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I Never Liked the Term Social Distancing. Here’s Why, Why I Love Travel and Why the Same Approach at Home May Make You See Things

You may recall when the concept of “social distancing” came about I said I preferred the term “social spacing“. My point was that we don’t need to distance ourselves from others in society, but rather simply space ourselves out so as to reduce the chance of being infected with COVID-19. One of our society’s biggest problems is “distance”. We need, as human beings, to be “closer”.

A young boy in the Peruvian Amazon with his pet sloth hugging him tightly

The continuing protests against racial discrimination, including police brutality/selective enforcement (which is a subset of the ways in which racial discrimination infect everyone’s lives, and even more the lives of people of color), show that for far too long too many people have “distanced” themselves from those who they perceive are “not like us”. For me, I have never been able to define who is “us”, because – to my mind – that is an ever-shifting concept dependent on what is making a person uncomfortable at that moment in time. Is “us” Americans? Whites? Jews? Chinese? Liberals? East Coast? Republicans? Poor? Or, maybe, “us” is actually everyone!

Working in a Food Bank in San Francisco, California

I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood that was a mix of Jews, Irish Catholics and Italians with some Germans and others of Eastern European heritage. But just two blocks from my house was a park with a basketball court where I pretty much lived until I went to college. It was a gateway to understanding people that were “not like us” because just a few blocks the other way from that park were those people who were not as financially fortunate and just a few miles away was Newark, New Jersey. It was there that color and ethnicity had nothing to do with whether you were part of the next pick-up game (that is other than when engaging in “trash talk”!). What mattered was your basketball talent. I was never the most talented, but I learned from those who were and marveled at the skills I knew I would never have. (Yes, the concept of my being better just because I was white was never, ever, a thing!) “Us” was basketball players, good, bad and wannabes.

I had the same experiences in junior high (now called middle school) and high school, except for one thing: There was a definite group of people, white people, that were prejudiced against me because I was Jewish. It wasn’t because I was from a financially secure home with two parents, or that I was one of the “smart kids” or that I had long hair with a peace dove sown to the back pocket of my jeans and love beads around my neck or that I smoked pot. It was only because I was Jewish.

At the same time I was also blessed with being just a train ride (usually without my parents knowledge) on the Erie Lackawanna Railroad to New York City done frequently to see the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden…you know, back when the “cheap seats” were cheap at $5.00. Didn’t matter if you were Chinese, Black, Latino, Jewish, Catholic, etc. “Us” were just Knick fans cheering on Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Bill Bradley (to become a U.S. Senator), etc. and the color of the players didn’t matter either. (Willis Reed and Joe Namath were my heros – one Black, one White and both overcoming bad knees and never giving up…just like me.)

Trying sea urchin (and other street food) in Quigdao, China

Meanwhile I dated (and still date) women regardless of their race, religion or financial status. (Ask my mother if you don’t believe me. Right, Mom?) It always bothered me hearing the mantra, “You should marry a nice Jewish girl”, even though I understood and appreciated the basis being that to sustain the Jewish religion and culture after the Holocaust, there was/is focus on repopulating a religion and culture that could have been wiped off the earth…due to prejudice.

As the years went by I saw prejudices against African Americans and other Blacks that were incredibly upsetting, but which I felt powerless to do anything about. From the corruption and racially divisive techniques in Newark, New Jersey and surrounding towns to keep “them” from being able to get the better jobs or live in the neighborhoods where the landlords actually maintained residential buildings, to Liberty City in Miami, Florida where the heat of day just further enflamed the anger and desperation only to be further exasperated by the influx of the Marialitos from the Cuban boatlift in 1980, I realized that the prejudices against me, as Jew, were significant, but nothing like those suffered by those I knew, worked with, socialized with…and the countless I have never actually known.

And, without drawing this out too far, now I live in Truckee, California. It has such a “white” population that I tell people that sometimes I feel like I live in mayonnaise: 86.5% White with 0.4% African American and 18.6% Latino. I crave the missing cultural diversity, whether it be music flowing into the streets, culinary treats, the sounds of different dialects and languages, the different customs and cultures. There is a richness that the beauty of the local mountains and lakes cannot supply.

