I often ruminate on the thought that the travels I have experienced the last four months are simultaneously unique and discordantly similar to what other people in my generation have done before. I am reminded of this especially when I am couch surfing at someone’s house who was a stranger to me moments before they picked me up from whatever mode of transport I came into their town on. Most of the people couch surfing are around my age and have their own incredible stories of world travel to share with me: about the friends they met, the sights they have seen, and especially of the vulnerability to be completely on their own in an unfamiliar place.
They talk about things that I have felt in my own heart but have been unable to explain to those I love who don’t seem to understand this intrinsic necessity for me to experience life as a nomad. Their words come from their own mouths with their individual twists, and I find myself molding to them, sinking into a comfortable contentment of kindred spirits. We share parts of ourselves with one another that many people would usually only talk to their close friends about. But we know that life is incredibly short and unpredictable – to be open, in all regards, is to live a life of freedom.
After being to both the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, the Dokumentarisocialismus Musem in München, Germany, the Holodomor Memorial in Ukraine and, finally, Aushwitz-Birkenau near Krakow, Poland, I have finally formulated some (unfinished) thoughts and opinions around the past, present and future of humanity. Some of the most despicable parts of human history have been encapsulated within these museums and memorials.
These museums show that when it comes to human life as a commodity, many people have been (and continue to be) willing to take the rights and dignity of others for the furthering of their own motivations and objectives. People are placed into a category of “otherness” by those in power or those who have influence over the populace (these are quite often the same people) in order to polarize and divide a community. These factions and sides, with already differing beliefs, are pushed farther on each end of their political and ideological spectrum in order to remain steadfast in their knowledge, while those who rule the country are left to their own surreptitious actions of destruction.
This is how it began in Germany with the Jewish, Sinti, Roma, homosexual (the list goes on) pogroms as well as in Rwanda with the Tutsi genocides – the creation of identification cards, allowing for easy access to a religious or tribal affiliation that all can see and placing inexcusable blame upon the “other” for the reasons that the government and life in general have begun to sink into a downward spiral. This succeeds in further polarizing the “other” by attempting to create a uniform society that does not reflect the diversity that has long made a community and the world at large something to be renowned and appreciated. I see such sadness intertwined in all of these cultures that I have spent time in – an unconscious guilt that I wish I experienced in the United States in regards to the atrocities committed against Native Americans, black citizens, those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum (the list goes on). Instead, I feel a consistent lack of acknowledgement and responsibility, and worse than that, a cyclical return to hateful and genocidal actions.
There is no way to ignore the harm and legacy that 45 has created in the United States in less than a year as “president”, and those ramifications are truly felt worldwide. I will be processing the infinite conversations I have had during my travels of people trying to understand how he could possibly be in power. Trying to explain my disappointment, my admonishment of those hateful people who voted for him, the Electoral College (logic does not apply), and how scared I am of the future has left me depleted and hollow about my eventual return to it all. How do we want to be viewed by the rest of the world? Do we want to continue being the joke of the world’s powers – laughed at, mocked for our hypocritical policies, heads shaking at the absurdity of it all, and at worst, despised for our ignorance of not only our own country, but the rest of the world and our impact upon it?
For some, the United States has been seen as a beacon of light in regards to individual rights and freedom. As a girl in Poland recently told me, she has always thought of the U.S. as a hope for her own country’s future and the possibility for equality — that is, until now. As a man in Prague told me recently, he feels that the U.S. is finally getting what it deserves in its share of “tyrannical dictators.” A man in Ethiopia commented that he wished he could go to the U.S. so that he could see a country that has succeeded so well in wiping away the remnants of colonization and mass genocide that should stain its surface. Conversations like this force me to take a deep breath before responding, knowing that the impact of my words and my perspectives have the potential to improve an individual’s idea of what the U.S. stands for, showing them a different side to the atrocities that they see and hear.
This has brought about an interesting discussion that I have had with many different people in regards to best practices of coming out of a genocidal regime. Weird concept, right? “Best practices for post-genocide.” How does a country, its citizens, and its leaders decide how to move forward from a horrific event that has often left more than half the population displaced, traumatized or murdered? How do you bring two opposing sides of political and personal ideology back together in a way that does the least amount of continual damage, while respecting the individual rights and beliefs of everyone in the country? The answer is, you don’t. There are always going to be radical factions on both sides of the spectrum – the question is, how far do you allow these ideologies to be perpetuated? Is it possible to control? And who is in charge of managing this relationship?
I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions. As a girl in Rwanda told me, there are good ways to remember the genocides so as not to repeat them again, but there is a fine line where these actions rip open the scabs that are slowly trying to heal. Children of the Hutu clan in Kigali are forced to dig open the graves of murdered Tutsi people in order to humanize the history of the genocides. The girl watched the line of children parade down the street, tears streaking their cheeks and vomit staining the fronts of their shirts. Rwanda has to be one of my favorite countries that I have visited this last third of a year, and it is incredibly peaceful. There is an eerie calm throughout the country that reminded me of how it must have felt to be in that movie with Jim Carrey where he is in a fake world. I felt the tranquility of everyone on their best behavior, where everything was in order and no one stepped out of line. A pin could have popped the tension in the air, similar to Jim Carrey finally stepping through the door of his movie set life. The motorcycle taxi drivers always have a helmet for passengers. People on the streets are kind, polite and no one asked me for money (no one – that has never happened before, anywhere in the world). There are police officers with AK-47s on every street corner. Things work, the country is in order, people appear happy. But is that recovery? Is that freedom? Who am I to say?
All of these thoughts have come out of some of the most incredible experiences of my life. I know the privilege I have to be able to travel for so long and to have the perspective that I do to observe as opposed to being stuck in the worlds that I have encountered. I hope that by sharing these experiences, I can help others see the world in a different way than they have previously, with an open heart to those who are different and have the courage to stand up for what is right. I hope that it more people speak out on a daily basis when they see harassment on the street, when someone is being bullied in an online forum, or when someone’s human rights are stripped of them due to ignorance and fear. I am sometimes sick to my stomach when I think of where the United States is headed, until I am surprised once again by the compassion, kindness and love that I feel from strangers and those I love alike.
It is not too late to make sure that history does not repeat itself, and I fully intend on being a part of the resistance. I hope that you do, too.