What We learned
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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We heard somewhere that travel acquires meaning only upon reflection. Over the last few months as our trip began to wrap up we spent a lot of time thinking about what we had seen, done, and learned during our year on the road and what it all meant. In the last year of globetrotting, we have come to a number of opinionated conclusions.
Note: Please keep in mind that we have spent our lives living in the United States. This has colored the lenses through which we view the world, and tends to focus our attention on how experiences relate to our version of "home".
In our view...
Most people we encountered around the world want the exact same thing: To live in a stable society and have opportunities to better themselves and their families in a safe and wholesome environment. Whether the government in name is socialist, communist, democratic, or dictatorship is only of importance to most people for the degree which it effects the chances of their attaining the above goal. Until you have widespread prosperity, people didn't seem to care what "ism" their government follows.
A few cultures we encountered had a strict social separation of the sexes for the purpose of reducing "immoral behavior", eliminating "lustful thoughts" or in order to "preserve women's dignity". In our observation this seldom worked. It seemed that the more strict the separation of the sexes, the more warped men's view of women, the fewer legal and political rights women were accorded, the greater the marginalization of women, and the fewer economic opportunities women had available. These systems often fostered huge illicit sex industries with brutal exploitation of young women and in our view had quite the opposite of the intended effect of encouraging any type of "morality".
In general, the fewer the outlets and opportunities for locals to be carefree and have "fun" the more antagonistic the society seemed and hostile that local peoples interactions were with us and each other. The locals' happiness usually seemed to have little if any relation to the level of economic prosperity. Usually the "lack of fun" went hand-in-hand with strict separation of the sexes and/or fundamentalist religious practice.
The poorer the nation, the more likely that girl children will get the short end of the stick. In most developing nations, girls are universally the last children to be educated, most likely to be put to work at an early age, and most likely to be the targets of abuse and exploitation.
There is a widespread perception that the United States is a very violent and dangerous place. During conversations when people found out we lived in the New York area and that Todd is a public school teacher, questions were often raised such as: "Have you ever been shot at?" and "Do your students bring weapons to school?" We found this supremely ironic due to the fact that prior to our departure many of our friends and family expressed concern about our safety in traveling outside the USA!
There is a huge misperception amongst Americans that "everybody hates us". This could not be more false. Although George W. Bush and select US foreign policy decisions (Iraq) seem to be universally reviled, this contempt doesn't extend to the populace of the US. The ability to separate politics from people is a skill most people practice. We visited many places that past US foreign policy had inflicted huge tragedies upon but not once were we mistreated as a result. When asked, we never hesitated to tell people we were from the United States and not once did we feel discriminated against or singled out because of it. In fact, it was very common to encounter people who had friends, family, or aspirations to work in the US.
US television(especially cancelled sitcoms, "B" action movies, professional wrestling, and American Idol) is pervasive throughout the world. In seeing the view of the USA that comes across on the media, it is no wonder there is such a warped, superficial, and overly violent perception of what the USA is like.
Colonialism has left an indelible imprint around the world that continues strongly into this age. It is difficult to understate both the positive and negative legacies of imperialism on the religion, language, culture, and interpersonal relations within dozens of far ranging nations.
From our observation, the evidence of religious practice in everyday life was usually inversely proportional to the countries' level of economic prosperity. Generally speaking; the richer the society economically, the more secular that citizens daily life appeared.
Most people are honest and happy to help you. Anonymous people expecting nothing in return assisted us countless times. While traveling, you are far more likely to be swindled or overcharged by cab drivers than anyone else you encounter.
Dramatic economic inequality is the norm in much of the world and makes the division between rich and poor in the USA seem small in comparison. Being at the bottom of the economic ladder in the USA provides a far better quality of life than being "average" in much of the world. Despite this though, in our observation most people we encountered seemed content in the communities and nations in which they lived. In the majority of the places we visited, the bulk of people seemed genuinely happy, comfortable, and rooted in their sense of place.
Western definitions of social graces and courteous manners are in no way worldwide concepts. Waiting in line, holding doors open, not littering, giving personal space, etc. are not universal hallmarks of proper manners. Lack of this protocol does not necessarily imply disrespect to you. After all, "when in Rome..."
In much of the world, cities can be concentrations of misery and squalor. In most of our experiences, smaller cities/towns/villages were far friendlier, better fed, and more likely to be filled with smiling people.
It is impossible to have much economic prosperity for the general population without a lot of modern infrastructure. Without reliable electricity, sewage treatment, maintained roads, and a reliable system of law and order there seemed little else that could develop on any great scale.
Problems like theft, drug abuse, graffiti, and general "seediness" seemed to be far more prevalent in wealthy nations. With only a few exceptions, we usually felt safest in poorer countries, but in over one year on the road we never once felt our personal safety threatened (except for a few scary high-speed taxi rides).
The USA has many things it does very well (such as an incredible road system that is unmatched anywhere) but has other attributes that are woefully inadequate (such as a virtually miniscule amount of efficient and affordable public transportation) even when compared to many very poor nations we visited.
Reading for pleasure does not occur in much of the world. We know that literacy is certainly not universal and books can be costly, but it was very rare for us to encounter local people reading literature or anything other than an occasional local newspaper. Perhaps some if this is due to the fact that very few books seem to be published in local languages. If you can't read in English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese, or Chinese there isn't much published for you to read.
Dental hygiene is not a universal value and is linked to cultural norms rather than economic circumstances. In much of the world, having a set of straight, pearly white teeth is simply not a priority even for those who can easily afford it. Conversely, we've also encountered very poor locales where teeth are essential to personal beauty and are meticulously cared for.