Hair of the dog

The perfect distraction for Republicans seeking respite from the Dole loss is foreign travel that includes visiting sites and people involved in domestic politics. A traveler to Haiti highly recommends it as engaging and safe.
Full Text:
WHILE on a recent visit to Haiti, my wife and I were approached in an otherwise empty restaurant by the government’s Secretary for Tourism and asked what we were doing in his unfortunate country.
“We are tourists,” we replied.
“You are not tourists,” he contradicted. “You are heroes.”
It was true that, as far as we could tell, the activities of an entire ministry were devoted to ourselves, insofar as we were the only tourists in the country for the foreseeable future. The other civilian foreigners in Haiti at the time were either AID workers wearing T-shirts demanding social justice, or businessmen of slightly dubious stripe.
But was our uniqueness enough to make us heroes? Actually, Haiti is far safer for the visitor than the English city in which I live, though its reputation is considerably worse. And I know of no one who has ever been to Haiti who has not retained something approaching an obsession with it. When you are there, it immediately becomes the center of your universe, crowding out all other concerns; you judge everything from the Haitian perspective, and nothing but the fate of Haiti seems to matter in the world. There is no better therapy for those jaded with the familiar, intractable problems of home.
A journey to a remote but politically interesting country is, in fact, the perfect antidote to world-weariness. Of course political tourism has a bad name, largely because it is associated with fellow-traveling: in England, for example, there was a well-known company called Progressive Tours, which specialized in ferrying parties of gullible utopia-seekers to Communist dictatorships. The desire among intellectuals to prove the purity of their love of humanity by fellow-traveling with Communism died hard: it was only six years ago that I was told by a prosperous English couple that they had come to Albania, then still one vast prison camp, to find out whether there was a viable alternative to the horrors of Thatcherism.
But, quite apart from residual Communist dictatorships, the world is full of political oddities to delight and instruct the political tourist. An eighteenth-century British traveler wrote: “The great uses of traveling may be comprehended in these few words, To raise in us new ideas, to enlarge the understanding, to cast off all natural prejudices, to chuse what is eligible in other countrys, and to abandon what is bad, in our own . . .” Political tourism, then, is the interesting way to study political philosophy.
One of the first valuable lessons you learn from political tourism is the limited importance of politics itself. While you remain at home, you have little sense of proportion; at dinner parties you are inclined to become embroiled in vicious spats about what is, when viewed from a wider perspective, a minor question of public policy. Your pulse races, your heart thumps, you want to demolish or even strangle your opponent: but if you are a political tourist, you suddenly recall the country you last visited, where the government was awful but the people were happy. And then you recall the Rumanian proverb: A change of rulers is the joy of fools. What had seemed so important now seems less so.
Another curious fact is that the most delightful countries to travel in are often those with the worst reputation. In part, this is because so few tourists travel to them, and you gain an instant and exhilarating feeling of the exotic. But — dare I say it? — another reason for the attractiveness of countries with bad reputations is that the people who live in them have often acquired a depth of character rarely encountered in more fortunate lands.
The fundamentals and outer reaches of human nature are often best studied in exotic places. The merchants and the missionaries are the proper study of man. Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene all knew this. And those who have followed in these men’s footsteps know the wonderful sense of freedom which arrival in a strange country confers. And it matters not at all that the exotic country in which you arrive is a political tyranny: it is a personal, not a political, liberation which such an arrival confers.
One returns refreshed, with memories fit for a deathbed. Shall I ever forget Serge, the bear-like Frenchman fleeing from Togo, where he had once been a favorite and confidant of the dictator, who had recently imprisoned him and from whose jail he had bribed his way out? He traveled with me on board an old tub captained by a swashbuckling Welshman who was making a fortune by carrying food supplied by Oxfam and Caritas to war-torn Liberia (no other boat would go). Serge, who had made and lost a fortune in Togo, had no papers: his only means of identification was his Medecins Sans Fronticres T-shirt. He was hoping to recoup his fortune in Liberia by training the rag-tag army of Field-Marshal Brigadier-General Prince Y. Johnson. I taught Serge English on the way to Monrovia, and later I met his prospective boss. One had to go to his camp in the morning, because in the afternoon he was usually drunk or high on drugs, and had a penchant for shooting people at random. When the civil war was over, he said, he wanted to be not president, but a preacher of the Gospel.
On board also was Rambo, an ex-U.S. Marine whose experiences in the Vietnam War had lent a certain strangeness to his character. He spent the journey from the Ivory Coast to Monrovia polishing his guns, in the hope that we would be attacked by pirates (as had happened in the past), so that he could exact his revenge upon the Vietcong.
They change their skies, said Horace, not their souls, who run across the sea. Though classical, he was completely wrong.

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