Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Traveler’s Tale

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” - Mark Twain

Although given the rubric of the ‘ugly American’ that developed after Twain innocently went abroad, this might not always be the case. Especially if you have to travel overseas to kill people. Ah, do all soldiers in Afghanistan have passports? Answer: You don’t need one if you invade a country! Or get flown in by a U.S. military transport plane.

But I digress. The GAO said 28% of Americans had passports in 2008, and it went up after that due to the requirement for passports to Canada and Mexico. A recent graphic in the Huffington Post, based on another private researcher, thinks the percentage is far higher. Minnesota on both charts ranks in the top group of 15 of those with passports, with New Jersey at the top, while Mississippi and other mostly southern states rank in the bottom. The average is maybe 40% on this list. Why do I even bring this up?

Travel is a topic that many Minnesotans I know avoid. I know one woman who has never been to Chicago. That is only 6.5 hours away, folks, by car. Others have not been to the Black Hills. Some never, or almost never, leave the state – in fact refuse to leave the state. Others fritter away their precious vacation time in individual days. You do find, here in Minne-snapolis, a kind of local patriotism and boosterism, even in people that would never think of themselves that way. Sinclair Lewis wasn’t kidding.

The first travel Minnesotans take is to visit relatives. And that is sometimes the only travel style they take for many years. Other beginning Minnesota travelers sojourn to Vegas, or some beach in Florida. And they return again and again and again. Some people take the same trip in the U.S. every year, or every time they travel, a rut one of my relatives used to live in. The next version of safe travel is the cruise – a packaged event closer to a food orgy, moving hotel and occasional visit to an ‘exotic’ island to shop. This might or might not involve a foreign country. Then there is Canada – but why go there, it’s just like Minnesota, they cry. But some go to the Winnipeg Folk Festival – there is always a contingent of ‘Sotans there, so it might not be just like Minnesota. After all, they have single-payer and a great festival. Then, for cold, winter-bound Minnesotans, there is the flight to Mexico. And that can involve a sheltered ‘all inclusive’ stay at a white-man’s resort, with all your food paid, so you do not even have to venture outside except to the airport. Or it can involve a real visit to another country.

Lack of real knowledge of the rest of the world is peculiar to Americans – given our isolation on one vast continent, with two countries next door that most Americans have still never visited. Many are unable to decipher maps, and are unfamiliar with the history, geography and cultures of other countries, except in the most simple-minded way. There is no doubt that increased nationalism is a product of this isolation.

Beaches seem to be the single focus of many American travelers – and myself, I love a good beach too. Nothing like sitting under a palapa from early morning until evening, food, drink and book in hand, swimming at the ready. However, some don’t think there is any travel outside a beach. It is a beach or nothing. Life’s a ‘beach.’

Rick Steves, that guru of middle-aged American travel, recently gave a talk in town about the politically enlightening affects of travel. Seems he’s been listening to Twain. This is a man who has stood in too many cathedrals in every town in Europe, and offers a simple primer of European culture for Americans. He never misses a local meal. At one time, he was an advocate of cheap and simple travel – and I follow his 1 bag / money-belt prescription to this day. Rick, in spite of his cultivated naiveté, supports single-payer and several other progressive causes. He just shit in his pants recently by breaking out of the European ghetto to visit Turkey – and oh boy, was he excited to be in a Muslim country.

Why do I bring this up, dear reader? Well. I bring this up to encourage the shut-ins to go somewhere. If you are interested in history, or literature, or art, or nature, or architecture, or hiking or music or food or politics or sports or just about anything – travel is like a living book that creates itself. It is not just beaches that deserve a destination. It is simply not true that everything you need to know, or everything that will give you joy, is in your backyard. Because what you will know, eventually, is not much, except your backyard. Republicans like to denigrate travel, and many are proud they have never been out of the U.S. It is a big country and nativists feel it’s big enough for them. Some Repugs don't even travel around the U.S.! Some feel money spent on travel is wasted – because what ‘tangible’ good do you bring back? Indeed? Yet studies of happiness show that ‘experiences’ create far more lasting good effects than buying some item. And travel is always an experience.

Just take history. The U.S. is packed with historical sites – from the Civil War to the ‘old’ West to the Revolution to our writer’s homes. Our own Fort Snelling is one. Or the Laura Ingalls Wilder dugout on Plum Creek in Walnut Grove. Or the memorial to the Sioux in Mankato. Imagine what Europe or other countries have to offer. That is … if you care about history, not just beaches.

I know people who will not travel unless they can go ‘first class.’ As a result, they never go anywhere - because they don’t have a ‘first class’ income. Champagne taste on a beer budget – really an excuse to sit home. However, even older people can travel cheaply – if they don’t have to be pampered like babies. If my broke college-age and post college-age kids can go to Europe, anyone can. So, yes, money is an obstacle, as it will be if you treat it like one. A cherished obstacle, to have and to hold, until death do you part. The real problem is this obstacle will grow as time goes on, as jet fuel and every other travel cost is going up.

Is the most beautiful place in the world the Minnesota north-woods? Well, it is one of the great places, yes, but no. Halong Bay, just west of Hanoi in northern Vietnam, is the most beautiful place in the world. And if not there, perhaps somewhere else.

Red Frog
March 1, 2012

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