Essay - Parker Sims

Parker Sims was on the 2001 adventure, went to UC Berkeley. Degrees were in Socology and Mass Communications. Is a popular singer and performed in cappella groups and a "10-piece funk band" in college. Next, along with Arete veterans like Anne Sellery, Sararose Anderson, Jenny LaPlante, Dory Weston and others, Parker began his career in advertising in New York City. He is with the firm of Ogilvy & Mather. The former MCAL half mile champion lives in Manhattan, tells of running along the Hudson instead of around Bon Tempe lake.

Bill Taylor

Only 24% of Americans have a passport. That is, of the 298.7 million people living in the United States, roughly 72.7 million have found at least one occasion to visit another country in the last ten years. People are surprised by this figure in one of two ways. They either find the figure tremendously low, or they are astonished even that many US passports exist. Consensus around the world tends towards the latter opinion, with the presumptive percentage of passport holders in the US anywhere between 18 and 5 percent. So, I suppose we get a big pat on the back for surprising the doubters. But regardless of the facts (as reported by the US State Department) belief around the world is most Americans do not travel.

Big deal, right? We like where we live, we know what we know, and we don’t need to see any other country ‘cause we know we live in the best. And some wonder why anti-American sentiments abound.

Of course, I realize I am preaching to the choir, but I think it is important to understand how privileged we are, to have been blessed with the gift of travel. Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness are byproducts of fear. In an increasingly polarizing and segmenting world, the biggest obstacle we as world citizens will have to overcome is this fear. When we no longer fear one another, it opens the doors of communication and cooperation. If we continue to live in fear, we will increasingly retreat to our small “corner of the earth” because we understand it and feel safe there, which will only further our fear for anything and anyone who lies outside our own borders. However, to overcome fear, we will have to first learn to be tolerant. There will be no peace between people if there is no mutual tolerance for one another. But in order to become tolerant, we must overcome misunderstanding. And to overcome misunderstanding we must learn of one another. And in order to learn, we must travel.

Travel as learning I think is lost on many Americans. Certainly, there are others in the world that could benefit from “getting out more,” but the people of the US are whom I feel I am best suited to address, since I unavoidably speak as one. Of the Americans who do travel internationally, I worry they often miss the educational opportunity. They come equipped only with cameras and souvenir money, with open wallets and open shutters, but nary open minds. We have all been a “tourist” at one point or another, and we all know the escape that comes with being in a new beautiful place with 3 rolls of 35mm film to fill. The phrase “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind. Yet, for as much as we enjoy looking up and around at the scenery, we as tourists often miss the stuff in front of us: the people. Too often tourists are content seeing the backs of their tour group’s heads rather than the faces of locals walking towards them. This retreat from local interaction cheats the visitor of real human contact, of beginning to understand another culture, and of overcoming their possible fear and misunderstanding of it. We remain in our tour groups because it is fun and safe. Everyone speaks the same language, everyone gets to see the same great things, and there are little, if any, awkward interactions (God forbid!) with the non-English-speaking natives. A tour group becomes a portable home: a traveling, isolated comfort zone void of organic contact with a place’s character. And thus the rift between cultures subsists, and no learning takes place.

Aside from this affliction of “tourist-itis,” the more practical problem of international travel as learning is the expense of it. If I had to guess, based on the percentage of passport holders, I would say only 25% of Americans can afford, or are willing to spend, $1,000 a week overseas. However, international travel is not the end all; domestic travel is equally important. How can we hope to reconcile our international differences when we still have such ideological stratification and economic polarization within our own borders? It is just as important to understand our neighbors in the Midwest as our friends in the Middle East. And sorry to say, simply reading of different cultures, international and national, will not cut it. One has to get their hands dirty. One can read as many books as they want about the history and culture of a place, but will never “get it” until they have been there. Study all you want about the Middle East, but you cannot possibly understand it until you have walked among them. By that same token, read all you can on life in the ghettoes and the disadvantaged living in the US, but you cannot comprehend their lives until you have been there. Education alone cannot be a solution to “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” It helps, but it certainly does not paint the whole picture. To truly engage in a culture, one must walk its paths, breathe its air, and interact with its people.

So my appeal to all Americans, and the world over, is to walk around a bit. We need to break down the walls of our comfort zones because they are only made of fear and misunderstanding. We need to let down our guards and allow ourselves to get lost. The intangible glory of travel is found when you wander the unbeaten path, unguided, unaided. Getting lost in a new place forces one to abandon inhibitions and embrace one’s surroundings. Your comfort zone is miles away, and when your feet are on the ground, it is as if you are no longer a visitor. It boils down to trust. Trust that when you leave your home, you will eventually return safe. Trust that when you are lost, there will be no shortage of people willing to point you in the right direction. Travel opens the doors to this kind of trust, because it is when you are in a foreign place, and most vulnerable, that you learn the true, good nature of people. And with trust comes respect, and we could certainly use a lot more of that. We 24% of passport-wielding Americans must set an example and lead the way into a new world that is free of misunderstanding, intolerance, and fear, and instead rich with respect and friendship.

Parker Sims
June 2006