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.