Ugh, if I heard one more person tell me to "be careful," I was going to lose it. I was packing my bags for my first-ever international speaking gig at the Social Media Masters Forum in Bahrain this past December.
The event, now in its fifth year, brings together a group of social-media experts from around the Middle East and a group of four Americans.
It was my first time visiting the Middle East.
There were high-ranking Bahrani government officials, members of the local news media, a U.N. official, and even the American ambassador in attendance.
Before I left, I posted about how excited I was for the trip on Facebook. I received several congratulatory comments from people, but many of them were accompanied by the words, "be careful." Many others expressed words of greater caution to me in private messages.
I started to second-guess myself. Maybe there was something I was missing? Was I putting myself in danger by going to Bahrain?
I needed to do more research. What I found out was that Bahrain has one of the lowest murder and violent crime rates in the world. I could find zero evidence of Americans being unsafe there.
It turns out that you are far more likely to get murdered anywhere in the U.S. than you are in Bahrain.
Later it dawned on me that all of the people who were telling me to be careful and questioning my decision for going to Bahrain had one thing in common.
None of them had ever actually been to Bahrain!
We are so subjected to the negative stories of war, terrorism, and natural disasters in our coverage of the news in the Middle East and other areas of the world that stereotyping others becomes second nature. We subconsciously begin to assume that much of the world lives in constant chaos because that is what the news subjects us to.
The people of Bahrain were amazing to us. One American friend of mine who was skeptical of the trip had this to say when I told him how well the American speakers were received, "Well, of course they were going to be nice to you at the conference! You were speaking at their event!"
What I told him was this story.
The conference was over, and I had to head to the airport in a few short hours. I had been so busy, I hadn't been able to buy something to take home for my daughters, aged 5 and 9. I hurried off to the local marketplace. It was a busy and bustling environment. I wanted to find something local that we couldn't get in Colorado. It couldn't be too big either, because I didn't have much room in my suitcase.
Shopping is not my thing, and I couldn't find the right gift. It was either too expensive, too cheap, something they already had, not the right size, not the right color (you get the picture).
I stood on the street corner with a look of concern as I knew my time was running out. Just then a local lady approached me and said in perfect English, "Sir, you look lost. Can I help you?" I told her that I wasn't lost, but I couldn't find the right gift for my daughters. She offered to help. So, I told her my requirements.
She said, "Come with me. I know the perfect thing." We walked a couple of blocks over to a jewelry store. My heart started to race; didn't she hear the part about me being on a budget? She came back with these multi-colored jeweled bracelets--think Middle Eastern princess. They were absolutely perfect in every way. She even negotiated in Arabic and got a solid local price for me that was significantly less than the price tag!
I thanked her over and over. However, I felt it wasn't enough. I offered to give her a tip. I at least wanted to give her the money she saved by negotiating. However, she refused to accept it and had this to say, "Keep your money. My tip is that you have a wonderful stay here in my country." I was honestly taken aback by her kindness.
In case you were wondering, my daughters absolutely loved the bracelets.
Can travel really end prejudice?
I believe that travel broadens your perspective. It enables you to view humanity through your own lens, without the filters of the brain-altering headlines in the media.
I found this quote from Mark Twain to be very intriguing.
In his book Innocents Abroad, Twain stated: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
However, can it be proven? As it turns out, there is substantial scientific research that would suggest there indeed is a correlation between travel and lower levels of intolerance and prejudice. Lead researcher Jiyin Cao of Northwestern University conducted five studies across various research methods to determine if there was any validity to Mark Twain's claims.
The studies determined that people who have traveled are more trusting of different types of people. Distance away from home was also a key piece to the correlation. Their findings concluded that people who have visited more places that were different from where they come from were the most trusting and accepting of differences.
When you travel, you will find people who love what you love. Suddenly, differences become petty and insignificant. Your fear of the unknown lessons and your mind opens up.
I encourage everyone to escape their little corner of the earth and travel as often as possible.