In my house, we say travel is our vice of choice, which means a voyage takes precedence over trinkets, gadgets, fancy dinners or fashion. Apparently we are not in the majority because in late March, the U.S. Passport office announced that the applications for passports dropped by 25% auguring that many consumers have decided to dedicate their hard earned dollars to other corners of the market.
My neighbors and I are all tightening our belts and staying up nights worrying about mortgages, groceries and college tuition. My little family is not flourishing the way we were a few years back, but still my dreams wander to travel and the huge benefits I accrue from far-flung trips.
I just returned from ten days in Tunisia. This trip was fueled, on the surface, by a writing assignment on a wonderful former fashionista who now works teaching design and business skills to artisans in the developing world. Inspirational stuff right there, but what made it mind expanding and debt worthy, were the conversations I encountered in every corner of the small Islamic country of Tunisia.
Conversation was facilitated because French is a common language. Most Tunisians possess a basic grasp, lingering as a shadow from French colonial times, and I have my exuberant, rudimentary high school Francais. I love to talk and somehow people babble back: shop keepers, taxi drivers, waiters and the artisans in the market. For me this is the miracle of travel.
Yes there are deserted Roman cities, which inspire with efficiency, and the elegance of design from over two thousand years ago. The palimpsests of central heating, non-skid streets, theatrical acoustics and gob-smacking, mosaic beauty are reason enough to travel to Tunisia, but for me it is the conversations that glue us to each other as members of a tribe that is larger than country, religion, gender or ethnicity.
We are human. We long to connect. So when a cab driver in Tunis took me back to my hotel after a day ogling mosaics at the Bardo museum, I was overjoyed when he turned off the engine and asked if we could talk. He wanted to know why Americans have such a negative image of Arab people. Did all Americans really think that all Arabs were terrorists and evil? It was heartbreaking and important.
I told him that many Americans, know that good and bad people populate all countries, all races and all genders. I told him I believed that more things connect us, rather than separate us. Maybe it is conversation in the present tense and the simple vocabulary from which I carefully parse my words, but there was a power to this conversation that doesn’t happen when we banter at a dinner party or yell back at the evening news.
When I was attending the workshops that Aid to Artisans sponsored in Tozeur, a small walled city in the south, I had another opportunity to converse. I rose early one morning and hired a caleche pulled a scrawny horse named Pamela Anderson and driven by Petit Omar.
I had read about the distinctive brickwork that faces many buildings in the medina and the newer city and I wanted to see the brickfields.
So we clomped along talking about farming, and the fancy hotels that had closed down because of the dwindling economy. I learned how dates are hand fertilized, how the lettuces are planted under the massive date trees in the oasis where 200,000 palms flourish. “Is farming like this where you live?” We talked about family farms and factory farms, and as we trotted along a dirt road, little kids and adults waved, yelling OBAMA! OBAMA! They knew I was American and I was happy to be embraced for a potentially positive administration.
When we arrived at the brick fields Pamela Anderson pulled up under a tree. I walked over to inspect the wood forms, but the barefoot worker only wanted to talk about Obama. “ Are you as hopeful as we are?” he asked, “Do you believe this will change the world?” I hedged my bets, as I am not sure what one man can do. I said that, but then I realized that the conversations, which inspired me in EL Kef, Tunis, Dougga, and Tozeur all took, place one on one.
It saddens me that travel is so expensive and often seen as an expendable luxury, because I see travel as the staff of life. For me, money spent traveling comes back ten fold. The lessons learned and the goodness spread returns and multiples back home.