Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Other 96%

"Traveling enables us to see the world through the eyes of someone else... to understand their aspirations and assumptions. It’s about empathy, which is not only important to the work of our diplomats but to all of us as we seek to understand different cultures as well as our own." - John Kerry.

Yes, that's right folks. I just opened with a John Kerry quote. For those of you that know me, you can now get back into your chair. Let's just say I think the guy is better at being a diplomat than he is at picking presidential running mates. In any case, there is a lot of wisdom in those few words. If you are keeping track at home, it was now 2011 and I've passed country number ten in my travels. At this point, traveling had begun to shape who I was. Yes, it's fun. It gets you miles away from the stress of everyday life both physically and mentally. It's like a giant weekend where Mondays blur with Wednesdays and Saturdays are the same as Tuesdays. But greater than all that: it's an education. It's a glimpse into how beautiful this world is. The Andes have stories to tell, but so does Argelia, the banana farmer whose entire life has revolved within the 10 mile radius of her modest mountain home. St Peter's basilica in Rome provides an education unmatched anywhere else in art, architecture and church history - but so does DavĂ­d, the sophomore at La Sapienza who never realized that God was more than an impressive building and a tradition to follow.

A time or two when on my travels I've forgotten what a privilege I've had. I've foolishly asked a local in small town in making small talk "So, where have you traveled?" only to be met by a polite but revealing chuckle and smile followed by a response of "I don't travel," or even "we don't travel," "we" meaning everyone they know or will ever know in their small village. Every once in a while I'd meet someone that with a radiant smile on their face would claim they had plans one day to go to university in America, or that they had a friend of a friend that told them stories once of what it was like to look at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Usually after this I'd become slightly embarrassed, begin to connect the dots, and realize that the money I was spending on my trip was the per capita income of their country. Do they travel? Of course not. They survive... They live. But many of them live well - existing in a world where money is not an idol, it's just something that keeps the lights on and food on the table. It was in times like these that the statistics you hear become tangible: according to the Global Rich List and Investopedia.com, anyone that makes more than $32,400 annually is in the top 1% of the world's wage earners. Let me do that math for you: that's $15.52 an hour. I'm not going to get political here, but that is presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' proposal for a federal minimum wage standard. Yes, that's right: that means that by federal mandate, the entire USA would be among the top 1% of the wage earners of the world. Just food for thought.

In any case, The privilege that we have here is really nothing short of stunning. It's one we easily forget or choose to ignore...and it's exactly this ignorance that causes many to lose sight of some really basic and important things. I don't want to be the one to tell the girl in Sapa, Vietnam that she should forget about university in the USA, because by the time the paperwork clears (if it ever does) she'll be too old anyway. And I certainly don't want to tell the boy in the market in Morocco that if he ever wanted to find a better life in America that there's a chance he may be turned away because of the religion he follows. That's not America.

John Kerry was right: if we keep our eyes open, we can in some small way glimpse the lives of others while traveling abroad. If you really stop to listen, they have lessons to teach. They have stories to tell. They represent the other 96% of the human experience, and to ignore their voices is to ignore the reality of what it is to be a citizen of this planet.

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