Coffee farms in Panama, guns in Idaho and black life in Dallas: How travel enables empathy

Coffee farms in Panama, guns in Idaho and black life in Dallas: How travel enables empathy

This article is part of the new Mic series "Enabling Empathy Through Travel." See the previous post here.

For those who didn't vote for Donald Trump, a lot of the fallout from the presidential election has centered around trying to figure out what happened, and then trying to explain how a candidate with a 15% chance to win ended up winning bigly. One of the most common explanations is that everyone in the center and on the left simply did not understand the other side. More significantly, we didn't care to understand the other side — instead, we grabbed hold of our own motivators and perspectives and buried ourselves in articles by like-minded authors and surrounded ourselves with like-minded people. In that hole, our beliefs were simply reaffirmed, instead of challenged, and we were confused on election night to see that 60 million people in the United States think differently from us. 

It's not easy to understand others or to change your worldview to accommodate theirs, but one of the best ways to do it is to travel and experience life through their lens for a while. In my case, I learned about voting decisions on an indigenous reservation in Panama; about guns and pickup trucks in rural Idaho; and about being black in America while living with a friend's family in Dallas.

I served as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in an indigenous reservation in western Panama, and I happened to live there during a Panamanian national election. While there were few similarities between their election and ours, a former president's wife ran essentially an incumbent campaign against one of the richest men in the country who promised change. Moving between my little rural town and Panama City exposed me to the vast differences in the way people prepared to make their decision. It also showed me that the things I care about could be so different from others — even when we get along well.

One of the guys I worked with throughout my service was a coffee farmer named Eugenio who helped run a small cooperative of other coffee farmers. He lived way out in the mountains and subsisted mostly on what he grew on his family farm, adding a little income whenever he could by selling coffee. I stayed with him and his family a few times so I could experience coffee farming, and he would stop by my place sometimes on the way to the cooperative. On one of those visits, I taught him how to read a map that was on my wall. Nothing complicated, just "this blue part is an ocean, this land mass is Africa, this one is South America." He isn't unintelligent — he had just never learned to read a map.

It struck me that, if we were from the same country, we would both have an equal vote in an election, both get along well as people and otherwise have completely different motivations for choosing a candidate. I'm a diplomat's son from Washington, D.C., and have lived the majority of my life overseas; the nuances of foreign policy are hugely important to me. While I'm sure that in theory, Eugenio wants Panama to get along well with other countries, foreign policy clearly wasn't his priority. He wanted a guaranteed, steady source of food for his family. He wanted electricity. He wanted a clinic that was closer than a six-hour hike from his house. If Candidate A promises a more stable relationship with Peru, and Candidate B insults Peru and threatens to bomb them but promises to build a clinic closer to Eugenio's house, you can bet he's voting for Candidate B.

Many of the people in my town chose their candidate based on a single event that had great significance, given their history in the country. Since Europeans arrived in the 1500s, indigenous Panamanians have been slaughtered, pushed back into the least fertile parts of the country and then neglected and treated as sub-citizens. Of the three main candidates in that election, only one visited the reservation where I lived, which is home to about 200,000 indigenous Ngäbes. (Panama is about the same size as South Carolina, so over an election season, it's not that hard to visit every area that represents the population around it.) From then on, even though most people I talked to didn't know much about his platform, policies or background, they knew he gave enough of a shit about them to  visit, give a speech, meet with their leaders and talk to a few people. That was more than the other candidates did, so thereafter, no matter what scandal came up in the newspaper, most people in my town had made up their minds.

Eugenio and others in my town had extremely valid reasons for choosing their candidates, but I never would have understood them, or even had any idea how or why they made their decisions if I hadn't been there. If I had been living in an apartment in a nice neighborhood in Panama City (which I also did for a few months after my service), I may have watched the election results and wondered why "the rural people" voted the way they did. I've had almost none of that exposure in the United States over the past few years, and that's something I need to change.

About eight years ago, I flew from Boston to Idaho to visit family friends who were living there for a few months. The main goal of the trip was to go rock climbing, but we also spent several evenings at a local bar and at the houses of their local friends. While we drove on dirt roads and through epic rainstorms from the national reserve back to the town, for the first time in my life, I understood why someone who didn't need it for professional reasons would buy a pickup truck.

While talking with locals at the bar, I understood for the first time how owning a gun is not a big deal for them and how strange it must feel to have a politician from the East Coast talking about restricting their right to own one. (I know that those are not the people gun control reform is targeting, but they certainly feel like it is.) I know it sounds silly and hyper-elitist to not understand why someone would buy a pickup truck, but that's my point — I wouldn't have even had this basic perspective change without going there and riding in a truck, talking to people at their local bar.

We also don't have to travel overseas, or even across the country to get a new view.

Three years ago, just after finishing our Peace Corps services, I moved in with the family of my business partner for a month to launch our business. He and his family are black, and while we are almost completely aligned on social and political issues, living with them made me realize how little I understand what it's like to be black in America. There were a lot of learning moments for me, but one thing that consistently struck me was how the family discussed current events and social issues.

If, for example, Ben Carson said something ridiculous and controversial, someone in the family would say "that's bad for us." At first, I thought they meant it was bad for their family in particular, but then I realized they meant it was bad for all black Americans. My white family of four would never talk about how an issue affects "us" as a reference to white people in America — we look at all events through the lens of our own privileged status, which, despite being quite liberal, means that we generally don't have the full picture. It sounds obvious, but I didn't really get that until I lived with Kyle's family.

In short, I had a South Park moment:

It's natural to develop and then lock in our perspectives on the world. In terms of getting out of your mindset and understanding new cultures, travel is one of the best ways to unlock a new perspective. While it is not always necessary or even advisable to change your own views to match those on the other side, it is essential to be able to empathize with them, and that's difficult to do unless you've been there. 

Just because I lived in a rural part of Panama for a couple of years doesn't mean I understand what it's like to live in rural Ohio, but I can at least open the conversation by making empathetic connections. Just because I lived with a black family for a month doesn't mean I understand what it's like to be black in America, but it was valuable to learn how much I don't know, so I can approach a movement like Black Lives Matter with questions, rather than reactionary opinions and assumptions. I didn't anticipate the results of this election, and I'm still struggling to understand the implications, but I'm also ready to challenge my own hard-coded perspectives and pursue a cross-cultural empathy that this country severely lacks.