We had an interesting conversation last night with a fun young British couple who are on their own 12-month round the world quest. We started sharing stories of China, where we’ve both been, and I drilled them with questions about India and Africa, where we have yet to go. We discussed our motives for leaving it all behind and our loved ones’ responses to our mania. 10 years younger than we are (as most of our fellow RTW’ers seem to be), Jon and Lisa sold their house and left jobs and befuddled friends behind. I must admit there are still days when my competitive, type-A side sweats the financial and career sacrifices we are making in order to do this, but Jon summed up the justification for our adventure succinctly: “Unlike many of the people here (in Vietnam), anything I had before, I can have again.” It might take a while and his new home might be smaller than his last, but he feels the experience he’s gaining now is more valuable than an extra bedroom or a year of career advancement.
Since Jon and Lisa have been on the road for four months (check them out at their website), they’ve met a lot of other travelers along the way. I asked if they’d encountered many Americans and to my surprise they said they had. To my even bigger surprise, however, they said more than a few had denied their nationality in the beginning. It seems there are some Americans who masquerade as Canadians, even going so far as to sew Canadian flag patches on their backpacks to avoid criticism and unwanted attention. I was floored. Tom joked about doing this from a safety perspective before we left, but we never imagined people would actually do it. Our nation’s foreign policy may have been highly unpopular over the past 6 years and we may not always agree with our elected officials, but we would never in a million years imagine denying our citizenship. We live in arguably the greatest nation on the planet, certainly one that affords its citizens the greatest freedoms and opportunities; and a big part of why we are exploring the world is to gain a greater appreciation for the United States rather than to escape it. I felt like I had just discovered Benedict Arnold in my midst; cowards skulking around the world pretending to be from Toronto because doing so avoids difficult questions and disapproving looks. I could understand if Americans were being targeted by assassins at the border and concealing your identity allowed you to live another day (remember the Israelis still stamp a piece of paper, not your passport, so you won’t get harassed in Middle Eastern countries) but these are people who don’t want to defend themselves against European travelers. For shame.
I’ll admit it. Like our grumpy New Zealand driver pointed out, Americans are not a traveling people. Well, at least not an internationally traveling people. Though he claimed 90% don’t hold passports, the real number stands somewhere between 75-85%. At first I thought this was an embarrassment to our nation, but in our three months on the road, I’ve come to see things a little differently. While in New Zealand, I realized that though the country is lovely, it affords it citizens limited opportunities for education and employment. To hop the ocean to Australia or Europe or anywhere else, Kiwis need a passport. Same goes for Aussies, who for the most part are enthusiastic about everything and wouldn’t turn down a passport if it meant they had to miss out on doing something fun somewhere else. For Europeans, passports are a basic necessity. Brits have to leave the country just to get to their favorite beach and those on the continent can’t go more than a few hours in a car or on a train without crossing a border. In the US, we have seemingly limitless educational and professional opportunities within our own borders. We can drive from one ocean to another without leaving the country and have thousands of miles of spectacular and varied terrain to explore in between. Until January 23 of next year, we could even travel to the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico without a passport. With an entire continent at our disposal, why would we spend $95 and a day in line at the post office to get one unless we really needed it?
While I would love for each and every American to be filled with a spirit of discovery and get a chance to explore the world, I know many are content to stay at home and enjoy what they have…and that’s ok. Most of us have everything we’ll ever need to be happy and find meaning in our lives. I should qualify this, however, by saying that those who stay stateside have a duty to seek to understand the world beyond US borders, even from the relative comforts of home. We would be foolish to think that our future is not inextricably linked with the countries that provide our fuel, manufacture our electronics, and finance much of our debt. What’s clear from being out here is that our position on the world stage is tenuous and our power waning. Where we go from here may largely depend on the American public more than its leaders. So for now, I’m going to do my part by proudly proclaiming myself an American wherever I go. I don’t think I’ll get shot, I might end up paying a little more, but at least in the lingo of my boys I’ll “represent.” Hopefully I won’t prove too much of an embarrassment.