borneo.

Trekking in Borneo.

9. I can handle hardship.

When you travel on a shoestring, particularly in the Third World, the world often bites back. My travel tales from hell could fill a book — or at least a future blog: I contracted typhoid in Thailand and lost 20 pounds in eight days. I got stuck in an underwater cave in Australia. I had a machete pulled on me in Morocco. I got chased out of a hotel room in Indonesia by giant wharf rats. I got in a fistfight in Haiti. I found a snake in my sleeping bag in Malaysia. I thought I got kidnapped hitchhiking in Hungary. I had to spend one night in Bakersfield. I’ve seen it all. I also handled it all. And when I tell people stories from my travels, they don’t want to know about the beaches in Bora Bora or the animals in Tanzania. They want to know about the typhoid in Thailand.

Cooking school in Malaysia

Cooking school in Malaysia

10. Muslims are not evil.

When I met the anti-Islamic racists who surfaced from deep in their tar pits during the Bush Administration, I always asked them one question: Have you ever met a Muslim? They either said no or, “Why would I want to?” I have. I’ve met a lot. I enjoy Islamic countries: Egypt. Tunisia. Morocco. Turkey. Malaysia. Indonesia. Brunei. It’s scary and shocking how so many Americans equate Muslims to terrorism. Tell that to the plethora of Tunisians who came up to me in October 2002 to say how sorry they were about 9-11. The average Muslim hates terrorism more than we do. Why? Three reasons: One, terrorists are just plain assholes; two, it ruins Palestine’s ability to get its own land; three, it ruins tourism. Tourism in Tunisia dropped 25 percent the year after 9-11. Thousands were out of work. Yet we have a president who passed a bill restricting people from five Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

So here’s a bonus lesson: Vote, you Democrats. On Tuesday, start ending the fascism.

13 thoughts on “Ten lessons I learned from traveling — or why Democrats must vote in U.S. midterm elections Tuesday and WIN!

  1. Awesome article! I grew up in the Foreign Service and we had 9 overseas moves over 20 years. It really gave me a different perspective, and I can really relate to your experience.

  2. What a cracking article. I especially relate to poor Tunisia, where I had some wonderful holidays. I was there when 9/11 was happening and they were as shocked and saddened as other nationalities

  3. Hey cuz! I always get a kick out of your articles. This was a special edition. Thanks. Your picture with the Laotian monk reminded me of a young Morrie Henderson. I never knew he was so cranky, and by the way Mary Ellen was a better cook than you give her credit for. You were just a picky eater as a kid.
    Best wishes, Jack

  4. The late Anthony Bourdain said, more than once I believe, that he wished more Americans had passports, and I see a lot of what he said in your post, John. And I agree with you wholeheartedly; not only that, but I wish that more Italians went abroad and did things (not just sex tourism in Kenya/Cuba/Madagascar) abroad. I have one uncle, blind since birth, who loves to travel. He says “You learn more in a trip than in a 100 books”. He’s absolutely right, and so are you.

    By the way, 15 days of leave a year should be a human rights infringement, but that’s my lazy-ass nature talking!


  5. How ironic! I think every American should live abroad for a while, because then they’ll go home and vote Republican! They can see how poor many of the other “first-world” countries are, how primitive their health-care systems are (because they’re govt-run and “free”), how comparatively lousy their universities are (ditto), how underpaid and yet insanely overtaxed they all are, how desperate many people are to learn English in the hopes that one day they can emigrate… and how much the natives admire President Trump, whom the locals in my city speak of with awe and respect.

    • You’re absolutely right, Weiss. Americans should come to Europe and see all the starving desperate people in Sweden and Switzerland and Britain snd France and Spain and Poland. Sometimes I have to watch my step and make sure I don’t fall on all the homeless covering the streets in Stockholm and Zurich. It’s nothing like Potland in my home state of Oregon when I visited in August. At least the homeless there — and they’re all over the city — can get cheap beer. But why am I telling you this? You obviously have been to all these countries and seen how people live, talked to the locals, done research. I’m sure you’ve been all over Scandinavia talking to them about their terrible health situation in their countries. In fact when I was in Sweden, Norway and Iceland the last two years they were all complaining about the TERRIBLE treatment they get from their government health care. The fact that all these countries, as well as 13 other countries around the world, have higher life expectancies is just a coincidence, kind of like global warming. Right, Weiss? I told them about my friend who lost his job, thus his insurance then he contracted pancreatic cancer. He will soon lose his car, his house, his life savings then his life. Hey, his daughter doesn’t need a college education. Maybe she can grow up to be a stupid, ignorant moron like you. But one person you haven’t talked to about health care in Europe is me. Two summers ago I contracted a disease in my optic nerve and went blind in my right eye. My U.S. insurance didn’t cover eye care. No matter. The Italian health care system took me in. They gave me exams, counseling, medicine, an MRI and laser surgery. Total cost? About €600. I priced it out in the U.S. and it would’ve been more than $7,000. The average laser surgery in the U.S. is about $3,600. Cost for it at my local hospital up the street here in Rome? Zero. and my eye improved 25% just like I was told by my Italian doctors whom I’m sure you’re ready to bash. And gosh darn it! How did I miss all those charming Trump supporters all over Europe???? I’ve been to every Western European country but Cyprus and Malta (Yes, they’re in Europe, Weiss. They’re big islands,) and haven’t met a single person who hasn’t reacted to my ubiquitous Trump inquiry with scoffing laughter. You see, Weiss, locking kids in cages, cutting insurance for 20 million people, pulling from the Paris Accord, increasing the military budget $85 billion, cutting taxes for the rich and programs for the poor, making fun of the handicapped and sexual abuse victims, ignoring mass murders by white extremists but ordering to shoot any impoverished Latin American refugee who throws a rock, those kinds of things don’t play well in Europe. You know, Weiss, you sound like one of those knuckle-dragging bigots who think America is the greatest country in the world. Am
      I right? Well, let me ask you this: How can it be the greatest country in the world with ignorant rednecks like you living in it?

