I believe in travel and challenging comfort zones, in stepping outside into the murky world of what we think we know. I believe that unless the culture and beliefs of strangers are explored, we will always be relegated to “us” and “them”.
When I was nineteen I traveled to southern Africa for a summer. I set out with three companions, all roughly my age. We went with the common goal of documenting the culture we encountered through photography and video and hoped to bring home images and stories of the people we encountered in an attempt to deconstruct some of the stereotypes held about Africa in the United States. Each of us, however, underwent a personal transformation in the process
Most of our time was spent in Paje, a rural village of roughly two thousand people in Botswana. We went on no safaris; in fact we saw none of the wildlife that Americans associate with Africa. Instead, we pitched a tent and immersed ourselves in a community of strangers.
For the first time in my life I was in the minority. I didn’t know what to expect from the people, and I’ll be the first to admit I had pretty primitive visions of what I might encounter. Let’s just say, there were no elephants roaming the streets. But I was ultimately touched by the hospitality and inclusion that was poured onto us by our hosts. I was welcomed into yards where I spoke to mothers and grandmothers about their changing roles in society. I met their elders, and was overcome with immediate admiration and humility. We sat nightly around the campfire, swapping stories and songs with the villagers. We were even invited to a funeral, a weeklong ceremony honoring the deceased, which exposed more about the social framework of the community than the weeks that I spent there.
The locals often asked me about the United States. Was it true that there are no black people in America? Was I rich? Did I live in Los Angeles? “No, New Hampshire” I would say. They had never heard of it. Stereotypes prevail on both sides. I had gone to Africa to challenge other people’s thoughts, but I was the one that was challenged. My preconceived notions had been completely destroyed and replaced with an emotional connection. I had crossed a comfort zone, and people who used to be vague, blurry spots halfway across the world were now friends.
I know how unique my trip was. Not all of us have the resources or time to travel internationally, but we can step out of our comfort zones without leaving our country, or even our town. I once lived in Brooklyn on a block wedged between a Puerto Rican neighborhood and a Hasidic community: My worldview was forever altered.
We all are able to make the effort to get to know someone or something foreign to us, to build bridges towards a global community and a pathway to understanding. Only through challenging comfort zones are we able to alleviate our fears of the “other” and create better images of ourselves.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.