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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Travel as a Political Act

I found a book with that title in my sister’s cabin last May and just now have finished it. Someone gave it to her before she went to Cuba near the end of the Obama administration, so I was surprised that “Resurrection in El Salvador” is the only Latin American country included. That’s typical of Rick Steves, though: if you watch his television documentaries, you know he doesn’t like the restricted tours that have been pretty much mandatory in Cuba. Of course, he originally made his living by guiding European tourists, but…

Hubby and I certainly join him in seeing travel as a political act – but then again, everything is political. We have visited all fifty states and some two dozen foreign nations, and we’ve always been travelers, not tourists. We’ve never gone on a pre-arranged tour -- except when necessary, as with the DMZ that separates the Koreas. This personal preference is mostly because we like to stay up late and sleep late, and so we don’t want to commit ourselves to a schedule. We take guidebooks and have a general outline in our heads of destinations, but we like to be free to go on or to stay longer, depending on what we find. With just a little caution on such things as once-a-week ferries, we’ve found that a lack of planning has been a negative only a few times.

There was the summer night when we had to sleep in the car because we hadn’t made reservations in the French town whose cathedral we wanted to see the next day. And there was the time in Costa Rica when our daughter and I had to get out of our rented Honda and check for rocks that might be hidden in two low rivers that had no bridges. The same map that took us to that danger also failed to warn us that the unpaved mountain road had peaks so high that the Honda could not handle them. We pushed as Hubby gunned the engine up to the top of the next hill, and then joined him as the car careened back down.

The road ended at the Pacific Ocean, where we found a lovely resort that we decided belonged to fascists who had fled Germany after World War II. We decided that by observation, not conversation with them. Backed by some knowledge of an area’s history, observation is the most important skill to enable travel in places where tourists are few. We rent a car and leave the airport city as soon as possible because more and more, cities are alike. That used to be less true. I’m remembering back in the 1970s when we sought out a McDonald’s in Amsterdam to use the restroom and were shocked to discover that this cost fifty cents. Of course, some cities are less alike than others. Those in Eastern Europe still are unlike home and can provide the learning experience that we seek.

Travel as a Political Act, Part II

We differ from Rick Steves that his chief objective is talking with the world’s various peoples – but therefore he travels with a translator or two, plus his film crew, and that would defeat our objective of not being bound by others. So even though conversation with strangers is limited, we prefer to stumble along with a few words in the local language and a pocket dictionary. Variations of café, hotel, and museums are everywhere, and as long as you have those, you have everything. You won’t starve, even if it does take twelve hours to go two hundred miles on muddy “highways” in Latvia. But because this discomfort was near the summer solstice, we had the unexpected opportunity to experience twilight all night long.

Our main aim in getting off the well-traveled road is to see what the farmers are doing. They do everything from mowing grass on roofs in Norway to drying peppers on roofs in Hungary. In Morocco, farmers stand near the road selling anything from chickens to cheese. One I never shall forget was a woman who had cleverly made a straw hat for her donkey, complete with holes for its ears and trimmed with artificial flowers -- but she went into hysterics when she saw my camera. We finally managed to find a young man who was willing to risk his soul for $5; he even grinned as I snapped a shot of him and his goat. That was before digital, so I couldn’t show him the result, but I’m sure his soul didn’t immediately exit his body. I wonder if there still is anyone in Morocco who believes that. The world is changing so quickly that I’m glad I saw some of it before it is gone.

Redistribute the Land?

Rick Steves can get a bit preachy about his intolerance of intolerant people, but we share most political views. We both were brought up Norwegian Lutheran, and I wish I could emulate him in donating my (non-existent) royalties to Bread for the World. He not only is empathic and kind, but also has an uncommon way of recognizing the natural intertwine of politics and religion. I’m going to quote a sidebar in the chapter on El Salvador, which is recovering from the fascist regime our CIA created there in the 1980s. Titled “The Jubilee Year,” this is a good example of the way that Steves’ writing forces new thoughts:

In the Bible, God calls for a Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25:10) every fifty years. The land is to be redistributed and debts are to be forgiven. Perhaps God figured that given human greed, it takes about fifty years for economic injustice to build to a point that drives a society to violence. Rich Christians can’t imagine God was serious. But the sad modern history of El Salvador shows the wisdom in the Biblical Jubilee Year… The 1830s, 1881, 1932, the 1980s – during the last two centuries, El Salvador has endured a slaughter every fifty years.

I checked out Leviticus, and the verses near 25:10 have much detail about how land is to be redistributed and debt wiped out. Other nearby verses strongly imply that slaves should be freed, and several definitely command that land should lie fallow for a year. Verse 11 even bans eating grapes from vineyards during the Jubilee Year. Both that book of the Bible and Deuteronomy have lots of rules we regularly break, including bans on weaving cloth with mixed fibers. Leviticus’ root is “law,” but for a long time now, we have been picking and choosing which laws we will obey.

“El Salvador,” of course, translates as “The Savior.” Spanish Catholics named it that about 1,500 years after the Bible spoke of Persia, the modern Iran. I’ve never been there, so I found that chapter especially insightful. After attending prayers in a mosque, he wrote:

It occurred to me that the segregation of the sexes – men in the center and women behind a giant hanging carpet at the side – contributes to the negative image many Western Christians have of Islam. Then, playing the old anthropologist’s game of changing my perspective, I considered how the predominantly male-led Christian services that I’m so comfortable with could be edited to look ominous to those unfamiliar with the rituals. At important Catholic masses, you’ll see a dozen priests – all male – in robes. The leader of a billion Catholics is chosen in a secretive, ritual-filled gathering of old men in strange hats with incense and the ceremonial drinking of human blood. It could be filled with majesty, or with menace – depending on what you show and how you show it.

Times Change, but Birds and Butterflies Carry On

My own mother remembered when her father sat on one side of her German Lutheran Church, while she, her mother, and others of their eventual twelve children sat on the other. This was true in other Protestant denominations, too. Tampa women issued a protest about that -- not against gender separation, but because the pews in the town’s first church, a Methodist one, weren’t big enough to accommodate both children and the era’s voluminous skirts. It’s also notable that there was no gender segregation in Catholic churches because, in the early days, they had no pews. Everyone stood during mass.

Religious belief is indeed at the heart of almost everything, especially politics, so you won’t be surprised that I thought the best chapter was “Israelis and Palestinians: Who’s Right, Who’s Wrong, Who Knows?”

My Holy Land trip had the best possible outcome: It challenged my preconceptions. I learned that people whose language always sounded like terrorists conspiring are actually gentle souls with big challenges. And it taught me two sure things: Violence doesn’t work, and neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going to move. The only workable road is one of peaceful coexistence. It’s clear to me that if you care about the future of Israel, you must find a viable solution for Palestine. Creating security, dignity, and independence for Palestine is actually in Israel’s best interest… Hearing both narratives, I can envision a peaceful and prosperous Holy Land – with a secure Israel and a free Palestine.

Finally, while I’ve been writing this, I took breaks to watch a hummingbird and a butterfly feeding from the bright red blossoms of the cardinal flower outside my study window. The plant is big, but even if it weren’t, there would be no competition between these two. Why can’t “higher” species behave with similar coexistence?


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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