You can sit at home and watch history being made, hit the road and live it, or reach out and be a part of it. Yes, it’s the weird world of political travel.
Within the nebulous world of travel there are countless little corners that fall under the title of “Niche Travel,” with specialist agencies and entire organizations dedicated to serving travellers with very specific interests. From religious pilgrimages to birdwatching, railway journeys to aircraft spotting, sports events to archaeological surveys, there’s likely a company for every travel taste complete with expert guides, privileged access and special features. International politics is no exception.
Not everyone is interested in politics. In fact, many of us strenuously try to avoid all political news and will desperately change the channel, flick the page or click on any available link to dodge many politicians’ latest pontificating. However, whether you’re interested in politics or violently allergic to it, there’s no denying that many of the greatest moments in history involve politics, political leaders or political decisions. From wars and peace treaties to Nobel Prizes, coups and revolutions, it’s hard to find a moment in history that wasn’t in some way connected to politics.
Companies that specialize in politically-oriented travel often include visits to government buildings or sites of famous events. Sometimes they meet politicians, activists or journalists, or their visits are scheduled around major events like anniversaries, elections or inaugurations. However, when travelling independently, it’s often best to avoid the topic of politics completely. And in many countries, elections are especially treacherous territory.
There’s an old saying that you should never discuss sex, religion or politics if you want to keep old friends or make new ones. In many countries, to the list of reasons to avoid those topics you can add “if you want to avoid jail,” because a bit of political conversation can sometimes result in you not just losing a friendship, but actually your freedom. Likewise, it’s often not the best idea to travel during elections, but if you do happen to find yourself on the tourist trail at the same time that a country’s political leaders are on the campaign trail, give some very serious thought before strolling over to the local political rally or snapping photos at the all-candidates meeting.
It’s not that people the world over aren’t passionate about their politics – in fact, it’s often the complete opposite – rather that the sort of freedom of speech that we take for granted at home can get you in serious trouble elsewhere, even in supposed democracies. And being an overseas visitor is no guarantee of immunity.
I confess that I have had some amazing political conversations all over the world. I should add that I have never started any of them, and I have moved extremely cautiously until I’ve been confident of the lie of the land, but once I felt sure that my companion was genuine, I’ve been given insights into local and international events that no website, television network or newspaper could ever have provided.
From Mubarak-era Egypt to present-day Qatar, Chile to Argentina, and Jordan to Yeltsin’s Russia, I’ve been privileged to be given at least one person’s opinion on their country’s situation and a glimpse of what life is like beyond the official line. I’ve shared in the elation of Malawians shortly after their first-ever democratic election, spent several hours of my life watching one of Fidel Castro’s epic speeches on Cuban television, and given a very wide berth to a political rally in Kenya that shortly afterwards ended in violence. Although none of those events or conversations formed part of my pre-departure itinerary, all ended up being amongst those trips’ highlights.
However, if you’re a real political junkie and want to be at the epicentre of a spot of ballot box history outside your own border, you could quite safely look south of that same border and lend a hand in the U.S.
Technically, non-Americans are not permitted to make financial contributions to U.S. political parties or campaigns. However, there’s no rule against spending a couple of hours helping someone’s election bid. It may sound strange to contemplate assisting someone to obtain office in a foreign country, but the reality is that if the U.S. sneezes, we catch a cold and besides, I’m talking more about immersing yourself in a bit of history than interfering in sovereign affairs.
This week saw Super Tuesday, the mega-day of primaries and caucuses that will go a long way to deciding who the Democrat and Republican candidates will be in this year’s U.S. presidential election. If the politics, positions or merely the personality of one of the frontrunners catches your eye, you can reach our to their campaign office in a convenient city and see if you can lend a hand. As a non-American, you obviously can’t get paid for your help (although most campaign workers are volunteers anyway), but you’d be surprised how many will respond positively to your offer and welcome you in to do a spot of envelope-stuffing or poster-rolling for an afternoon the next time you venture south.
You may not exactly be changing the course of history or helping influence world events, but one day when you’re old, grey, grizzled and perched on a stool at the end of a bar, someone just might buy you a drink in exchange for the story of the role you played in the election of the 45th president of the United States of America!