MAXWELL:  Going to difficult places broadens us

9/16/2001 – Printed in the PERPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


While in New York two weeks ago, I told a friend that I was upset with myself because I had not traveled outside the United States this year. I asked if he had planned to travel abroad.

His response: “I don’t need to travel anywhere. I already live in the best city in the world.”

How sad, I thought at the time. Now, after all that has happened in New York with the destruction of the World Trade Center, I know that his words were ironic and prophetic. A few days after uttering those words, he stood in front of his apartment complex and watched the second plane plow into one of the twin towers.

The jet, more than likely, was commandeered by a man from a foreign city, who belonged to a culture and religion that neither of us understand. I recall two years ago when I stopped off at his apartment because I was en route to Israel and had an eight-hour layover at JFK.

Although he is Jewish, he wondered why I was traveling to Israel and what intrigued me so much about the Middle East. After all, he had no desire to visit the war-torn region.

Many other people, including colleagues at the St. Petersburg Times, ask me the same questions. My answer is always the same _ but never adequate: “I find the Middle East endlessly fascinating, and I have an insatiable curiosity.”

Sometimes, I go further and talk about the region’s compelling historicity, its archaeology (the ancient lunar-like mountains and hills), the Dead Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev Desert, the pyramids, the cuisines, the people, the ethnic and religious conflicts and, of course, the never-ending danger.

I save the real answer for soul mates, for they truly understand and do not think my reason is corny: I travel to the Middle East because, for me, it is the most difficult place in the world to understand.

Indeed, I do not comprehend the enmity between Jews and Palestinians. I listen to each side, and each has a tale to tell. Each has a one-dimensional history of the events that produced a country for one side and dispersed camps, villages and towns for the other. I do not understand why Islamic terrorists hate America so.

Travel is the best way to ascertain real answers.

The Twin Towers tragedy has made me realize again that I missed my calling. I should have been a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, one who sees the entire world as home, who sees a border as another invitation to explore.

“Some journeys take us away from it all,” an intrepid traveler wrote, “to places where no one knows us; some take us to where it seems we’ve always been. But whether we venture to a new part of town or into an entirely new culture, travel forever changes the boundaries of the world we once knew.”

Eastern Europe is another region I find perplexing, whose boundaries I always have wanted to cross. So, last year, I traveled extensively in Poland and Romania. I returned to the United States with a deeper understanding of a few characteristics of these two nations. For one thing, although they no longer are communist countries, these places have not shaken off many of the worst traits of communism.

While traveling by rail in Romania, for example, I could read the arrival and departure schedules on the walls. Getting a printed copy of a schedule, however, was impossible. The stations had none.

Initially, I assumed that printing the schedules would be too costly. But many Romanians with whom I spoke explained that the idea of giving information to the people to hold in their hands _ to bring home with them _ is still in its infancy. This is a remnant of communism. For the same reason, some said, copy machines are in short supply in public places. The idea of ordinary citizens copying information is catching on.

As an untutored American, I flew to Romania believing that the treatment of the Roma (Gypsies) was the simple result of ethnic hatred. Unfortunately, I left Romania and Poland feeling less sanguine about the Roma.

Let me explain: Although I rode first-class on all trains, Gypsy children entered the compartments trying to sell worthless trinkets. When I refused to buy, the kids would fall to their knees, hug my legs, kiss my shoes and wail as if they were dying. I had to pry some of them off.

At the Central Train Station in Warsaw, a group of Roma children surrounded me and loudly demanded money. I did not appreciate having the spotlight on me in one of the busiest places in the city. One of the kids grabbed the strap of my camera and tried to run. I held on, tripped him with my foot and snatched my camera as the little urchin lay on his back. Meanwhile, a girl (she could not have been older than 6) tried to swipe my wallet, which I had in a front pocket of my jeans.

A police officer _ who merely saw the kid on his back and me standing above him _ assumed that I was abusing this child. Fortunately, a woman had seen the whole thing and talked to the cop. She probably saved me from jail or worse. Later in my room, the incident reminded me of something writer Marilyn French said: “Even disasters _ there are always disasters when you travel _ can be turned into adventures.”

The year 2001 is more than half over, and my plans for overseas travel look dim. I had planned to be in Ethiopia for June, but the journalist I was to live with defected to the United States. My trip to Durban, South Africa, fell through when the group I was to travel with reneged on our housing arrangement.

Next year, though, I shall return to the Middle East _ at least to the parts left after our country retaliates for the World Trade Center attacks.