An Australian an Israeli and two Americans – one from New York and one from the South – walk into a bar in Guatemala. After a few drinks, the conversation turns political. This cannot end well can it?
It's a common saying that the two things you should avoid talking about when drinking are religion and politics. I'm a big believer in this generally. They're two topics that people generally have very strong views about there's almost no chance a drunken conversation is going to change them. All that tends to happen is people getting frustrated at each others lack of logic and all too often it degenerates into a heated argument about how stupid the other person is.
Having said that, when you're travelling you're meeting new people every day – whether it be fellow travellers or locals – and many of these will be unlike anyone you would normally meet at home. They'll have been brought up very different and as such have very different beliefs and attitudes than you, and it can be incredibly interesting to find out your differences.
I've been fortunate enough over the last ten years to make some great friends from all over the world spanning the full spectrum of political and religious beliefs. Before my travelling I liked to think I was very open to other ideas and concepts out there, but I probably wasn't. I'd largely just been talking to people who had the same (or very similar) views to myself. Like with anything, you're unlikely to think about other points of view if you've got nobody to present them to you.
I remember meeting an American many years ago in Europe who had vastly different views on a wide range of topics from myself. We had some good conversations and I learnt a lot about her views and how she to them – even if I wasn't going to be agreeing with her any time soon.
On one occasion, an Icelandic man who noticed my friend's accent started to shout abuse at her for the political wrongs of her country – both real and imagined – without knowing a thing about her as a person. It's this kind of pre judgement and intolerance to other ideas that make many political conversations turn ugly. Since that meeting, Iceland suffered a catastrophic financial meltdown with it's share of political corruption, while I now consider the American a very good friend.
Decisions made in this building are often the subject of conversations among travellers
In some countries, it's talking with locals about politics that can be dangerous. While the people of Burma are among the friendliest in the world, their government has far from a friendly reputation. While they're starting to open up a lot more these days – and start to embrace a measure of democracy – many of the local groups there still fear the government and do not want to discuss anything to do with politics. I think as a general rule when travelling, if the locals don't bring it up, neither should you.
As for my group sitting around a table in a bar in San Pedro, Guatemala, I was quite proud of the way we listened to each other's views – and boy did they differ – and things never got out of hand. Nobody changed anyone else’s opinion on anything, but that wasn't the point. We were just four people from four different backgrounds trying to understand where each other was coming from.
Travelling has given me a lot; I've met some of my closest friends and seen some of the greatest sights in the world, but I think the ability listen to and appreciate other points of view has been one of the biggest things I've gotten out of it.
It may still be a work in progress, but hey, it's not like I'm going to stop travelling any time soon.