Viewed through the lens of physics, travel is a battle between space and time. Space is the motivating spark. We go somewhere because we want to stand, physically, where we don’t usually stand, see things we don’t usually see, feel what we don’t typically feel. We believe at some level that if we’re temporarily “there” instead of “here,” our lives will be enriched in some way.
Time is the enemy of the traveler. Time sets limits to our enjoyment of space. Vacations are securely bookended by outbound and return flights. And time spent in transit is usually endured rather than savored.
After we’ve returned, the places we visited tend to become frozen in time and space, on a map with unchanging boundaries and a calendar whose pages never turn. Our knowledge of a place remains fixed, even if we know, intellectually, that every place evolves.
If we’re lucky enough to return somewhere, we can update our perceptions. Perhaps you share my belief that, over time, Singapore has gone from dull to vibrant, South Beach from cool to commercial.
In this sense, although travel is typically thought of in terms of space — moving from one place to another — many of us are, in fact, time travelers, too.
The impact of a vacation may linger our entire life, in part because our experiences result in what I have called “nation-bonding.” One forms a personal relationship with a place. Revisiting and updating impressions doesn’t replace memory but rather adds dimension and understanding. Seeing how national, local and individual aspirations evolve adds context to remembrance.
But updates on destination knowledge are as likely to be sourced from news reports as return trips or consumer articles on leisure travel. Once you’ve bonded to a nation, hard news becomes personalized in ways that can trigger, or deepen, empathy. I watched footage following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti with dread, wondering about the fate of people I had met just 10 months earlier.
I’ve had similar feelings these past few weeks as I’ve followed the news of the incursion into the Kurdish areas of Syria. In 2007, I visited Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish population in Iraq. Although fighting in the Iraq War was still intense farther south, and there was ample evidence of increased security in the city, my memories of the trip and interactions with Kurds are for the most part very positive.
At the time, I wrote that “the only confrontation I experienced was in a stationery store: After the shopkeeper found out I was an American, he insisted that I take the goods for free, while I insisted that I pay.”
But I’m haunted by what a Kurdish man I met said in the same article:
“Go back and tell everyone that if the U.S. wants another … democracy in the Middle East, they don’t need to look further than Kurdistan. But they need to make a commitment not to betray us.”
Middle Eastern politics is thorny, and I’m no expert, but all evidence suggests that, yes, the Kurds I met on that trip to Erbil likely feel betrayed by America, and that will have consequences for American travelers well beyond those who might venture to Erbil.
As much as I wish it were not so, travelers are prejudged by the actions of their governments. At various times, I’ve had people tell me to my face that they don’t like Americans, their judgements formed by the actions of our leaders rather than anything I might have said or done. At other times, such as in the stationery store in Erbil, I’ve been on the receiving end of goodwill triggered by my citizenship rather than my ideas or character.
U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow recently told Travel Weekly, “People separate politics from place. You and I go to China, we don’t feel good about their human rights. We go to Moscow and Red Square and don’t feel good about their politics. But we still go.”
That might be true. It might even be true that the politically charged relationships between the governments of the U.S., China and Russia could add a level of intensity and emotion to discussions with residents that will deepen interpersonal connections and bonds to those countries.
But to return to viewing travel through the lens of time and space, it seems that when one assesses the climate of opinion about one’s nationality, time moves more like a pendulum than a continuum.
Among Kurds and those sympathetic to their situation, we’ve swung from ally to deserter. It may one day swing back, but for the present, it’s likely to add to how Americans in general are viewed as we travel, and it’s likely to color interactions with hosts and other travelers. We’re living in a polarized, politicized world, and we’re not immune to the consequences, even when on vacation.