There’s no doubt about it: 2016 has been a difficult year. With the ongoing refugee crisis, continued attacks of ISIS in the Middle East and Europe, and continued volatility and instability across whole swathes of the world making many places a no go area, it would be easy to throw up your hands at the state of the world and despair. With further fallout from Brexit, the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House, and the far right casting an ominous shadow over many European countries that are holding elections next year, it can be hard to feel optimistic about what 2017 has in store, too.
You know all this, of course, and you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about it on a travel blog, beyond the obvious point that such turmoil has a knock-on effect on where and how you are able to travel in more ways than one. There are plenty of places online where you can read about the practical implications of being, say, a Muslim who was hoping to visit the USA, or a British citizen fretting about the implications of Brexit on their freedom of movement with Europe. Here, I want to look at it from a slightly different angle, starting with some wise words once written by Vance, a friend of mine:
“I firmly believe travel is a requirement to straighten this world out — getting out and digging up common ground with others teaches that we are rather similar with no need to quarrel.”
Beautifully and concisely put, and says it all really. Done the right way – ethically, responsibly, and with as many selfless intentions as you can have – travel can indeed be a great teacher and healer. In a world where it sometimes feels like more and more people are subscribing to divisive, insular, ‘us and them’ rhetoric, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that there really are more people out there who can see past the barriers and share in our common humanity than you might think. Travel can open your eyes to that.
Case in point, the recent project I was fortunate enough to be a part of in Tanzania. Getting involved in such a project is undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. A two-year long labour of love that culminated in leaving a long-lasting and tangible gift to a remarkable group of young people. I’m being totally sincere when I say they are remarkable. The hardships they have faced in their life are almost too upsetting to think about, and yet they are so happy and uncomplaining. The humbling hours we spent in their company taught us much; not least that they were not so ‘other’ as we thought. We did, indeed, find common ground to dig up.
I try to stay down to earth about what I was involved in Tanzania this past summer. We’re not kidding ourselves that building a library for one School in one area on the outskirts of Moshi is going to change the world. Nor do we think that it is going to automatically solve all the ongoing issues that the children of the School face. But we know for sure that they are truly grateful for their library, and that many of them will benefit from the new worlds and possibilities that it will open up to them too.
As I’ve said before, this project didn’t just change the lives of the kids in Tanzania. The 14 teenage girls we took out there had their eyes opened very wide to a world beyond that which they experience within the narrow confines of a privileged and sheltered upbringing. That, by the way, is not meant as a slight on them at all. They can’t choose the life they’re born in to any more than those of the children who stole their hearts out in Tanzania can. But the exposure they had to a culture they’d previously thought alien did, I think, change them and their outlook for the better. The lessons they will take with them from this experience gives me hope for what they might be able to do to shape the world in the future.
Not everyone can travel. It is a privilege, not a right, and as much as the impoverished of Tanzania can’t travel, neither can many in my own country, or many other ‘first world’ equivalents. It is important to note that many of those who, say, voted for Trump are disenfranchised and alienated for reasons and circumstances that, often, prevent them from travelling like many of us can. Which is why those of us who can travel must never, ever take it for granted; and nor should we shun those who cannot.
I certainly don’t claim to have the answers on where we go from here. The best I can do is look to the simple, straightforward, almost innocent goodness that I witnessed and experienced in Tanzania this past summer. I saw the best of what humanity is capable of, and it made me believe that we can do better than recent events have suggested. I look forward to 2017 and all the storms we may (or hopefully may not) have to weather with faith and hope in humanity. I simply have to.
And if travel has only taught me to do one thing, it’s that.