So last month I went to Jamaica for the first time, where I was keynoting a conference for a bunch of folks from Indiana who had shrewdly decided that Jamaica is a slightly sexier winter hangout than Fort Wayne. Now before you get mad at me and start throwing rocks or pickles or whatever happens to be handy (and further assuming those things could actually make it through your computer screen to somehow hit me in the face), I was only there for about 20 hours, which means I spent more time getting to and from Jamaica than I actually spent in it. I did manage to get my hair braided, however, and I also found enough time to enjoy a pina colada (about which I am not even slightly embarrassed nor do I feel the need to defend my masculinity – I’d drink pina coladas ringside at an MMA fight they’re that delicious). That said, I know many of you are suffering through negative temperatures right now, so I’ll understand if you’re flinging a few silent curses my way.
But I didn’t mention it so that you could hate me. I’m mentioning it because during my first (and who knows, maybe only?) trip to Jamaica, I almost never left the resort. Most of the people I know who have been to Jamaica encouraged me to stay on the resort. Jamaica is a poor country, they said, and dirty, and the people are constantly touching you and trying to convince you to buy something, and do you really want to deal with all that hassle? I heard a lot of that, and I almost listened.
Then I got mad for allowing myself to get frightened, and so I went on a 90-minute walk into the dangerous and seedy underworld of ‘real’ Jamaica. Nobody touched me. Most people didn’t look at me. Three or four guys offered me cab rides, and one guy offered me marijuana, but that could also have happened on the streets of New York or Portland (especially Portland). In every respect it was a perfectly ordinary walk along perfectly ordinary streets in a country that isn’t the one I grew up in.
America is an interesting paradox. We’re constantly telling ourselves how brave and daring we are, and we’re constantly proving that with our insanely high risk tolerance for new business ventures; but when it comes to visiting new places or meeting new people, many of us are borderline paranoid. To the best of my knowledge there have been no highly-publicized murders in Jamaica, or poorly-publicized ones for that matter. It’s not a nation ravaged by war or choked by drug kingpins. In fact, I’ve never read anything to suggest that Jamaica is a dangerous place to be – and yet the first reaction most people had when I told them where I was going was, “Just stay where it’s safe.”
I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about exactly how much of the planet I have been encouraged to be afraid of. Canada’s fine, and so is England and Australia and Japan and pockets of the Caribbean and the western two-thirds of Europe. Scandinavia is OK, and so is Iceland and probably Greenland. But that’s only 20-30% of the places that exist, and the rest are all to be approached with caution if at all. Mexico’s unsafe; South America is dicey; Russia’s corrupt; China is schizophrenic; Africa’s only good for a safari and maybe not even then; India has poverty and pollution like you wouldn’t believe; and the Middle East you can forget about. Over the course of my life, I’ve been encouraged to be afraid to visit well over half of this planet, and I’m not sure I’m happy about how effective that messaging has been.
This past August my wife and I went to Spain to visit her family. While we were there, one of her cousins told me that he and his family had just returned from a vacation to Tunis – in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s where the Arab Spring started. When I asked him how the trip had been, he said, “Fine.” Absolutely fine, nothing to worry about, lovely place really. I can’t think of a single American that would consider visiting the birthplace of the Arab Spring – how safe could that hotbed of revolution possibly be? – and my wife’s cousin and his family had had a relaxed, delightful time.
It’s February, which most of us consider to be the month of love. I’m not suggesting that you should suddenly start loving a whole bunch of people and places you know little to nothing about (although higher authorities than myself have recommended that exact thing). But I am suggesting that you should maybe spend some energy telling yourself that there’s far less to fear from those unknown people and places than we sometimes suppose. Maybe if all of us spent a tiny amount of mental energy on that thought, our entire conception of the world might actually change for the better.
Oh, and I didn’t really get my hair braided in Jamaica. It was either that or get myself a second pina colada, and I think we all know I made the right decision.