  6. You can travel widely but still live within the narrow confines of a closed mind. You bleat on for paragraphs about your own worldly experiences, and your love and tolerance for all the many fascinating peoples and cultures of this world (in contrast to the millions of your ignorant American countrymen). But when one poster presents a different viewpoint, you instantly start screaming that he is the ignorant racist bigot. And the legions of desperate homeless that you see in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and elsewhere in the USA are the product of failed leftist Democratic run cities. These are your welcoming sanctuary cities. So telling that you cannot extend your own boundless curiosity and deep appreciation for all the variety of human existence to your own people.

    • I ripped the reader because he was ripping countries that have the audacity to help others who can’t help themselves. The man was criticizing countries for being poor (a colossal lie) because of their high taxes. As for the homeless, yes, the Democrat-run cities in the West are susceptible to homeless because they actually care. They’re trying to help. They accommodate those in need. I mentioned them as an illustration of the disparity in wealth in America, that it isn’t the utopia the Republican Party thinks it is. I am not judgmental. I am only judgmental against people who are judgmental and the most judgmental person on the planet is the Donald Trump supporter.

  7. I truly appreciate your work – and your excellent personal advice on travel! (which I still owe you a glass of wine for…) One of your sentences in this article motivated me to respond: “An incredible 11 percent have never left their home state, according to CheapOair, a travel website.” I know these people. I live among them every day. I live in a county where I personally know several people who have not travelled more than 50 miles from home – ever – in their entire lives (and they are not young). Loving travel, as you do, and having learned many of the lessons that you wrote about, I found this astounding when I moved here. Then I started to work among the poor after a quarter of a century working elsewhere. I looked around and realized that I had a lot to learn. I write my comments not to you (because I am fairly certain you “get it”) – but generally. We often fall into the trap that our personal perspective sets for us.

    You and I had the benefit of a good education. Maybe we had someone (parent or not) who encouraged our natural curiosity. Perhaps, we used our library card as our first means of exploration to foreign lands. Most of my clients (and their children) haven’t had such luxury. Their lives as far back as they can remember have been very different. It’s likely there isn’t a working car to get to the library – even if there was, mom/dad would have the car at work and the teens are taking care of their younger sibs at home after getting off the bus…there’s no money for the $350 fee for a drivers license or even the $50 for a state ID so that the college hopeful teen can use it to take the SAT.

    Financial limitations do define our dreams. Such limitations define our available time, educational opportunities and I think, even our creative thought capability. When one is focused on obtaining the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, it truly is impossible to think beyond the immediate future and it’s unmet demands.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding the benefits of travel – but we have to be careful not to paint with strokes that are too broad. I know that the target of some of your comments is not the truly poor – but the willfully ignorant. Nonetheless, here’s my question (challenge) – how can we bring the wonder of travel and the wisdom found within it to those who are not nearly as fortunate as we are?

    • Great letter, Mary. Thanks. First, where do you live? Second, I understand how financial limitations keep people from having the experiences you and I have had. I was lucky. My parents paid for my college (Although at the time in the ’70s the University of Oregon was about $1,000 for everything — books, room, tuition — for a year.) That allowed me to save all the money I made working four jobs in college for my trip around the world. However, it doesn’t bother me so much when people don’t travel. What bothers me is these people who don’t travel still claim “America is the greatest country in the world.” You don’t have to travel to know that’s a truly ignorant, insulting statement. To put down people you’ve never met, to put down a value system you’ve never experienced, is the height of American arrogance and ignorance. That I won’t tolerate, regardless of economic level. So no, I don’t criticize people without passports; I criticize people without passports who criticize others who do.

      • Hi, I live in a small town rural area of Michigan (I encourage you to read “the Other Side of the River by Alex Kotlowitz). In our area, the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” is remarkable and more pronounced because of the smaller population (and other reasons) – we have about 120 thousand in our entire county. Honestly, most of my clients are so preoccupied with trying to put food on the table that I’m not sure that they even think much about other countries, let alone travel there – it just wouldn’t cross their minds. But for them, America certainly has not been particularly kind and will likely get worse.

        The worst traveler to me is the one who complains because things are different than the US and they can’t have the food (or whatever) that they want or they bitch about how inconvenient things are for them. Or, those who do zero research into the customs of a destination and then complain that the *—–* are “so rude”. These travelers then use these things to support their rejection of an entire culture and to reinforce their already narrow minded view that America is “first”. They come home and tell all of their friends about how the buildings and art were beautiful while rejecting the entire population and governmental regulations that built and preserved the buildings and art that they appreciated so much.

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