A travel writer reflects on her journey during Global Diversity Awareness Month
By Jennifer Simonson
Social studies was always my favorite subject in school. I loved learning about far-away places, how people lived on the other side of the globe, the ways our cultures were different. It sparked a lifelong desire to explore the world.
My travels have taken me to a small mountain village in Peru where a group of women showed me how they used bugs and plants to dye their clothes before serving me a traditional Peruvian delicacy—Guinea pig. I once spent an evening in a Moroccan cafe talking with a young Muslim woman about her experiences with online dating, and how she believes that God doesn’t care if she covers her head, but she does it anyway to show respect to her parents. On a street corner in Havana I met an aging musician who says he doesn’t agree with American politics, but he loves American people and hopes the two countries can become friends again soon. I watched the evening news in a living room in Nicaragua as news of Ronald Reagan’s death broke. The man who owned the house, still scarred with bullet holes from the Contra War of the 1980s, simply said “I lost a lot of friends because of that man,” before turning away to fix dinner for me.
As Americans we are told certain parts of the world are safe to travel, while we are warned against other parts. Despite this guidance, I have run into anti-American sentiment in places that are generally accepted to be all clear. And in countries with many warnings—with different religions, political systems, places where poverty runs rampant—I have felt quite welcome. By and large, when I travel I am treated like a guest. People are patient with my stilted language as I strike up conversations in markets, at bus stops, by beaches, and on street corners. They’re excited to talk about their culture with a foreign person, and they’re usually curious about who I am and where I come from.
I try to take that attitude home with me. I try to be open, curious, and respectful of other people’s cultures. Not just with people who are visiting my country, but with those in my own community that I might be inclined to stereotype because they have different opinions, a different background, or believe in a different way of life than I do.
As a travel writer, people sometimes ask me for tips. My main piece of advice is just to try and see how people live, at least for a day. Go to the countryside, check out the villages, eat at the local places. Strike up a conversation with anyone around you. Ask them about their life, their family, their culture. Ask them about dating and about food. Try to understand that they’re people, just like you, with the same wishes, fears, curiosities.
Travel has taught me that my assumptions and preconceptions about other people are usually wrong. It has taught me to question those who seem to mean well while they’re telling me which people and what places and what ideas to fear. It has taught me to love my country even more deeply—not just because I was born here, but because I can see it clearly contrasted against other cultures.
Understanding others has taught me not to fear the world around me, but to explore it with an open heart. Truly understanding your next-door neighbor—or someone halfway across the world—starts not with an assumption but a conversation.