Travel Teaches Toleration

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I found this poster taped to the wall of a phone booth in Birpara, a town where there are no tourists and where few people travel for any reason other than necessity. It is evocative of the first quote I posted on this site, the one by Mark Twain about travel being “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

In Darjeeling I met a 21-year-old girl from Boston named April. She was traveling with her American mother while her Indian father attended to family business in Delhi. April was visiting her Indian boyfriend who she said she was going to marry. She was strongly built, with black hair past her shoulders and her skin was light caramel; she could have easily passed for a Latina or Filipina, but liked to distinguish herself with “Indian Pride” t-shirts and other ornaments from her father’s culture.

April told me this story: One day while visiting Worcester, Massachusetts (she pronounced it in Bostonese: “Woostah”), she was wearing a decorative bindi between and slightly above her eyes. Another girl, a stranger, pressed her finger against the red dot, roughly, and said, “Osama bin Laden–lookin’ bitch!”

April’s notably non-Gandhian retaliation landed her in jail for the night and it was interesting that her biggest grievance from the incident, the reason she would never go back to Worcester, she said, was the brutality of the police there, not the ignorant hostility of the girl.

It is not surprising that a teenager from blue-collar Massachusetts could not distinguish between Hindu and Muslim, let alone between true Islam and the hate-mongering of al Qaeda. I would bet the girl’s parents, like most Americans, would have just as hard a time, finding it easier to lump the “dot-heads” and “rag-heads” together. Why bother to learn the difference between the turban of a Sikh and the head-wrap of the Taliban?

I admit to a fair amount of naiveté before this journey. Then, in Pakistan, I met individuals from five distinct branches of Islam: Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, Sufi, and secular. I am no expert, but I at least learned what distinguishes them (although I still cannot comprehend the incessant brutality between the first two). In India, between various learning encounters with Tibetan Buddhism, I learned that “Hinduism” is not a religion at all, but a loosely used term that refers to some 500 faiths worshipping thousands of deities in millions of different ways. I was also told that all those ways, those paths, are like rivers flowing to the same place, the ocean, enlightenment—that all those Gods (Viswakarma, Durga, Ganesh, Saraswati, etc.) are merely different faces of the same one being.

The poster in the phone booth is, indeed, a succinct version of the Twain quote, which continues by saying that “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

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