I love to travel so much that if someone gave me free airline tickets, I wouldn’t ask where we’re going until the flight attendants finished preflight instructions. That thinking pretty well describes how I quickly accepted an expense-paid trip to Jordan last month from the Jordanian Tourism Board.
I was one of 12 journalists who accepted the invitation because Jordan has an image problem. It’s a problem you understand if the misdeeds of your older sibling ever caused you to be misjudged by a high school teacher.
I use the comparison because Jordan is the near-perfect sibling of its Middle East brothers. They have fallen into disfavor with the travel dollar simply because of their misbehaving siblings, like Syria, Libya and Iraq.
So it came to be, that in days of 75-degree temperatures, my colleagues and I spent a week visiting the biblical sites of Jordan. We saw the area where John the Baptist hung out and where he baptized Jesus. We saw the place where Jesus transferred a man’s demons into a herd of swine. (Turns out pigs can’t fly.)
We visited Petra, which is one of the most unforgettable places on Earth. Located 50 miles south of the Dead Sea, it’s the ancient land of the Edomites, Esau’s descendants. It’s easy to see the wisdom in JTB’s advice: “If you want to follow the Bible, don’t follow modern borders; follow the Jordan River.”
But more impressive than the land, were Jordan’s people, who were respectful, hard-working and faithful to the precepts of their faith. I saw religious diversity and the peaceful coexistence of Muslim mosques and Christian churches. I saw peace. I felt peace and, moreover, I felt personally safe. As JTB had hoped, I could sense the neutrality and beauty that gives Jordan its well-deserved reputation as the Switzerland of the Middle East.
However, this is a spiritual column, not a travel column. So, spiritually speaking, I endorse travel as a way to dismantle our ethnocentricities that have blinded us to our cultural privileges.
And when travel isn’t possible, I can suggest three things that can still widen our cross-cultural understanding.
• Read books, but not just travel books. Read nonfiction about history, religion, cuisine and culture, and include international fiction like “Kite Runner,” “Reading Lolita in Tehran” or works by the increasingly popular Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. These books offer Middle Eastern views that have been hidden by war.
• Meet people from other cultures and countries. Ask your Afghan neighbor to describe life in his country. Get your Sikh veterinarian to talk about his religious holidays. Turn a chance meeting with a Russian barber into an explanation of Russian politics. If you are really daring, visit a Muslim mosque or Sikh temple to find that it’s not so daring after all.
• Finally, and this is my favorite, try the food. Go to a food festival sponsored by the Greek Orthodox or Buddhist congregations or share a meal in a Baha’i temple. In my travels, I’ve eaten everything from rattlesnake and alligator to kangaroo burgers and guinea pig meat. Food is a wonderful test of how ethnocentric your taste buds have become.
By the way, JTB was adept in using food to expose us to Jordanian culture. But, just between us, they didn’t have to stuff me with endless buffets in five-star Jordanian accommodations to make their point. But let’s not tell them that now, shall we? I want to go back.