Turn on the news. The stock market is crashing. Syrian refugees, some children, are drowning as they try to flee their war-struck country for Greece, while Greece itself goes bankrupt. ISIS destroyed ancient tombs, two suicide-bombers killed at least 30 people in Cameroon, the Vatican says transgender people can’t be godparents, and on, and on, and on.
Depressed yet? Sure paints a dismal picture of foreign affairs.
But, now, consider the picture the world must have of the United States. Mass shootings at schools and movie theaters, a clerk gets arrested when she refuses to issue gay marriage licenses, inmates and innocent people dead at the hands of cops, and rampant racism.
Recently, 15 percent of Russians polled said they see America as a land of “moral decay,” up from one percent on a similar survey conducted in 1990; 24 percent of people surveyed in 65 nations view America as the greatest threat to world peace.
The horrifying news is enough to make you want to hide under your bed covers, drink whiskey, and rock yourself to sleep at night.
Except that is the opposite of what you should do. Yes, there are real dangers in the world, but the media fails to accurately present the fact that there are billions of people on the planet, and so many of them are not nefarious or extremist, xenophobic or malignant. They are kind. They are welcoming. They are as curious about you as you are about them. But the only way to discover that is to travel and meet them.
“I know people worry when I travel alone but really, it’s a good world despite what you see in the media,” San Francisco based twenty-something Katie Collett tells BTR. After losing her job at the beginning of this summer, Collett decided that instead of plunging headfirst back into the workforce she would take some time off to travel. For six weeks she explored Turkey, Rhodes, Crete, Slovenia, Germany, and Austria–all by herself.
Collett stayed at hostels, cheap hotels, campgrounds, and strangers’ couches, often relying on locals to show her the sights. She reports nothing but kindness from them and emphasizes that not once did she feel unsafe, even in Turkey, a place often portrayed as dangerous.
Earlene Cruz, founder of the company Kitchen Connection which seeks to facilitate cross-cultural recipe sharing amongst home chefs, tells BTR Collett’s summary is akin to her experience solo traveling through Ghana.
“You hear horrible things about the country, but every person I met was incredible and kind,” she says.
Cruz gives the example of the second time she visited the country and accidentally booked an Airbnb she couldn’t afford. By the time she figured out what the real price was, she was already in the host’s car being driven to the property.
After explaining the situation to him and that she couldn’t pay, he took her instead to his personal home where he and his wife let her live for the week for free, feeding her and touring her around their village.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she says. “I saw another culture from the inside, as a local, and realized there was nothing to fear.”
That is one of the main principles behind Kitchen Connection. Cruz hypothesizes that by encouraging people all over the world to connect through food, something that is universal, a benign understanding will grow between disparate countries.
All of this is not to say that tragedy abroad never happens. There is obviously truth to the stories reported on the front page of the paper, and there are people out there that would seek to do you, a stranger, harm. But to assume leaving your own country will go badly is to do yourself the great disservice of never seeing the immense beauty of other cultures.
“Bad things can happen anywhere, including at home,” Collett says. “In fact many countries are safer and have lower crime rates than we [Americans] do.”
Learning about other people by interacting with them tears down the stereotypes and psychological walls that divide us from one another, and while that is certainly not the only way travel opens your mind, it is perhaps the most important.
Featured photo courtesy of Mario Mancuso.