I recently read a post on Adventurous Kate’s blog titled “15 Ways to Leave the Country if Donald Trump Gets Elected.” Like most political pieces, it proved polarizing. In reading the 100+ comments there were a few that shared that they don’t believe travel bloggers should write about politics. They stated that politics and travel have no relation. They couldn’t be more wrong.
A lot of travel bloggers that I follow have been traveling for the last 2-7 years, which means that they’ve only traveled internationally during the Obama administration, which is a presidency that, generally speaking, is pretty well respected overseas. Some of us that are a bit (ahem) older and have been traveling longer may remember what it was like to travel during other presidencies that were much less popular overseas. Personally, having travelled during these times of unpopularity has taught me a few things.
1.Other countries care deeply about and pay attention to American politics.
I never realized how true this was, until I got a crash course in Belfast. Sure, I knew that the United States was a world power, but I didn’t fully understand how much our politics affect other countries. I was surprised when I met a couple Danish girls that had questions about our government and what was current foreign policy at the time. I was floored. I knew nothing about their country, their language, their culture or their government yet they knew just as much as I did about my own country. I suddenly felt very naïve; the world I’d known my whole life was so small. When I embarrassedly admitted to them that I knew nothing about Denmark, they shrugged it off. “We have to know about your country. Everything your government does affects us.”
2. While others might care about American politics, they don’t always understand them.
Let’s be honest though, American politics are confusing. I think the 2000 election is a great example of just how complicated our election process can be. The debate surrounding that outcome was difficult for a lot of people. (Wait, you can win the popular vote and not become president???) Many Americans struggled to really understand the difference between the popular and electoral vote and the history behind why it exists. If our own people are challenged to understand the details of our system, just imagine how complex it would be for someone outside our country.
3. Because some people don’t understand our politics, you’ll be asked to explain.
This can happen in a couple ways. People could be extremely rude and aggressive. When I was backpacking through Europe, my first stop was in Dublin. On my second day there I got a rude awakening about how some people would treat me. I was sitting in the hostel, chatting, when a girl approached me asking in an argumentative tone, “how could you ever possibly vote for Bush?”
People could also be genuinely interested and ask you questions about how our government works. I experienced this when I was living in Spain. One of my fellow teachers would often ask me about different aspects of government and foreign policy, particularly regarding the war. While he was very curious, he also understood that there’s a difference between American politics and American people. He knew that our country was divided and didn’t assume that I supported one side or another.
*I should also note here that in some countries, it’s normal to talk about politics even with strangers. While this may seem strange to Americans since we generally don’t do this (sometimes we don’t even discuss politics with friends or family), when traveling you should prepare yourself to be approached about this topic.
4. Even when you explain, non-Americans may still not understand the how or why of American culture. And therefore, you will sometimes be asked to answer for decisions that were made that you may not personally agree with.
In the example above, this teacher struggled with the fact that the American people had kept Bush in the White House for a 2nd term. He said to me one day, “I understand in 2000, you didn’t know what you were going to get. But in 2004, when you knew who he was, how could the American people keep him in office?”
5. Politics are influenced by a country’s culture.
Who we support, why we support them, whether we’ll go to stand with one candidate or protest another, all has to do with our ideas and beliefs and how strongly we endorse them. The same way that after a year of living in Madrid, I didn’t fully understand the historical or cultural division between Spain and the Basque region, others will need more than a few conversations to understand politics and the culture that has lead to the current strong divide in the United States.
I moved to Spain in 2006, which was a time where there was political tension between our two countries. The Spanish government had supported the United States in war, even though many Spaniards opposed doing so. In 2004, Madrid was bombed by a terrorist group. Three days after the 11-M bombing the incumbent lost the presidential election and shortly after the Spanish government announced they would be pulling their support from the war.
When I moved to Madrid 2 years later, there was still a political rift between our countries. While some Spaniards blamed their own government for supporting the war others blamed the United States for 11-M. I was reminded of this every day when going to work. I’d leave the metro station and pass graffiti that stated: EEUU=11M (The United Stated is responsible for 11-M).
Two years later I moved to Madagascar to serve with the Peace Corps. I didn’t have a TV or radio so I’d asked my sister to text me the results of the 2008 Presidential Election. It turned out to be unnecessary. The next morning when I left my house to walk to work, I was repeatedly stopped in the street by every passerby to congratulate me on our new president. They were ecstatic to have a black president, and one that had family in Kenya. I had a fellow teacher tell me, “With a black president, the United States will care more about Africa now.”
Staying in the U.S. when there’s leadership that you personally disagree with can be challenging, but traveling overseas during this presidency will be a struggle as well. How the rest of the world views our president, government and foreign affairs affects how people react to American travelers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People having questions and feeling comfortable enough to ask gives us the opportunity to start a discussion and to learn from one another. It also shouldn’t keep us from traveling. But it is something that travelers should be aware of, because regardless of where you stand politically, you will occasionally find yourself in uncomfortable situations abroad because of American politics.