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Get to Know America Again

One of the most overlooked benefits of travel is the opportunity it affords to get to know people who are unlike us in almost every way.

We often think about the trips we’re planning based on the places we want to go and the things we want to do when we get there. Our itineraries often include lists of attractions, hotels and restaurants. There are sights to see, photos to take and souvenirs to buy. But all along the way, our trips are creating opportunities to interact with new people, many of whom have a different perspective on life.

I’ll never forget some of the most interesting conversations I have had as I traveled the world: an Australian businessman anxious about America’s aggressive stance after 9/11, a Jordanian Muslim explaining the history of the Middle East in terms of religious persecution, a Cuban tour guide sharing his family’s struggles with rationing in a communist country, a South African nature photographer lamenting the poaching industry that threatens to wipe out the rhinoceros population.

I have been fortunate to have traveled widely throughout the world, and visiting foreign countries and cultures opens doors for curious minds to pursue honest conversations. But you don’t need to trek halfway around the globe to find someone with a different perspective who has an interesting story. The travel industry is filled with kind, hospitable and talkative people who love chatting with strangers and showing them a bit of their daily lives.

There are great conversations just waiting to be had with tour guides, bus drivers, hotel desk clerks, gift shop employees and museum volunteers. Ask a flight attendant how her day is going, where she is flying next and how long she has been away from home. When you meet young singers, dancers and entertainers, inquire about their hometowns, their families and how they got into show business.

Read local newspapers as you travel to learn about the issues and challenges facing big cities and small communities. Some of those issues will be things you are unfamiliar with, and others will remind you a lot of the kinds of things you deal with at home. As you explore, ask the locals for their perspective on the news. Don’t try to have arguments or advance your political position; just listen and learn.

After a contentious presidential campaign and an election result that seems to have left the country more divided than ever, it’s clear that Americans have been spending far too much time surrounding themselves with like-minded people and far too little time with people from other walks of life. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

When you take your groups out on the road, you are creating powerful opportunities for them to get to know sides of America — or the world — that they probably wouldn’t come into contact with otherwise. You may even be surprised by how much you get to know about the people traveling with you.

Travel changes hearts and opens minds. Travel creates conversations. It forms friendships and builds bridges.

Travel is a gift, and it comes with a purpose. Let’s make the most of it.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.