Last September I was in a small taxi heading to Lalibela, Ethiopia. Sitting in the front seat taking pictures, my driver asked if I was American. After I said yes, he asked if I thought Donald Trump would be elected President. I said no I did not think he would win. He smiled and said “Good. I don’t think he will like people from Ethiopia.” I assured him that was not the case whoever was president and we drove on. I think about that driver often these days.
A warm welcome on the road to Lalibela, Ethiopia
How is the current political climate of “America First”, impacting international travelers? What is a travel writer to do?
Uncertainty always impacts leisure travel to varying degrees. Travel sales at all price levels rise and fall with the stock market, economic fears, political change and of course terrorism threats or actions. Added to this list now is concern over how Americans are perceived and received abroad after President Trump’s #MAGA victory.
Many writers warn “Do not discuss politics” in your writing. Fearing they will alienate potential customers or readers in this divisive climate, they keep it inspirational and aspirational. Whatever works for them is good, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to share how this elephant in the room is impacting my travel experience.
Whether a writer shares their opinions or not is another matter. Yes, sometimes they are hard to hide and leak through my writing, but I try to keep it more objective. (I know I rarely succeed, but I am human and I live in Washington, D.C.)
Looking out over the Israeli Settlements and Palestinian Villages on the West Bank. Framed by the cannon balls unearthed at Herod’s Palace of Herodium, circa 24 BCE. Trying to understand the past and world we live in.
The current reality is that U.S. politics is the leitmotif of all my travel discussions around the world every day. I thought it would end with the election but it has only intensified. Sometimes overt, sometimes with a wink-wink innuendo, from Kenya to Russia (especially Russia) to Turkey, to Jordan, all conversations begin or end with President Trump. So how to share this new reality with those thinking about travel? Here are a few examples of discussions I have had abroad.
Trying to put it all together. Sometimes coherently, sometimes less so.
In Germany and Jordan, immigration is always a concern. Never confrontationally, but in an inquiring “what do you personally believe” way. In Russia, support for President Putin seems strong from everyone I meet. (As I finish this article I hear about the large demonstrations in Russia–telling me I need to return soon to recalibrate my conclusions.) They don’t understand the American concern about a close relationship between President Trump and President Putin. In all honesty, I did not bring up hacking and wiretapping since they did not.
The bottom line of writing about and promoting international travel is telling what the traveler can expect abroad. Five star hotels, wonderful cruises, private tastings and tours are what I love to experience and share. But I also want my readers to know how I felt on tour and today that means whether I feel welcome around the world.
The reactions may not be what you expect. In fact, I have been shocked at how most strangers I have met since the election go out of their way to meet and welcome me. They are searching for honest open discussions to what they find confusing coverage of the U.S. change in government and direction. I have yet to feel unwelcome or stigmatized as an American traveling around the world in the Trump era. That is what I want to share.
This past month, I was waiting in a Boots pharmacy in London to speak to the pharmacist. The women around me in line were all in hijabs. After one heard me speak she asked if I was American. I said yes and she hugged me and said she was so sorry for what we were all going through in the States. Not the reaction I expected, but then it never is when I travel.
I should also share that every time I pack for a trip, I dread it. I think how much easier it would be to stay home. But once the real and potential traumas of air travel are over and I get settled in a new city, I know why I did not. The discoveries are too tempting, the friendships too warm and the challenges to my previously held notions, much needed. This has not changed since President Trump was elected.
I am not sure if sharing my notes from travel will help anyone make the decision to leave your comfortable home and get to know our neighbors across an ocean, any ocean. But I hope they might.
This year I was honored to be invited to a family dinner on the West Bank, Palestine. I hope my new friends can let me return the favor and visit my home in Washington, D.C. Maybe together we can all make sense of it all.