How much do we really know about the countries we visit?
Several news items this week have left me considering just how much we really know about the countries we visit. Freedom is something which we all too often take for granted here in the UK and wrongly assume the same rights and privileges exist when we travel abroad.
I remember returning from a brief trip to Syria in 2010 and extolling the country’s virtues. I’d walked down the streets of Old Damascus at two in the morning, I said, and felt safer than I did at home. Yet a few short months later, the conflict kicked off that has since destroyed this once peaceful nation and truths about how such security was achieved made for unpalatable reading. It was a wake-up call for me as a traveller. I’d always felt like I was well prepared. Now I realise that I didn’t know the half of it. And still don’t.
How much do we know about the politics of the countries we holiday in? Today, a Scot has received an official pardon after being handed down a three month prison sentence in glitzy Dubai for public indecency. The man’s crime was to have touched a man’s hip in a bar; his defence argued it was to avoid spilling his drink over the stranger. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has exonerated him, yet he still returns home £30,000 out of pocket and without a job as a result of this travesty of justice. He isn’t the first Brit to fall foul of Dubai’s strict laws. According to the organisation Detained in Dubai, a married couple were falsely accused of having sex out of wedlock and only escaped jail when they were able to produce their marriage certificate. Sadly, there are many more stories like the two I’ve mentioned.
A news item from the US reinforced that even in the Land of the Free all is not what it seems. I’m not even talking Trump here – though the decisions made by his administration are often hard to comprehend from this side of the Pond. No, in June of this year, New York banned child marriage under the age of 17. Though technically the legal age of marriage in most states is 18 (in Nebraska it’s 19 and Mississippi 21), loopholes permit marriage before this – and in 25 states there is no minimum age at all. We’re talking kids as young as 11, children whose life chances are altered irrevocably by the very people that should be most concerned with their welfare. So while it’s good news for New York’s minors, others in the US aren’t so well protected.
Closer to home, Spain’s young democracy is being tested by recent events in Catalonia. Franco’s 20th century repression of Basque and Catalan culture plays some role in shaping current political opinion. Whatever your views on whether the referendum should have been held and whether the ensuing result holds any weight, it has been hard to watch government-backed violence at the polling stations. It’s shocking to think that a member of the EU cares so little about freedom of speech. Such a heavy-handed approach has done little for Spain’s reputation. Only time will tell how they move forward and whether they can fix what seems, from the outside at least, to be an impossible situation.
So how much do we really know about a country before we visit? It would seem, not enough.