To Be an American

The minute the wheels of our plane touched the runway at JFK normalcy returned. The jockeying to get off the plane, the waiting at passport control, then for our baggage, the taxi home. It was all instantly mundane, everything working the way it should at that always frantic New York pace.

My husband and I were returning from two weeks traveling around Tanzania, slightly disconnected from the world. And in the time we were gone the world seemed to erupt in fire. Two police shootings of black men in less than a week, followed by attacks on police officers greeted us at home, then a week later terror attacks including the unimaginable horror in Nice came, and then there were the two political conventions that seemed to just further show how divided the US is. It was enough to wish this year was over or that at the very least we were back traveling uneven roads from Tarangire to the Serengeti to the Ngorongoro Crater.

Tanzania is a country that both makes you appreciate all the things we take for granted as Americans — ATMs that dispense money, the mass availability of clean drinking water, the relative lack of begging in the streets — while also making you wonder why we can’t get our acts together on things such as solar power, rainwater filtration and even customer service that far outshines the US — remember free hotel breakfasts?

We met a lot of people throughout our trip, our safari guide through Tarangire, Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, Maasai herding goats, park rangers with AK-47s casually slung over their shoulders, English tourists still in shock over Brexit, French honeymooners, beggars in Zanzibar. We met people of all economic classes and many faiths.

For us one of the joys of traveling is always the people we meet. Whether it’s listening to the bickering of a family at dinner or hearing the stories of a Maasai goat herder during a sunset walk, the thing that always strikes me is how much more we have in common than we think. That my husband who grew up on a cattle farm in Washington State and ended up working in NYC after a stint in the Navy can laugh over farming techniques with a young Maasai in the African bush. Life paths separated by something as innocuous as place as birth.

The one question everyone asked after learning we were New Yorkers: “what’s going on with your election, you don’t think that Trump guy will win?”

I bet you can’t name more than a handful of countries having elections this year let alone a candidate. Clearly, what happens in the US has ripples felt around the globe just as what happens in other countries affects the US but it’s more than that. The people we met were horrified by the current US election process, much as many Americans are, and they’re also worried of what a Trump presidency would mean.

We were on vacation and our standard response fell along the lines of well, it’s controversial, we’re not fans of Hillary but it can’t be Trump and we wish Obama had four more years. To the young Brits there was also the well, we wish the baby boomers would just retire already and let a new generation lead, it’s our future — but I digress into the pains of being a millennial in a baby boomer run society.

In Zanzibar where we ended our two weeks during Ramadan we felt a little more connected and therefore more aware of a world on edge. Terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, a 99 percent Muslim population and an island of idleness — young men waiting for jobs, opportunities, I don’t know what. They constantly surrounded us when we stepped outside trying to sell us anything: a cab ride, spices, a dive tour. It made us uneasy while feeling guilty. To travel is a privilege and we try to stay at locally owned and operated places, to buy locally made products as gifts, but obviously we can’t buy everything, can’t help everyone.

It was also in Zanzibar where we ran into people commenting on what a privilege it is to be born American. An old man spewing election rhetoric saying to be born American or European is to have a life of privilege and to be born African is to be cursed. And then there was Youngman, called that because he was, or so he said. He worked in the kitchen at our beach hotel and shared his dream of running a hotel in Miami with us, while teaching us a few phrases in Swahili and talking music with my husband.

Places of birth are so random but they determine so much. It’s easy to take for granted the opportunities we have as Americans, to rile against a system we see as unfair while we worry about paying rent, or getting the next promotion but when you think of those worries, really think about them we’re so lucky to have them. And why shouldn’t someone like that old man or Youngman be that lucky. Voting for Trump who curses immigrants and really anyone different from him or for a third-party candidate with no chance of winning or simply not voting, dishonors that random luck. This election isn’t just about us, it’s about the people around the world who still look to the US as a beacon of hope in a world on fire.

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