One of the wonderful results of traveling to places is the sense of affinity I now have with that city/state/country. After I’ve been there, whenever I see it in a newspaper or magazine, or hear it discussed in the news, I listen with more rapt attention than I would have before. And, when I am reading a novel, or watching a TV show or movie that is set in that locale, I am that much more tuned in and engaged.
Even history takes on more meaning for me. I was recently reading a biography of Catherine the Great. When the places in Bavaria, Turkey, the Baltics, Poland and across Russia were mentioned, I was personally invested because even though I wasn’t alive during the time being discussed, I have been to those places and felt a sense of kinship with the events that I wouldn’t have felt if they were just names in a history book.
Travel makes the world seem smaller, and more personal. And I love that.
But, beware, this means that even sad, scary or horrific things can feel closer to home.
It is a lot harder to watch a natural or man-made disaster unfolding in an area where I have been. I know it is probably wrong of me, and I should feel just as much empathy for people in places I’ve never visited, but I don’t. In South America, I read the details of all the stories about Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Its not that I don’t care about the rest of the continent, but I usually don’t make it past the headline and first paragraph in stories about the other countries.
The same holds true for me when it comes to Africa. I have been to South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Mali, Senegal (in transit), Ethiopia and Tanzania. I read stories about those countries in detail, imagining the impact taking place on the people I came in contact with. And, it often breaks my heart.
Over the last several months, I have been watching with dismay the events that are unfolding in Mali. When I read about the violence and food shortages, I can picture all the people I met suffering, being scared and hungry. I feel sad, and frustrated that there’s not really anything I can do to help them. They are in my thoughts and prayers.
I have been wearing the jewelry I bought while I was there as some kind of an impotent attempt at solidarity. But alas, I am sitting in my condo in Chicago, sipping my Venti Iced Americano, and planning my next trip to NYC. And so it becomes difficult to pretend I am with them in any real way. But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about and praying for the people I met.
One of the authors I’ve read a lot is Ryszard Kapuściński. He was a Polish journalist, who spent a lot of time traveling through Africa, the Soviet Union, the Middle East and Latin America. I fell in love with his writing. He has a strong voice, and is really able to bring a place to life. I wish I had the courage he had to be in areas of conflict and to report what was happening.
I did some research on Ryszard, and I know that he is not universally loved. There is a lot of controversy about his motives and such. But, I didn’t know any of that when I was reading his books. I judged them based solely on themselves, and I found them riveting and, at times, almost poetic.
I imagine the world that Ryszard knew was very, very small. The more you see the world at large, the smaller it feels. The same conflicts everywhere, caused by the same universal human failings. And the same beautiful moments everywhere, sunrises and sunsets, oceans, lakes, rivers and mountains, peoples’ generous spirits.