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Travel Teaches Tolerance

By Jennifer M. Eisenlau

I had no idea how kind the people would be,” said a colleague to me over lunch one day. She had just returned from Jerusalem. “You know, travel teaches tolerance.”

She is right, of course: we do learn about others as we venture out in the world. But I think most important is what we discover about ourselves. I coordinate the study-tour program at our community college in Boulder, Colorado. Many of my students from this affluent (and predominantly white) community have never left the country, some not even the state.

On a trip in May 2002 to London and Paris, I had four young women from my Celtic literature class traveling with me. Although all were 19 years old, their backgrounds set them apart. I assumed there would be trouble by the end of our 10-day trip, and I was nervous. What if the students fought on our trip? There would be no turning back once we landed at Heathrow.

I had over 20 participants on the tour, but only these four girls worried me. All signs were pointing to trouble: each girl sought me out after class or during office hours to whisper, “I just can’t room with her!” The reasons varied: “She smokes,” and “She’s weird,” and “Those two will tease me.” However, the theme was consistent: she is different from me. Based upon appearances alone, each knew she would be unable to room with the other girls.

Manal (the students’ names have been changed) is a young Muslim woman; she must pray five times daily. Molly is a fundamentalist Christian; she wears tee shirts with religious messages. Grace is a goth/punk rocker; she sports ear, nose, and tongue studs, as well as tattoos to complement her all-black wardrobe. Skye is a wiccan; she wears hemp jewelry (and most likely smokes hemp recreationally). The four young women knew one another from my class, but they were nothing more than nodding acquaintances at best. Upon our arrival into London, however, keeping one another at a distance would no longer be an option.

Jet-lagged and grumpy, the four students were packed into one hotel room, with four beds and one bathroom. Before I arrived at my own door, each girl stopped me in the corridor and the vehement whispers began: “But Dr. Eisenlau, I can’t stay with her….” I braced myself for ten days of whining. In the atmosphere following 9/11, I also expected accusations and tears. Joyfully, I must admit the girls rose above my poor expectations. They learned to be tolerant, curious, and kind.

Manal, on the first day in London, hid in a corner of the crowded room and attempted to pray, but the lack of space forced her to use her bed while her roommates watched. Skye told me later, as we sat in the pub sipping pints, “Oh, it’s so cool to see her on that little rug.” Manal, whose faith restricts alcohol, bought a round for her roommates, and even had the moment captured on film to show her father as a joke.

Molly, who refused to join the others at a London pub the second night of the trip, missed out on a great conversation as Grace and Skye asked Manal about traditional dress. We all laughed hysterically as Manal told us that she rarely wore anything but pajamas under her robe when back in the Middle East.

Molly eventually did join in on the merriment when Grace purchased a bottle of Bordeaux, which they drank while sitting on their wrought-iron Paris balcony. Molly realized that one small glass of wine was great fun when shared with good friends. After their wine, Molly asked Manal to make up her face and style her hair for their final fling in Paris.

Another example of acceptance and diversity that grew from our trip involved ages. Three senior citizens were a part of the tour group. At first these non-traditional students were held at arm’s length by the younger travelers. However, as the trip progressed and meals were eaten and famous sites were seen together, I saw the students—regardless of their ages—becoming acquainted.

This opportunity was sadly lost on this year’s study tour. We were set to leave Denver for Spain in March of 2003. As the U.S. geared up for war, many of my older students dropped out of the trip. At one planning meeting, a young man said, “Don’t get me wrong, but it’s kinda nice that the old folks dropped out. I like the fact it’s just us.” His assumptions were that old people would slow us down, keep us serious, and make us behave.

If everyone had ventured forth together these myths would have been dispelled. The young man is an actor and dancer with a dinner theater. His best patrons are senior citizens. Who knows what friendships could have been developed in Madrid? Unfortunately, no one went to Spain. The trip was canceled due to travel complications surrounding the invasion of Iraq.

By sharing a travel adventure in a foreign city college students learn of a world bigger than themselves. They learn that people of all ages have something to say to them and that appearances can be deceiving. Nothing was more heartening to me than our trip to Versailles. I saw Grace—her hair fuchsia, her fishnets black—chatting away with Nancy, a grandmother of six and champion gardener. Their conversation must have been a learning experience for both parties.

On our final morning in Paris, as we waited for the bus to take us to the airport, the four girls entered the hotel lobby wearing berets and eating crepes. They had gone out early together to walk Monmartre one last time. After the final group photograph of all 20 travelers, the four girls posed for one more picture: Molly, Skye, Grace, and Manal—with our tour guide—their arms around one another, smiles on their faces. Each girl in the foursome realized that although we are all so different, we are all uniquely important. They did not learn this life lesson by sitting together in a college classroom for 15 weeks; they learned it by traveling together for 10 days.

In May 2004 I will lead a study tour to Scotland. As of now a 19-year-old Arab-American girl has signed up, as well as a retired Navy commander. They will no doubt look at one another suspiciously at first, but by the trip’s end they’ll understand one another a little bit more. And, with a little luck, perhaps they’ll even become friends. What greater lesson can travel teach anyone?

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