When I was a child, the Wizard of Oz played on TV every Easter, and I'd gather with my whole family to watch it. The opening scenes, set in Kansas, are filmed in black and white. Then a tornado sends Dorothy’s house flying, and after it lands there’s this spectacular moment when she opens the door and discovers herself in the brilliant Technicolor world of Oz.
That moment inspired my lifetime of wanderlust. Arriving in a strange land often gives me that same feeling of jaw-dropping surprise and heart-lifting joy. No matter how many times I’ve stepped off a train into an unknown city, I always feel as if I’m stepping onto that yellow brick road in giddy anticipation of astonishing adventures just ahead.
Lots of people prefer more predictable travel, like a week on a beach, and that's a great option when we need to rejuvenate. But sometimes we run the risk of outsourcing our entire travel experience. “I pay top price and expect the best,” an American once told me. “I want to be certain that someone has gone before me every step of the way to make absolutely sure that I’m seeing the best views, eating the best food, and staying at the best hotels.” To me, that sounds like a second-hand vacation. It was the guide who had all the fun of exploring the route, meeting locals, and discovering new ways to engage with the world.
Spending unscripted time with people from a different culture teaches us a lot — including how much we don’t know about each other, how much interesting stuff has been going on, and how completely oblivious we’ve been about it. “That’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned,” says travel author Bill Bryson. “I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.”
As American travel writer and TV host Rick Steves puts it, “The great value of travel is the opportunity it offers you to pry open your hometown blinders and broaden your perspective. And when we implement that world view as citizens of our great nation, we make travel a political act.” In Ten Tips for Traveling as a Political Act he suggests, “Get out of your comfort zone . . . Travel with a goal of good stewardship and a responsibility to be an ambassador to, and for, the entire planet. Think of yourself as a modern-day equivalent of the medieval jester: sent out by the king to learn what's going on outside the walls, then coming home to speak truth to power (even if annoying).”
As a travel writer, I take my role as a modern jester very seriously. I make every effort to entertain and inform, and above all to speak the truth about the many extraordinary countries (including my own) that I explore. Most of the time I have the pleasure of reporting on amusing things that happen in quirky and delightful settings. Occasionally I venture into darker places, such as Auschwitz or old Soviet prisons, and then I give my readers an honest report of what I am seeing, how I’m feeling, and why it matters, with enough context to help us all try to make sense of a world that includes such evil.
Humor can help illuminate the shadows of history. A man in Riga, Latvia, told me about the Corner House, the infamous basement (now a museum) in which the KGB conducted interrogations during the era of mass deportations. “People used to joke, ‘The Corner House has the best view in Riga; from there you can see Siberia.’”
We are all living in times of enormous societal and political upheaval now. And to me, ignoring that new reality when I’m writing about the world would be like describing the lovely carving on the Titanic’s main staircase without mentioning that it is now underwater and about to take a nosedive to the bottom of the sea.
The truth can be uncomfortable, and as Steves points out, some find it annoying. Last week, a reader wrote me:
“It would be best to leave three common topics that cause emotional distress for many readers out of your blog. That would be political opinions, religion and sex. Otherwise I really enjoy your blogs Karen. Happy travel writing!”
Really? She wants me to write about travel without mentioning politics, religion, or sex? What fun is that? I sat there for a moment trying to imagine how I would describe Rome without a single reference to the Catholic Church, Mussolini, or Sophia Loren. That would be like blogging about Oz and leaving out the flying monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West, or discussing the movie Poltergeist without referencing the afterlife.
“Make a broader perspective your favorite souvenir,” advises Rick Steves. “Back home, be evangelical about your newly expanded global viewpoint. Travel shapes who you are. Weave favorite strands of other cultures into the tapestry of your own life. Live your life as if it shapes the world and the future — because it does.” And if you’ll forgive me for mentioning religion again, I say amen to that.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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