Standing With Ukraine
I have been roaming the world for more than four decades, and each trip has manifested one simple truth: At its heart, travel is about connection.
Whenever we venture into a foreign setting, we may at first feel displaced, uneasy, ignorant about what to say or how to act. But as moments stretch into days, we experience just how similar we are to these people that had been foreign to us. We come to understand their daily rituals, foods, entertainments, beliefs. We learn to read their body language, recognize their cultural cues. We connect.
And when we make these connections, something life-transforming happens: We understand that despite differences in economic background, religious belief, and cultural tradition, we all share the same needs and dreams. We understand that despite what seemed to be daunting differences, we are basically part of one human family, all living together in our big blue-and-green home.
I wrote these ideas five years ago, in an essay called “The Importance of Travel in Turbulent (And Not So Turbulent) Times,” yet they have felt blazingly relevant to me this week as I have watched news reports from Ukraine: images of bombs and blasted buildings, people crowding desperately into train stations or queuing endlessly on the approaches to borders, civilians taking up arms, preparing Molotov cocktails, and vowing to fight for their freedom at all costs. Like so many people around the world, I have felt a surge of incredulousness and outrage at the same time. How can this be happening in 2022?
As the scenes of suffering, desperation, and destruction have accumulated and expanded, day by day, I have felt shaken to my very core.
A lifetime of world-wandering has taught me to believe in humankind, to believe that humans are fundamentally good and kind and caring about their fellow human beings.
Those wanderings have also taught me to believe that travel is the best hope for the human race, that by seeding understanding and nurturing compassion, travel paves the pathway to world peace.
But all week I have been asking myself, how do these beliefs reconcile with what is happening in Ukraine right now? And how can these beliefs help me figure out the best way to respond?
After days of mental mazing, I finally decided to just listen to my heart, and this is what my heart told me:
Recognize and denounce the fundamental injustice of this attack.
Do whatever you can to support the people of Ukraine and the free government of Ukraine. Support organizations that are providing assistance to Ukraine, from humanitarian aid to medical assistance to independent journalism. And press your own government leaders to do everything they can to end this invasion.
Pray—and by this I mean, keep streaming an indomitable wave of energy into the atmosphere—that the resistance of the incredibly brave Ukrainians and the countermeasures imposed by the NATO countries and others working in concert with them will put an end to this attack.
And spread the gospel of travel. This assault on the free, sovereign nation of Ukraine is the antithesis of the ideals that travel embodies: respect, appreciation, understanding, connection, cooperation. And one way to combat the kind of autocratic ambition behind this assault is to build bridges of understanding and connection around the world.
Two decades ago, when I was the Global Travel Editor at Lonely Planet, I conceived an eminently idealistic and impractical proposal called The Thousand Dinners Project. My idea was to take 500 American families and match them with 500 families from whichever nation was our country’s enemy du jour. Fly these families from the US to their counterparts’ home and have them spend a day together, going to the market, deciding what to have for dinner, then preparing and eating the meal, together. Then do the same in the US.
My dream was that this kind of on-the-ground interaction would teach these families what travel has always taught me: that ultimately we’re much more alike than we are unalike. And then, I hoped, these families would go home and tell their neighbors how nice those Americans turned out to be, and how they were really so similar to us, and then their neighbors would tell others, and gradually, gradually, the lies of their leaders would lose their hold.
Now, as I think of all the lives, Russian as well as Ukrainian, that are being lost in this conflict, that dream comes back to me.
And I return to that essay I wrote five years ago, which ended with these thoughts:
That’s why travel is more important now than ever. Each of us, as a citizen-ambassador, has a crucial role to play in the world today. Travel is a two-way street: When we journey to unfamiliar places, not only do we gather information about the places we visit and the people we encounter, we also disseminate news about our homelands to the people we meet. We embody information and impart news in everything we say and everything we do. We become representatives of and ambassadors for the places we come from and return to—and in a larger sense, we become ambassadors for the human race.
Right now, when the world is wracked with division, it may be tempting to stay home. But this is precisely when we most need to travel, to weave the global threads of connection that bind us. We have much to teach each other, much to learn from one another; we have a precious opportunity to raise a banner of hope and unity. We hold the future of our planet in our hearts, minds, and hands.
These words stir me just as much now as when I first wrote them. And at a time when despair fills the air, they infuse a ray of hope.
Let us do everything we can to help the people of Ukraine as they resist the forces of usurpation and annexation. And let us travel with purpose and passion, forging bonds of friendship and understanding around the globe. Travel can be a kind of resistance too. As citizen-ambassadors for Ukraine and all freedom-loving people everywhere, let us sow seeds of peace and freedom wherever we go.
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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What have you been thinking as these events unfold? What has your heart been telling you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thank you!