Why do I like to travel? Maybe it started with the fact that my parents took me to see many of the country’s national parks before I was twelve. I’ve told many friends that the single most life-changing thing I ever did was to leave the security of Columbus, Georgia at age twenty and enroll at the university in Kiel, Germany. I didn’t know where I was going when I made that move, but I did know what I was getting away from—the prospect of a constricted life in Columbus, Georgia.
Going to Germany was the grand leap into the unknown. It was 1969, the height of the military draft into the Vietnam War. After a year in Germany, I dropped out of the university, losing my student deferment from the draft. But by staying out of the country for three and a half years, until the Vietnam War was over, I avoided ever being served with a draft notice. Thus, I was, in the parlance of those days, a draft evader. At the time, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to return to the US. Luckily, the war and the draft ended, and I was able to return at the end of 1972 without any negative consequences. I know many guys who went to Viet Nam, serving their country honorably. Some of them still suffer from post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD). I’m thankful to this day that I didn’t go to war.
During the three and a half years out of the country, I lived in Sweden, India, and Afghanistan, as well as visiting the many countries in between. I learned that on the most basic level, I’m a survivor. I’ll do whatever is necessary to survive and thrive. I worked at all kinds of jobs. I met all kinds of people. When living in a foreign country, everything and everybody is new. I learned not to be afraid of new people or new languages. I developed my social skills such that I was always able to find a place for myself to work and play.
Where is Home?
When I returned to the states in December of 1972, mine was a classic case of not being able to “go home again”. Home hadn’t changed. I had. I didn’t want to live in Georgia any more. After working and saving money for a half year, my next trip was in my newly purchased VW bus to Mexico and Guatemala, driving up the west coast of Mexico to California. (That VW bus was the longest relationship of my life except for my parents and a few old friends.)
California appealed to me immediately. It felt more like the social environment of Europe insofar, as it was much more culturally and ethnically diverse than the South. Upon returning to Georgia, as quickly as I could, I gathered my meager possessions into my VW bus and moved to California, first to Mendocino (a small town on the northern California coast) and then to Marin County (just north of San Francisco).
The Most Recent Trip
Fast forward to the present, 2012. Susan and I just completed a month-long trip to Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. I had transited Turkey with my German friend, Gert, when we made our overland back-packing-hippie trip together to India in 1971. Turkey has changed greatly, and so have I. It was hard to rediscover the old places and the old feelings. But I still felt the same sense of newness and adventure that I had felt the first time. Of course, the biggest difference this time is that I was traveling with my wife. We could afford to travel in style and stay in nice places, unlike my first trip when I had my few possessions in my backpack and endeavored to spend as little money as humanly possible.
This trip was also my first time since 1971 to spend time in predominantly Moslem countries, Turkey and Jordan. This trip gave me a deeper understanding of the subtleties of different religions’ beliefs, as well as the historical narratives that shaped them. For instance, seeing the crusades, which occurred around 1000-1200, from the Moslem perspective, reveals that the crusades were the absolute low-point of Christianity. Conversion “by the sword” meant that the Christian soldiers killed Jews, Moslems, or anybody that didn’t profess to believe in Jesus, by the thousands. This dark history of the crusades explains why people in the Middle East reacted so violently against George W. Bush’s faux pas of describing the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as being “crusades.”
A wise man I know said: “What is the difference between good Christian values, as opposed to good Jewish values, or good Moslem values, or the typical values promoted by any heartfelt religious orientation? Ninety percent of all religions’ values are the same, dealing with how people should treat each other, how people should show compassion for the poor and sick, how people should try to live as virtuously as possible according the icons of the respective religions, e.g. Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, etc. Instead of celebrating the ninety percent of identical values that all religions have in common, religions fight over their differing dogmas, the rituals and beliefs that comprise the ten percent of religious beliefs that separate one religion from another.”
A Common History
On this recent trip, there were relatively few Christians living in the countries we visited. Turkey and Jordan are predominantly Moslem, while Israel is predominantly Jewish. Moslems and Jews share the beginning books of the bible. They share Abraham as their common ancestor/father. Jews and Moslems share the story that Abraham’s wife was childless, and Abraham needed a male heir. And so, Abraham’s wife encouraged Abraham to impregnate his maidservant, in order to have an heir. This union yielded a son. But unexpectedly, Abraham’s aged wife gave birth to a son. This son and the son with the maidservant are thus half-brothers. One son became the father of the Jewish people and the other of the Arab people. In the Jews’ and Moslems’ respective stories, the roles of Sarah and Hagar (the mothers) and Isaac and Ismael (the sons) are mirror images of each other.
Thus, two of the world’s major religions share a common father, common rituals (e.g. kosher and halal methods of butchering animals), identical dietary restrictions (e.g. no pork), and similar traditional roles for women (fundamentalist Jews and Moslems appear to repress their women in identical fashions). Both religions eschew “idols”, which distinguishes them from the Greeks, Romans, Hindus, and other religions that worshipped many deities manifesting human qualities.
Arab Moslems and Jews coexisted in the Middle East for centuries. Certainly, their rulers incited wars against each other over the centuries. Read the bible about King David and other biblical figures that committed genocide against “heathens” living in the region. Moslems killed Jews as well, a mirror image of the crusaders, converting to Islam “by the sword.” An Indian friend of mine sums up the situation with these choice words: “The children of Abraham are spoiling their father’s garden.”
My Personal Belief
The more I travel, the more I find people to be similar. Human nature is the same everywhere. There are saints and sinners in every religion and nationality, with the vast majority of people falling in between. People around the world share ninety percent of the most basic human values, along with the ten percent of different beliefs and dogmas that become sources of conflict between individuals, tribes, and nations. When religious dogma becomes more important than shared human values, the result is wars and death. The human race faces the challenge of saving itself from its historical pattern of self-destruction.
My life experience has taught me that any specific religious belief is irrelevant as to whether someone is a good person or not. What is important is how a person treats someone who doesn’t believe the same as he/she believes. That is where people live and express the over-arching values that matter, that allow the human race to survive and thrive.