I met this woman making dumplings on the street in Keelung, Taiwan. She was very guarded until I smiled

Over these past weeks in COVID-19 isolation and then with the protests, I have pondered how all of this has resulted – if it did – in my love of travel. I mean you all know it is not about my lack of love of air travel (from last gates, to missed connections, lost luggage and endless hours airborne) or fancy hotels. It has never been about historical buildings, churches or museums (except for the most spectacular such as Ankor Wat). It has been about meeting people and learning new cultures. And, to be honest, a bit of thrill “Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable“.

To be sure, I have been lucky and fortunate to meet people early in my travel life that sort of forced me into “Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable“. When I was young I didn’t want to travel. I wanted to play basketball and hang out with my friends. I turned down a family trip to Italy. (I know: Dumb!). So I really didn’t start my travel life until I was in my mid-twenties…and then I went BIG. My first trips were to Kenya, Tanzania and the Peruvian Amazon. (I am no Anthony Bourdain – though I have ascribed to much of his philosophies before he was a thing, such as, “If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them — wherever you go.”)

Enjoying Palestinian meze while staying in a Palestinian hotel in Jerusalem, Israel

It was in Peru where I really got my travel footing and my understanding that hanging with the locals is far more important than looking at the locals. My small group was really not cut out for spending two weeks wandering the Amazon jungle and navigating dugout canoes, so my guide asked me if I wanted to go with him to get a beer at a local shop which wound up being a large shed with a donkey turning a stone mill outside and a older woman cooking dinner on the inside…and a propane refrigerator (Cold Beer!). She spoke no English and I spoke none of her local language, but we communicated. With her monkey resting on my shoulders I was invited to stay for dinner and I ate the fish and vegetables (manioc). Not knowing how to compliment her with words, I motioned that I would like more manioc (which is inexpensive and plentiful in the Amazon). She smiled and motioned me into her kitchen (a circle of stones with a fire below a metal grid and pen of guinea pigs). She then motioned for me to sit down and wait. Next thing you know I’m dining on guinea pig! As my guide and I wandered in the pitch black darkness back to our camp, he deftly missed every tree and floated above the muddy earth. I seemed to hit every tree and was just proud not to have lost my shoes.

My guide and this wonderful woman were nothing like me. We looked different. We were of different cultures. We were of different economic worlds. Heck, we had nothing in common. BUT we had everything in common! During these moments were were “Us”. And those two people have touched my life from that day until this day. Anthony Bourdain put it this way, “Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head?”

Watching this young woman make the most incredible (and spicy) soup with so many unidentifiable ingredients in Myanmar. (A great story surrounding this experience between people that could not speak the other’s language.)

It is why, rather than tours where you look “at” things, I am the guy heading to the local markets (awesome experiences in Myanmar, for example…and I still keep in touch with my guide/now friend), getting incredibly drunk on caipirinhas in the tiny village of Ilhabela, Brazil, finding that local dive bar (Okinawa comes to mind where I wound up being invited to a young woman guitar-ish lesson…and we still keep in touch), traveling from restaurant to restaurant in Hong Kong on the “Ding Ding”, etc. or, believe it or not, drinking cheap vodka in a horrific strip joint in Poland. Anthony Bourdain said what I want to far more succulently, “Drink heavily with locals whenever possible.”

Now, let’s bring this concept of travel back home!

Why not stop by a bodega or small shop in the “other” part of town? You may well feel a bit uncomfortable and so might the locals around you…just because it is different than what you and they are used to. Order up either something familiar or something you’ve never heard of (or at least ask what it is, which indicates not your ignorance, but your desire to understand). Heck, you’d do it when you are traveling!

Support the businesses of those Black, Latino and other minorities that are – just like you – doing their best to earn a living, support their families and have a better life. Heck, you will probably go into any souvenir shop or straw market when you are traveling!

And, most importantly, when you see someone, anyone, walking down the street, sitting next to you in a restaurant, or shopping in the same store: Smile. Maybe even say Hello. Heck, you’d do it when you are traveling!

Remember why you travel.

Remember how you travel.

Think about how you travel better now than you did five or ten years ago…because you are more familiar with it, learned that distancing yourself from your experience is exactly what you do NOT want to do.

Now, while international travel is probably not in your plans for the next couple of months or longer, why not take this opportunity to travel locally? You just might have an interesting experience, a great story to tell and be a bit more comfortable being uncomfortable.

So let us not “social distance”, but rather “socially engage”.

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