Travel as Education: Answering the Hard Questions

We’ve been having one of those weekends where almost everyone in the house is ill in one way or another, so instead of getting ready for the holidays we’ve been spending our weekend lying in bed, lying on the couch, lying on the floor and basically just lying around and trying to ignore the pre-Christmas “to do” list. This afternoon my daughter and I were snuggling in bed in my bedroom when she started asking questions about the large panoramic picture of New York City we have over our dresser. I had purchased this picture thirteen years ago when I bought my first apartment and it looks a lot like this one.


Now if you can do basic math you can figure out that thirteen years ago was the end of the year 2000, and the New York City skyline did look exactly like this that year.  Even in a city of skyscrapers like New York, the twin towers dominated the skyline from every angle. So when my daughter and I started talking about our upcoming trip to New York and what we’ll see there, one of the first things she asked was if she could see those two big towers.

“Well, no” I said, “They’re not there any more. They fell down.”

Now anyone who has kids knows what the next question was. “Why, Mommy?”

Why indeed. So my daughter got a brief, clumsy explanation of planes crashing into towers and terrorism and bad people who want to hurt other people and make them feel afraid. It seemed very unsatisfying, but I suppose it would have to. What possible reason could there be for crashing planes filled with hundreds of innocent people into towers filled with thousands of other innocent people? What point could you be trying to make?

And yet when I think of the events of 9/11 I also have to think of the young Palestinians I saw being hassled at border checks between Israel and the West Bank and how I wondered how it would feel to be treated like a criminal in the country where you had lived your whole life and your ancestors had lived for generations. I thought of the thousands of young, under-employed men I saw in the cities of Egypt and Jordan. I thought of the imported foods I saw in Africa and of the anger I would feel as a farmer if I knew foreign governments were subsidizing their own farmers so heavily that my own products could not compete, even in my own country. Of course, none of these things makes killing thousands of people in a terrorist attack any less wrong, but I have to admit, when people asked, “Why are they so angry, why do they hate us?” in the days after the 9/11 attacks, the things I observed on my travels gave me some hint of answers.

Our conversation also made me wonder how my kids’ high school and college social studies classes would some day try to study and understand this era in our history. 9/11 happened seven years before my oldest child was even born. So the events of 2001 and their aftermath will be about the historical equivalent of what the Vietnam War was to my generation. (Did that make you feel old?) Will it make any more sense as time passes?

So how does this relate to travel? Well, while I want to use travel to show my children the beauty of the world, I don’t want to shy away from the places which bring out the tougher questions. That is why we plan to take our children to the memorial at the site of the twin towers when we’re in New York, even though they may not understand much of it. There’s something about seeing a place firsthand that brings a history lesson to life. And just maybe when they’re first introduced to the topic of 9/11 in school they’ll be able to recall the size of the massive holes left in the ground and the streets that were once covered in dust and debris and it will mean a bit more to them.

When you travel, it gets a lot harder to see the world in black and white. I don’t know, maybe that’s why some people avoid travel. If you don’t want your preconceived notions challenged, one of the best things to do is never leave home. And of course some things are black and white, but the answers to the tough questions are rarely as simple as we’d like. For example, Muslims have seen a lot of bad press in North America in the past decade. And of course the fact that the media can usually find at least a small group of young men celebrating and burning American flags whenever anything bad happens to the United States doesn’t help matters. But even a brief trip to most Muslim countries will give you a much broader view. Just like any other place, these countries have some bad people and lots of good, kind, open minded people. And of course, there’s no such thing as a “typical” Muslim country. I’ve been to West Africa, Jordan, Turkey and Malaysia and comparing them would be like saying that Brazil, Ireland and the Philippines can be painted with the same brush because they’re all Catholic.

So I hope that my kids will keep asking hard questions about the places that we visit and that I will be able to take them to the places that aren’t pretty. And hopefully when they’re older and they encounter people who cling to their stereotypes about the world they will be able to have the experience and knowledge to avoid the easy answers and embrace the complexity of the world.


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