by Avi Davis
This was my year to travel and I did so extensively – to a total of 23 countries. From January through December I visited the Bahamas in the Caribbean; Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in South America; The Gambia, Senegal and Guinea Bissau in West Africa; South Africa and Namibia in Southern Africa; Ethiopia in East Africa; Spain, Germany and the U.K. in Europe; Israel and Jordan in The Middle East; China and Thailand in Asia; Tahiti and Australia in the Pacific and Russia.
During my travels, conducted mostly alone, I was able to meet with a variety of people from all walks of life – and made a point of questioning them about their aspirations and concerns, seeking to determine where they felt their lives and their nations were headed.
I spent eight weeks in Israel and watched as the country went to war and the impact this had on local families. I felt the anguish of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters – since everyone seemed to know someone who was fighting in Gaza.
I spent a week in Namibia and observed how a supposedly third world country is maturing into a hot tourist destination, slowly moving out of the grip of the socialist mentality which had locked up the economy and free enterprise for so long.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I watched as my tour guide was pulled over by a traffic cop who insisted he was exceeding the speed limit when that was clearly not the case. The matter was settled with a bribe and we moved on. “The usual” he said, as he threw the ticket out the window.
In Argentina I was taken to the hippest night spots in Buenos Aries and met young people with not a care in the world but older people desperately worried about the looming foreign debt crisis and how a new default would jeopardize the country’s economic growth.
I sat through extended and repeated electrical blackouts in The Gambia, events which seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the local population who were completely habituated to it and who carried on doing whatever they were doing as if they had expected it.
In Rio De Janiero, I was swept up in a street carnival in Ipanema and for the first time saw outrageously attired transgender street performers and artists greeted as if they were the most normal thing in the world.
I was evacuated, (together with the medical team with whom I was traveling) from Guinea Bissau at the beginning of the Ebola scare when it was reported that several Liberians ( a nation only 200 miles away) had contracted the disease.
I landed on a Sunday in Barcelona where a massive protest rally against the European Union was being staged in the city’s downtown streets and the demand for Catalonian independence was thick in the air.
I traveled through southern Jordan and discovered that my otherwise hospitable tour guides, who made their living off the tourists who passing through the Israeli sea port of Eilat, detested the Israelis and how they had completely bought the Palestinian historical narrative.
I traveled to Guangzhou (Canton) in China and saw how a massive metropolis had risen there, with skyscrapers to rival New York, but without sufficient sanitation and hygiene. Almost no one I met, outside the major hotels, spoke English.
I visited Australia for the first time in four years to discover an optimistic, hopeful people who are warm, welcoming and helpful to anyone who asks for assistance.
I visited Moscow – a swish, cosmopolitan city, that on the face of things could compete with any western metropolis, but, as we learned later in the year, the apparent prosperity masks some very serious economic problems.
I visited the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and found business down and shop keepers complaining that they might need to close their booths or enact some other form of retrenchment.
I met the tiny Jewish community of Papeete, Tahiti whose 50 or so members – many of them younger than 45 , maintain regular Orthodox services every shabbat and are proud of their commitment to Judaism and Israel.
I landed in Munich, Germany on Easter Sunday and was astonished to see the churches full of worshippers, displaying a genuine and heartfelt religious spirit.
These, of course, are just snapshots and in most of the places I landed and stayed I did not have the time to get a full picture of the reality of ordinary life. But here are some general observations I can make that unite all of my experiences:
1. Cell phones: in almost every country I visited , from the richest – Germany, to the poorest – Guinea Bissau, cell phones seemed to be everywhere. While that could not always be said for the availability of the Internet, I was astonished to see cabbies in the Gambia and native aborigines in outback Australia, whipping out and speaking on cell phones as if they had possessed them for years. This communications revolution has in some sense united the world in a way that could not have been imagined 100 years ago.
2. United States of America: There was hardly a country I visited where the locals were not in awe of America, and even those who said they despised it, still wanted to visit the country, if not to live there. From the rangers in Etosha National Park in Namibia to my tour guide in Moscow to islanders who lived on tiny Pacific atolls in Tahiti, the United States still looms as a magnet for people seeking life advancement and general prosperity.
3. Concern about the rise of radical Islam: Perhaps only in Tahiti was this not an issue, but in almost every other country I encountered a painful awareness of how various societies feel themselves threatened. It was just as evident on the streets of Banjul – the capital of the former British colony of The Gambia as it was amongst Jordanian hotel workers and German porters. Almost everywhere I went I got the sense that people did not believe that their governments were doing enough to stem the rise of this very real domestic threat.
Returning to the United States after such extended trips abroad provided me with an interesting contrast between wealth and poverty, efficiency and government bureaucratic bungling, reliable provision of basic services and intermittent outages. Observing how other people lived and how much they envied our lifestyle and freedoms, it felt good to be returning to and living in the USA.