The more I learn history, the more I understand how deeply rooted many of our contemporary issues are. And the more I learn, the more I see the importance of engaging with the history of a place before traveling. Whether it’s a volunteer trip, cultural exploration, or any other kind of travel, there is so much to be gained from having a little bit of background knowledge before you go.
If you want to connect with people across the globe (or even in your home country), understanding how history has shaped their nation and their cultural identity will bring so much depth to your relationships. Making authentic cross-cultural connections is one of those things that rolls off the tongue easily, but it’s gritty and painstaking in reality. I feel unqualified to talk about it, really, except that I’m continually open to learning and changing and growing, and I love inviting people alongside me in that journey.
I wasn’t always interested in history in this way (that’s an understatement–I hated history when I was in school!), so if you are about to jump ship from this article right now because you think history is mind-numbing, I totally understand. I was introduced to this process of learning history before traveling, and then discussing it with people that I met, while I was studying abroad in college. In other words, I did it because I had to. But it completely transformed my view of history and how I approach traveling.
So, from this former history-hater, I’m asking if you’ll give it a chance.
I recently watched a PBS documentary from the series “Black in Latin America” about the Dominican Republic and Haiti. These two countries share the same island, but the differences between them are stark, and there has long been tension between the neighbors. When I visited a border town on the DR side in college, I often heard derogatory remarks about Haitian immigrants (they steal our jobs, they murder our language, etc) and saw Haitians in the community struggle.
What I learned about race in these two countries was fascinating and goes back to their systems of slavery. In the DR, the sugar industry wasn’t working well (something about profits), so they transitioned over to a lot of cattle ranching. Sugar plantations were much like we think of slavery in the United States on southern plantations, but with cattle ranching, the lines between master and slave were not so clear. Masters and slaves worked somewhat side-by-side. Today in the Dominican Republic, the people are a rainbow of shades and most have African heritage, but the cultural influence is clearly Spanish, and the majority of people do not think of themselves as black. While there are a lot of factors that have contributed to this, some believe that this system of slavery was a big factor.
By contrast, Haiti was a French colony and the sugar industry remained secure there, which meant that a clear distinction between classes and races remained strong. What blew me away about Haiti, though, was that the slaves rose up to fight for their freedom and won. It became known as the first black republic, and leaders of powerful countries were worried that Haiti would become an example to slaves in other nations. Blacks began leading the nation, and they rid the country of anything related to slavery. Today, pride in African heritage is an integral part of Haiti’s culture and language.
The Most Important Thing
In the above examples, I have only a vague idea of the time frame (1700’s and 1800’s), and there are a couple of names of people that I might recognize if I heard them again. But in general, I don’t know any specifics. Just understanding a few big picture ideas will help me learn some of those details later if I come across them in something I read.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned about history is that understanding the overarching story is the most important part. That’s really all it is–a story of what has happened somewhere. If I can get a basic idea of the time frame and understand the story line first, the specifics of dates and names and events will fall into place later. And even if I never learn all the specifics, it’s okay because the why and the big picture are most important.
So, What Now?
I won’t leave you there without at least a few practical ideas. If you’re a history skeptic/hater/avoider, but you want to give it a chance, this is my challenge to you:
- If you’re traveling somewhere in the next few months to a year, take some time and read a few articles to understand some bits and pieces of the history of that place. If you really want to dig deep, read a book, or listen to a news podcast. And then talk to someone you meet about something you’ve learned. Be curious. Learn from them. Here are a few of my favorite Latin America resources to get you started (of course, you can google it if you’re traveling elsewhere!):
- Revista (a magazine published by Harvard with tons of fantastic articles, many of which are country-specific)
- Of course, the PBS series mentioned above! “Black in Latin America”
- TED Talk: A forensic anthropologist talks about some of Guatemala’s recent history–really interesting and less than 10 minutes of your time.
- Books: The Latin America Readers – books that are compilations of articles and organized around various topics and time periods. Don’t feel like you have to read the whole thing, or even a lot of it! My Guatemala Reader is over 600 pages, and I am not sure if I’ll ever read the whole book. Each article is pretty short, so even if you pick it up at the library and read 3-5 articles or short chapters, that’s awesome!
- Reparando (a fantastic, well-produced documentary)–“After a long, devastating 36 year civil war in Guatemala, victims are being transformed into champions who willfully embrace their past to help repair the next generation. This is their story.”
- If you’re NOT traveling anywhere, what’s an issue that people are talking about right now? Is there more under the surface (i.e., history!) that might help you understand it more deeply? Here are a few things that have helped me understand some current events from different perspectives:
- This American Life podcast–House Rules “Where you live is important. It can dictate quality of schools and hospitals, as well as things like cancer rates, unemployment, or whether the city repairs roads in your neighborhood. On this week’s show, stories about destiny by address.”
- “The Broken American System”–how inner-city ghettos started (pages 85-86 in When Helping Hurts). I never stopped to think about this, but it says SO much about race relations today.
- Phil Vischer and company discussing a new book that suggests that “Christian America” is not just a modern idea, but a modern idea invented by corporate America (podcast is on iTunes as well)–starts around 19:40.
Thanks for stopping by! I’d love to hear your thoughts!
What are your feelings toward history? Have you approached travel this way before? What resources would you add to the list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
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