Last summer, I attended the TED Global conference in Oxford, England. As you may know, the TED conferences, which originally focused on technology, entertainment, and design, attract innovative thinkers in science, business, the arts, and global issues, each of whom presents a big idea in just 18 minutes. (My favorites: architect Bjarke Ingels’s sustainable and playful designs, environmentalist Lewis Gordon Pugh’s North Pole swim, and songwriter Imogen Heap’s powerful singing.)
At the end of the conference, I found myself talking to Michael, an engineer from the Netherlands. I said I was from the States and told him about Afar, explaining that it’s about travel as a way to connect with other people and other cultures. Michael stared at me and asked, “And the magazine is for Americans?” When I said yes, he remarked with a grin, “But Americans don’t travel that way.”
I laughed, but I wasn’t surprised. I’ve heard reactions like Michael’s before. I laughed because his comment was funny the way caricatures always are: It was an exaggeration based in reality. Which made the joke both funny and sad.
You know the stereotype Michael was poking fun at: the Yank who elbows people aside to get the best photo at Buckingham Palace; who makes no effort to say “Grazie” to an Italian waiter; who demands ketchup instead of mayo on Belgian fries. The tourist who thinks the whole world should emulate the United States. Watch a bunch of Americans tramping through an ancient city with eyes glued to the viewfinders of their video cameras, and there’s your caricature. The rest of the world finds us, as a crowd, arrogant and narrow-minded.
But my friend Michael, a world traveler himself, knows that many Americans do travel the Afar way. More and more of us journey abroad to learn about other perspectives and ideas. More and more of us see ourselves as not just United States citizens but world citizens. When people like Michael meet us one-on-one, they are often surprised by how interested, curious, and considerate we can be. And that, of course, is one of the advantages of traveling experientially. Not only do we come to understand others in a deeper and more personal way, but the people we meet also connect with us as individuals, distinct from the blundering herd.
Afar is for Americans who aren’t part of the close-minded crowd—people like you. So tell us: What new understanding did you bring back from your last trip? When did you first see yourself as a global citizen? Have you changed someone’s mind about the American traveler?
Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. And thank you for taking us along on your journey.
FOUNDER & CEO
This appeared in the December/January 2010 issue of AFAR Magazine