One of my favorite things about traveling is the conversation. It’s not just that the conversation with fellow travelers tends to veer toward the substantive and intimate, it’s that when it happens you often get to hear opinions you would never have been privy to back home. I remember, for instance, the first time I talked to an ex-mercenary about gun control. We were in Medellin, once one of the most violent cities in the world and though it is now nowhere near as violent, I think it still tends to attract, overall, a slightly rougher breed of traveler.
“You don’t think guns are necessary,” The mercenary sneered, “Because you’ve never had to wish you had one.”
“Why would I need one?” I responded. “In a world where no one has one?”
He laughed at that and over the next couple of weeks I began to understand why. Part of the privilege of my life has been that I have mostly known people on their best behavior - in times of plenty instead of scarcity and in times of peace instead of war. Through stories he showed me a very different world, one I would glimpse, briefly while attempting a tricky border crossing from Peru to Boliva. On that trek I would come to know what it was like to be swarmed by an agitated crowd, threatened with a scythe and navigate a road that had been booby trapped with the intention to kill. I can’t explain the feeling because enough time has passed to dull it but I do remember thinking, without a great deal of emotion, that there was a chance things could go horribly wrong. For the first time in my life I had found myself at the mercy of good people in a desperate situation and I came to realize that if I was hurt, it wouldn’t be personal, but that if I were to make it through unscathed I would have to fight. Though I remain a staunch proponent of gun control some of the idealistic sense of security that has always informed so many of my opinions was lost that day.
More recently, in Spain, I had what seemed like an endless stream of excellent conversations. Many were uplifting and in the way of such conversations they left me with a sense of general well-being about the world, enhanced by several glasses of wine. One, was quite a bit darker.
Over tapas with a group of friends from around the world we talked about our families and, because one of us is actually related to an infamous war criminal, war. Though I have read and heard about what it is like to live through years of bombing or see people being burned alive in the street it was an altogether different experience to hear my friends talk about living through those exact same things. In a vision of war evidently coloured by too many Hollywood movies I had expected their descriptions and opinions of war to be slightly different than they were. One friend said this:
“Most of the time you don’t kill your neighbor because he’s whatever, that guy they told you to kill, you kill him because ten years ago his dog ate your chicken and you never forgave him for it and you’re an asshole and you want his farm. That’s what war is - an opportunity and that’s all that it is.”
(I realize I gave this piece an uplifting title and then went on an babbled about depressing things. But here’s the thing: I’m still idealistic and naive enough to think that the world is changed by conversation that changes perspectives. The more we talk with people who come from places we don’t know well, the more the decisions and opinions we have that impact the world around us will be smarter. For instance, I don’t think about guns or war the way I used to. Some incremental change has happened to breathe a little nuance into my perspective, the kind of nuance that might impact how I vote or what I say next time the topic comes up and if enough people have similar conversations about important things we will move, slowly but inevitably, in the right direction).