I just returned from the Grand Circle Travel trip to Alabama and Mississippi Let Freedom Ring: A Civil Rights Journey. I had so many moments of inspiration on that trip – especially considering that I had lived through the tumult of the Civil Rights movement and had even met some major players – that I was prepared to write about the transformative nature of travel, and how it can open a traveler’s heart to forgiveness and understanding, even as the southern states are still grappling with both tolerance and forgiveness today. However, as I was working on finding the words I wanted to write such a piece, I learned that the Chairman and owner of the Grand Circle Corporation, Alan Lewis, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly that week. Words failed me on all counts as I processed the loss of such an individual, who reached out to and influenced thousands of travelers and helped so many of the underserved worldwide.
As I read the many tributes about him, I was struck by his philosophy, and how I had been drawn to the company’s mission of changing the world. My goals were never that lofty, but I did want to experience and see both the good and evil in the world. World travel is so much more that London, Paris and Rome. I got a firsthand taste of this after the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Israeli athletes had been killed in the Olympic village. I was about to embark on a return to Europe for three months to travel in depth and visit new friends I had met in France two years prior. However, my father was so concerned about the Munich Massacre (as it became called) in 1972 that he didn’t want me to go to Germany and was very concerned about the fact that the Israelis were going to engage in retaliation in 1973. So, what did this 19 year old college student do, who was up against a determined father, and realistically (and unbeknownst to me), the start of the Israeli counter terrorist movement, all of which was in contradiction to my strong desire to travel and see both the good and the bad? I lied to my parents! I created two sets of itineraries. One I gave my parents that didn’t include any time in Germany. The other one was the real itinerary, which included my planned two weeks in Germany. The German family who I was visiting didn’t want me to go to either Dachau or the Olympic village to pay homage. But three generations of this family were fascinating to listen to, having lived through the blitzkrieg of Germany in World War Two, and shared their stories with me about having to flee during the allied bombings with just a single suitcase in hand and no place else to go. They couldn’t imagine why I would want to visit a concentration camp or the sight of a terrorist attack. I couldn’t imagine why I wouldn’t.
As a traveler, I believe firmly we should do what we can to cut across boundaries to see the world, especially if it means defying convention or even our families. The barriers that might exist are likely the very reason we should go, see, experience, taste, and feel. Travel with all our senses and an open heart. Live because the alternative isn’t an option. And do it with some guts and passion! After having given my parents a fake itinerary to calm their fears and still do what I wanted, it turns out I sent them a postcard from Germany! Imagine my surprise when I saw that among my mother’s things after she died. Somebody needs to explain to me how 19 year olds think!
I believe firmly that we can be inspired in all parts of life by the many people who devote their lives to taking their beliefs to a higher level, even if they aren’t popular for doing so. Ultimately, people who do such things will be rewarded. Travel gives us this opening. We can do so much more than sightseeing. On a recent trip to Tanzania with Overseas Adventure Travel, I was so moved at the school visit we made, I wanted to raise money for the children. On a prior visit to South Africa, I wanted to return and help in the school. I learned by asking during the trip, that my ideas weren’t realistic for several reasons. But as I keep traveling, experiencing, and seeing people and sites which move me, eventually I will arrive at an idea or concept that I will be able to implement, and one that will make a difference. My heart has been permanently opened from these experiences.
I am still processing my experience in the deep south visiting civil rights sites, museums, and memorials. But crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and following in the footsteps of those freedom fighters who got into ” good trouble” is exactly the same philosophy as that which led me to Dachau (and three other concentration camps and Holocaust memorials since, with more to come). It was on a different continent, and it was a different tragedy from others I have learned about in the world, but I appreciated taking the long view as we drilled down and learned about the struggles in the South and the determination and resilience of the freedom fighters and freedom riders. I know it wasn’t how others in my group were processing it, but that’s okay. We all learn from each other, and we all learn from our travels and pushing boundaries. I will always be grateful to those who took the risk to cross boundaries and who overcame resistance to create something of lasting value that benefits us all. It’s people of that caliber who help make the world a better place through travel, music, politics, literature, science, or any other form of inspiration that touches my heart and soul. And I thank them all.