VIEW FROM AFAR-It’s good to discover there are many people on this planet

An elderly relative of mine-long since passed on-rarely traveled farther than to church in her small town. On occasion, she attended the funerals of relatives in states bordering her native Oklahoma.

Somehow she ended up visiting a sister in California and while there was shanghaied into going to Disneyland.

“Dale, I did not know there were so many people living on this earth,” she later confided to me from her easy chair in the nursing home.

Late in life, she learned the most important lesson travel offers-there are a great many people on this planet.

(Had she traveled a bit more, she would have discovered many are not Americans, don’t even speak English and while they might visit her church out of courtesy, they did not believe the same things she did.)

I remember in 1968, the reaction of a fellow GI to a shoeshine boy in Okinawa who kept on smiling and saying, “Yes” and “Thank you.” My comrade chattered away to the kid. When he realized the kid didn’t understand a word he had been saying, he decked the kid and screamed obscenities at him for being, “Ignorant.”

Americans don’t get out much. Only 23 percent of Americans have passports. A significant number of these are held by newly naturalized citizens who use them as proof of residency and permission to travel back to the old country.

(Curiously, passport holders voted for Kerry over Bush by a nearly 2-1 margin in the last election.)

A recent National Geographic survey indicates that 87 percent of high school students can’t locate Iraq on a map. The grim news is Americans do eventually learn world geography-unfortunately, we learn it from the Fox News battlefield casualty reports of our young men and women.

Europeans and Asians travel internationally-far out of proportion to their income. They are “back-packers” who sleep in cheap hotels and eat like the poorest natives. They go on cheap tours when they are senior citizens.

I have seen locals in Rome, Hanoi, London and Amsterdam look with bemusement and even irritation at these awkward world travelers. But there is also respect-at least these folks are peacefully trying to see the world.

“I would like to come to America. I would visit New York, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, Hollywood and Texas. Can I do this in a week?” a high school student said to me in Amsterdam.

I commended him on his knowledge of America but suggested he work on determining distances between sites a bit more.

This conversation happened before 9-11. Since 2000, worldwide travel has climbed by 17 percent, while travel to America has declined by 9 percent, according to USA Today. As a result, the United States has lost $12 billion in income and 150,000 jobs.

Tighter American passport and visa requirements have made world citizens look elsewhere for fun, sun and shopping-and have done nothing to improve our image.

(Plus a few are afraid that if they come to America, they will be asked to go quail hunting with Dick Cheney.)

Americans need to “Get out of Dodge” for many reasons. My friend Don went back to Greece, where he had done rural community development 50 years ago.

“The village mayor was the son of a family we had helped-and the orchards and vineyards we helped start are now mature,” he reports. “It was a good feeling to complete the circle of life.”

American young folks need to learn to ride trains and to hitchhike and dance in clubs and pubs and struggle with foreign languages while sharing adventures.

Folks who served in the military might go back and see how things turned out. Seniors can develop a sense of world family and not just extended family.

We can learn all this for an $85 U.S. passport. And we can say with my simple reclusive relative, “I did not know there were so many people on the planet.”

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