Sometimes Travel Isn’t the Cure-All

Travelers like to list all the benefits and improvements to life that come with traveling. And surely there are many reasons, or there wouldn’t be such words as “wanderlust” or “fernweh” …The longing to be somewhere far away.

I wrote a blog post five years ago, in November of 2010 while we lived in Ghana: 26 Reasons Why I Travel

Reason #26:  To travel is to learn to love and to tolerate the wonderful differences of others.

Today I’m writing about how that’s true..sometimes. But what about, Jacob and I have noticed, when your prejudices are actually exacerbated by traveling?

It’s not something I’ve ever read about, but I can tell you that it can happen. You can visit a country and actually walk away with a more negative impression of its people than you had before you came.

I’m reminded of this because we hosted three pairs of people this weekend couchsurfing. One from Swizerland, one from France, and one from Argentina. I literally almost didn’t give them a chance after seeing France and Argentina on their profiles. But, I changed my mind and now I have to admit to myself: as a traveler, I still negatively stereotype. I am not prejudice-free. And sometimes travel reinforces or creates stereotypes, rather than removes them, especially if you already come prepared to be biased.

Labels don’t have to mean anything. Even when someone labels themselves a certain way, it’s still important to dig deeper.

My idea of French people: snooty, particular, finicky, not warm, shallow. I have been to France twice, and developed this opinion based on some few experiences. Is it fair to classify an entire nation on this idea? No. Mileage can vary.

My idea of Argentina: Based a lot on our experience in Buenos Aires, which was certainly soured by the attempted robbery on our initial arrival detailed here -I left the country deciding Argentina was somehow subpar to other Latin American countries-that they felt superior and more European but they weren’t really at all.

Impressions like these are fair enough-I mean I can’t really control the initial perceptions when arriving to a country-but for me to then view all Argentinans a certain way because of the experiences we had there for one month isn’t fair. Stereotypes might happen for a reason: we aren’t the only ones who have experienced a very aggressive and intense Morocco, for example. But this should not predetermine my experience with every Moroccan from here on out.

This weekend I got to face those impressions with people who were genuinely kind and interested in sharing their country with us. One asked me, “So what do you think of French people?” I stumbled in my reply. I never want to have an inability to rave about the people of a given country. Couchsurfing has the ability to rectify any negative feelings towards a culture or country. Although it probably takes more than an evening or two together, it can open one’s mind, and that’s a huge step.

The French girls gave me an Eiffel Tower magnet and wrote a nice note. The couple from Buenos Aires cooked us dinner, shared a mate ceremony and postcard, and played us folk music.

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So my takeaway: There are good people everywhere, friends everywhere. Labels are limiting. Religion, ethnicity, gender, home country does not say who a person is on the inside, and as a traveler, one or two experiences in a given place or with a type of religion do not determine permanently how to view a certain person.

To try to see it from their eyes-to see how some countries value certain things over others, not making them better or worse but with different values-can help prevent demonization. For example, the Americans have a stereotype to always be in a hurry. But on the flip side, Americans often are very productive and efficient. Like I wrote in my last post, the worst things about people and places are also their best. Acknowledging the benefits of a country’s values and culture can help combat the negative stereotyping and labeling.

There will always be some values/places/cultures that I prefer personally over others. But to see a culture or person as they see themselves is a loving gift to give to anyone.

It’s really easy to see the biases of others, but equally difficult to turn the mirror back at ourselves and see our own biases.

Suggestion: If you have a problem or negative perception of a group of people, join couchsurfing and host them in your home!

Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 364 awesome articles for us.

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