I believe in the transformative power of travel. Those times when myths explode and prejudices unravel. I call these “aha” moments, gifts of travel that open our eyes to the world around us. My greatest aha moment came in the former Soviet Union. It was the mid-eighties, and I’d been sent there to cover a story for the New York Times syndicate. I’d been on the road for over ten years and I thought I saw the world as it truly was, not as my country or culture dictated. But the Russian people taught me otherwise.
By then the Cold War had been going on for over forty years. They were the Evil Empire bent on spreading Communism throughout the world. We were the only thing standing between them and world dominance. Every American knew that, including the journalists working at the New York Times Moscow bureau. Many of them had been living in Russia for years. Their homes were bugged. They were watched wherever they went and they found my month long assignment ¬– to mingle with the Russian people – laughable. How could anyone invited to the country by the Russian government, accompanied by a handpicked interpreter and traveling with the KGB get the “real” story? Especially when everyone knew the Russian people were in lockstep with their government’s policies and those policies included a deep and abiding hatred for the United States. I agreed with them. What American didn’t?
But then funny things began to happen. I attended a Russian Orthodox church and after the service a babushka-wearing grandmother came up, hugged me and said, “Why do you hate us? We were with you at the Elba.” More than once, I was standing in a crowd when a voice whispered, “You’re so lucky to be free.” Whenever I looked around to see who was speaking, I couldn’t find them.
Each day, incidents – both large and small – told me that my view of Russians was skewed. I’d come to believe my own government’s propaganda and I didn’t even know when or how it happened. Was it the day in elementary school we were all hustled into the auditorium to listen to President Kennedy’s speech about the Cuban missile crisis? Could it have been the news stories about people building fall-out shelters? Was it the words journalists used to describe Russia and its people? Words like gray, barren, sullen and militaristic.
When did these people who I was now experiencing as funny, exuberant and educated come to be the Evil Empire? Why hadn’t anyone ever told me that they despised their government but had to live with it anyway. They weren’t naïve. In many ways they were more savvy than us. It killed them that Americans, with our easy access to all the information in the world, seemed completely uninterested in it. They couldn’t figure out how we could fail to understand their suspicion of the West given their history. When I visited a college dorm, they howled with laughter when I noted that the newspaper they were using as toilet paper must be indicative of their feelings about the government-run press.
Day after day people did and said things that made me question my beliefs. That was when I came to believe in travel as the ultimate transformative experience. One that can help us see others not as the enemy, but as people stuck in a system they might loath but living in a country that they love. For years I’ve joked that if the billionaire George Soros was serious about trying to promote democracy around the world, he’d stop trying to influence governments and just pay for people to travel. Once you’ve seen and experienced people first hand, it’s hard to go back to seeing them as the “other.” Given today’s world, with its fear of Muslims, its axis of evil and its condemnation of whole nations based on their governments, all I can say is “George Soros, get out your checkbook. It’s time to pay for a world full of aha moments.