Saturday, 25 June 2011

Some Things I Realized Overseas

I love my country.  I'm proud to be an American and I'll never take my freedoms for granted.  That said, I learned a couple of things overseas that I might not have realized in America, at least not this year...

1.  The Answers to My Issues, Problems and Questions.
There is something about being away from everything familiar, away from your possessions, and in a foreign land where you don't know anybody and can't speak the language that makes everything else you've been grappling with in life seem suddenly so clear.  I solved many of the issues, problems and questions that I'd been dealing with my entire adult life on this trip and I came back feeling more grounded, stable and mature.  I'm sure I would have solved many of these issues, problems and questions sooner or later even if I had not traveled, but something about travel speeds up the process 10-fold.  Travel is like intensive psychotherapy.  If you are in a rut, my prescription is to travel somewhere that take you out of your comfort zone.  

2.  Barrack Obama Is an International Superstar.
Love him or hate him, our president's popularity overseas was undeniable.  When I told someone I was American, the usual response was some variant of "I love Obama" (sometimes accompanied with a fist pump).  This happened everywhere I went, from India to the Middle East to north Africa and all over Europe.  When I mentioned the Barrack phenomenon to a conservative friend, she argued that Barrack Obama is only an international superstar because he's weakened America's position in the world.  (As a moderate, I argue that it's equally as likely that Obama's superstar status is a backlash from poor choices made by the George W. Bush regime.)  Either way, it's something to ponder...

3.  First Impressions are Deceiving.
I can't tell you how many times I struck up a conversation with some dirty, toothless guy on a street corner in Bum Fuck No Where only to discover that he had three children, spoke five languages, was an entrepreneur, had a pilot's license, once lived out-of-the-country, had survived a war and a stint in a refugee camp, and the list continues.  Pretty much everyone had a compelling story to tell.  The most compelling stories came from the people I least expected.

4.  Their Stereotypes Are Just as Wrong as Our Stereotypes.
I went in there with some of the usual stereotypes about them (e.g. Muslim women are repressed) but what I didn't anticipate was the stereotypes they had about us.  Apparently, because I am a Westerner I live a lifestyle like The Real Housewives.  (A shopkeeper in Cairo asked me if Daddy was financing my RTW trip.  Umm, excuse me?  It's called a full time job, you idiot.)  Shopkeepers routinely tried to sell Westerners items that were 10 to 20 times more expensive than the local fare.  Some of the prices were downright ridiculous.  (Do you really think I would pay $50 for a nondescript necklace that I could get for $15 back in the States?)  But what really made me livid was the stereotype that Western women are "easy" and an automatic lay.  I met plenty of gentlemen who didn't go there, but there were also scumbags who equated Westerner with Sexual Deviant (the drunk frat girls wearing micro mini skirts and boob baring halter tops on vacay certainly didn't help).

5.  Islam Is a Peaceful Religion.
In Cairo, my Muslim friend, Hend, tried to convince me that Islam was not the corrupt religion I'd pinned it for post 9/11.  I had two objections to Islam when I started this trip:  the supposed second-class treatment of women, and the acts of terror committed in the name of religion.  Hend explained that the Koran preaches tolerance, peacefulness and respect toward women.  In fact, the Koran says that women are equal to men.  When I pointed out that leaders in some Arab nations use Islam to justify second-class treatment of women, she argued that these leaders are misquoting the Koran and that repression of women is a country phenomenon, not a religious phenomenon.  It's the reason why Muslim countries like Turkey and Egypt are incredibly progressive in their treatment of women, whereas women can't even drive a car in Muslim Saudi Arabia.  OK, point taken, it's a country thing not a Muslim thing.  But what about the terrorism?  Again, Hend reiterated that Islam is a tolerant and peaceful religion. "Osama Bin Laden is not a real Muslim," she said.  I heard this point echoed not only be Hend, but by Muslims all over the world on my trip, "Osama Bin Laden is not a real Muslim," "Osama Bin Laden is not one of us,"  "A true Muslim would never do what Osama Bin Laden did."  

6.  Single People are Everywhere.
If you are a single person, I'm sure this fear-mongering tactic has been used on you:  "You better find someone quickly because the longer you wait the harder it's going to be to find someone.  Eventually, you will be so old that there will be no one left to marry."  On the same token, I know people who stay in unhappy, disfunctional relationships because they are too afraid to be single.  For instance, a lady I know has been dating the same guy for over a decade.  She told me that they are not compatible; in fact, living in the same apartment with him has been fraught with problems, but she believes she's invested too much time in the relationship to pull the plug.  "I'm 26," she told me.  "There are no single men my age in the world."  Certainly, people that truly love, understand and tolerate us are not a dime a dozen, and when we find a terrific person we should never take them for granted.  But I disagree with the notion of settling for someone that does not make you happy simply because you think you will never find better or because you think there is no else out there to date.  I met hundreds of decent, single people on this trip.  Some were divorcees, some had ended a long-term dating relationship, some just hadn't found the right person yet.  Not only are there plenty of people out there, but there is great diversity.  Keep living your life and following your dreams, ignore the fear-mongering naysayers, and do not despair.

7.  A Day Can Begin at Night.
So many times on my trip I'd be walking back to my hostel at 5 p.m. thinking what a great day I'd had, how it was winding down now and I was just going to take a shower, write for a few hours, and hit the hay.  Then I'd bump into Franz so-and-so or Franzette so-and-so near my hostel, we'd hit it off and end up having a wonderfully insightful conversation over a glass of wine and some kick-ass cuisine.  A day is precious, and it can surprise you and teach you the most amazing lessons at any hour.  Let yourself be surprised and consider each encounter or scenario as a gift from the universe.

8.  Writing Is Hard
On the trip, I forced myself to write for 3-4 hours every single day.  My writing improved when I made it a habit (in the past I'd only written when I was inspired).  But I also realized that writing is hard.  There were plenty of days where I stared at a blank computer screen or a blank sheet of paper and stared and stared and stared.  I never knew what the finished product was going to look like.  I'd start writing about one topic and realize mid-writing that I really wanted to write about something different (and I'd veer off course).  Sometimes it took me three hours to write a blog entry that took 30 seconds to read.  Writing is not a glamorous job, or as glamorous as it seems.  That said, there is nothing else I'd rather do for a living and I've committed my life to it.  But the act of creating something is difficult; oftentimes it's exceedingly, despairingly difficult.    

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