It turns out that this year may be an over-the-top, travel year for the Howells, perhaps even surpassing the 2015 around-the-world-no-airplanes adventure. All the credit goes to Embry. I am just a tagalong. Next trips—the Baltic countries this summer when Embry will be joining a choir tour and then a cruise in the fall starting in Ft. Lauderdale, going through the Panama Canal, and ending up in Rio 35 days later with about a dozen stops for excursions in coastal, South American cities. I suppose the motivation behind this is “better do it now, when you can,” which at our advanced ages probably has merit.
So the question of the day is do people learn anything from travel. The answer, for me anyway, is “yes” and here some of the lessons that I have learned:
- Despite our ordeal getting home from Perth, Australia, involving 23 hours in flight and crossing 11 time zones, the world is actually a pretty small place. It is also pretty fragile as most of us are aware as we watch the effects of climate change. Globalism is present almost everywhere. What happens in China and India in the future, for example, will affect us in the U.S. since we breathe the same air. (And the air is already pretty bad in both countries.) In fact they hold the hole cards since about half the world’s population lives in these two countries. We are all linked together on this small, blue planet and damn well better figure out a better way to live together and take better care of the environment, or it’s curtains for all of us.
- People are the same all over the world. By that I mean good and bad, though in my experience, I think, mostly good. We are all humans and subject to the human condition. People who were once our mortal enemies become friends and vice versa. The people we have fought and hated in past years treated us on our travels with kindness and respect—Germans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Italians, and Cambodians. If only we could just skip the wars and move on as friends forever.
- We humans are not only imperfect creatures, we are also herd animals and follow our leaders. A leader makes all the difference—for good or for evil. The Germans had their Hitler, the Russians their Stalin, the Chinese their Mao, the Cambodians their Pol Pot, Spain their Franco, Italy their Mussolini, and France their Napoleon. You could add a bunch more names to the list of bad guys. But you also have Nelson Mandela, Deng Chou Ping, Gorbachev, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Lincoln, our two Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Obama. Leaders make a huge difference. Many more could be added to the list of good leaders, but the current occupant of the White House is not one of them.
- The United States is not anywhere near as great as we think we are. We are way behind most developed countries in a lot of things. Our infrastructure is decaying. Our trains do not run on time. Good public transportation is lacking in many cities. Neighborhoods in many of our cities suffer from disinvestment with boarded up homes, rundown buildings, panhandlers on every block, trash and graffiti everywhere, and in-your-face poverty. Income disparities between the rich and everyone else are increasing, and there is too much poverty. Racism persists. Homelessness continues to be a persistent problem. You don’t find these sorts of things in most developed countries.
- Our safety net is weaker than in most developed countries where there is more affordable access to essentials like health care, day care, preschool, higher education, decent housing, and better paying, low skilled jobs. Gun violence is much lower. Labor unions are stronger. Money does not play as much of a role in politics, and more people vote. This does not mean that other developed countries are perfect or don’t have problems, but the notion that we are number one in practically everything just does not hold water.
- The developing world, of course, is another story. While some progress is being made, poverty abounds in too many countries, and the disparity between the rich and poor countries continues to be way too great. Long term survival of the planet depends on leveling the playing field.
- The United States is also not as great as we need to be. We need to address better the areas where we fall behind the developed world and need to beware of troubling trends. I believe that we are at a crossroads. The Era of Trump is a shot across the bow warning us that many of the things we have taken for granted—welcoming immigrants, a free press, democracy, and a country of laws—are not carved in stone. We could lose what has been the foundation of our country if we are not vigilant. It has happened before in many countries, and it could happen here sooner than we think. How we survive the Trump Era is a major challenge and remains a question mark.
But while the United States is not anywhere near as great as we think we are or need to be, I think we remain the best hope we’ve got on the planet. Since our founding we have been the land of opportunity for distressed people who have immigrated here, and our diversity is extraordinary. Some other countries may technically be more diverse, but it sure doesn’t seem that way to me on my travels. No country has more natural beauty. Our national parks are a world treasure. While we are still battling our horrible legacy of slavery, and racial and ethnic prejudice persist, we are struggling to deal with these issues, often two-steps forward, one back, but we are still trying. People still are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and we have a free, independent press. We have been the world leader in technology and inventing things and we have championed (most of the time) the principles of democracy and freedom, here and elsewhere. Our economy is robust and resilient. Every year thousands of people from other, less fortunate countries still risk their lives to come here. I am always glad to return home. There is no place I would rather live.