VOTE for I B I T !!!!!

I need your online vote to be named National Geographic Traveler of the Year. It’s easy and it’s quick!

Greg Gross, founder of IBIT

When National Geographic Traveler magazine announced earlier this month that I had been named one of its ten Travelers of the Year, I was stunned. I also thought that was the end of it.

I was wrong. The magazine is now holding an online election allowing you, the reader, to select your People’s Choice Traveler of the Year.

I’d be deeply honored if you’d vote for me.

Voting will be allowed daily through Oct. 25. The winner will be announced Oct. 29.

NatGeo Logo 2014

The voting process itself is easy:

  1. Click on this link or click on the logo, at right.
  2. Look for the pic of Greg Gross (that’s me).
  3. Click on the box with the trophy beneath the pic.
  4. Click on the green Vote button just above and to the right.

That’s it! Your vote is cast! All elections should be so painless!

You’re allowed to vote once a day, but here’s the catch: You can vote as many times per day as you like, as long you use a different device each time. Desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones — anything with Internet access will work.

So let’s put IBIT on the world travel map. And as always, thank you for reading “I’m Black and I Travel!”

INTRODUCING: IBIT’s very own travel agency

Trips by Greg biz card 2

When you’re ready to start turning your travel dreams into travel memories, we’re here for you. Right here. Right now.

Since 2009, “I’m Black and I Travel!” has been telling you about the world’s great destinations and ways to get there — places where you can see unbelievable sights, sample amazing food, meet fascinating people and delve into their cultures.

Now, we can take you to those places, through Trips by Greg LLC, an independent travel agency specializing in cultural, heritage and luxury travel worldwide. Airlines. Cruises. Hotels. Resorts. Rental cars. We do it all.

I say “we” because I’ve got lots of back-up, thanks to the hosting of Pat Walker Travel of Beverly Hills, not to mention Worldview Travel, the Virtuoso luxury travel network and independent, experienced tour operators around the globe.

With these resources, I can help you design your dream trip.

While the Trips by Greg LLC Web site is under construction, you can email me with any travel questions or requests. Or you can call or text (858) 215-4248.

IBIT will still bring the travel world to you. Now, you’ve got Trips by Greg LLC to bring you to the world. Are you ready? Let’s go!

IBIT is a “Traveler of the Year”

National Geographic Traveler magazine names IBIT creator Greg Gross as one of ten “individuals who travel with passion and purpose.”

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Every year since 2012, National Geographic Traveler magazine singles out ten Travelers of the Year — in their words, “individuals who travel with passion and purpose, have an exceptional story to tell, and represent a style of travel, motivation, or method that can inform and inspire us all.”

The ten NatGeo Travelers of the Year for 2014 were announced this morning — and IBIT is one of them.

NatGeo did interviews with each of us. Please read them. The only thing better than being inspired to travel is being inspired ten times over. You can read mine here.

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I’m very grateful to the folks at NatGeo Traveler, and even more to whoever nominated me (I have no idea who that was). Most of all, I’m grateful to you, the readers of this blog. You keep me going. Thank you all.

Since its launch in June 2009, this blog has grown and evolved, but its purpose remains unchanged, to encourage Americans in general, and Black Americans especially, to get out and see the world.

Actually, instead of “see the world,” perhaps I should say “meet the world.” Because we live in a time when knowing our global neighbors is critical to our well-being as a nation.

Two years after 9/11, a high-powered panel of scholars put together a report on the need for American students not just to study abroad, but to take those international studies beyond the cultural comfort zone that is Western Europe:

  • “As a nation we suffer from a pervasive lack of knowledge about the world. [emphasis mine] There have been periods, indeed entire eras, in our history where Americans have relished their isolation from the world.”
  • “Some have made speaking only English a point of national pride instead of a disgrace. Never mind that the schools of most countries, rich or poor, teach at least two languages to their children.
  • “In the most prosperous nation on the planet, with the most extensive system of higher education, we are notoriously inept at imparting languages to our youth.”
  • “We strongly believe that the events of September 11, 2001, constituted a wake-up call—a warning that America’s ignorance of the world is now a national liability.” [emphasis mine]

That report came out in 2003. Eleven years later, has anything really changed?

Well, maybe one thing has. As I talk and listen to IBIT readers and others, whether in the flesh or in cyberspace, I get the sense that young Black Americans are traveling more than ever before.

I remember having breakfast a few years ago at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC’s famous U Street Corridor, overhearing a young Black woman describe to a friend her working visit to Moscow. It sent my spirit soaring.

More and more of our young people are going farther and more often. Not just for learning or leisure, but to jump-start careers and even build new lives for themselves overseas. You’ve met some of those young people on this blog, and in the weeks, months and years to come, you’re going to meet more of them.

Still, for each of our young people who are stepping up, stepping out and taking their rightful place as a citizen of the world, there remain too many others whose view and understanding of that world doesn’t extend beyond the invisible boundaries of their neighborhood.

That has to change. We have to change it. Because as my friend, Shay Olivarria, likes to remind folks, “The world is bigger than your block.”

The work continues.

African Union hqs, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

AFRICA: The hotels are coming

Western tourists may be staying from Africa because of ebola, but the world’s hoteliers are rushing in. That bodes well for the future of African travel.

The Africa Hotel Investment Forum is an annual two-day meetup of African governments, business leaders and hotel operators. This year’s event was held last week in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

This isn’t one of those conventions held mainly to give business people an excuse to party. Deals get done here. And the deals coming out of this year’s forum were major.

Nine hotel corporations signed to build 41 new hotels across Africa over the next six years, nearly a dozen in the next three years.

We’re talking Wyndham, Inter-Continental, Accor, Marriott. Also in the mix, Best Western, Starwood (the folks who own the Sheraton brand), W Hotels, Carlson Rezidor (the folks behind the Radisson Blu hotels) and Hilton Worldwide.

All of them household names among the world’s travelers. All of them heavy hitters in the hospitality industry. And all of them looking to step up their game on the Mother Continent.

Meanwhile, you now have multiple African nations all but climbing over one another in hopes of hosting this forum next year.

This is part of an ongoing hotel building boom across Africa. There were more than 200 hotel projects — to create some 40,000 new rooms — in the works even before last week’s deals became public.

If I sound excited, it’s because I am. While there’s no guarantee that all of these places will actually get built, enough of them will to perhaps change the face of African travel and tourism.

Clearly, the world’s hoteliers are looking past the current ebola outbreak and are making plans for the long-term. That in itself is a good thing.

Most of these new hotels are being built with business travelers in mind, as well as MICE tourism.

(MICE has nothing to do with rodents. It stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Events.)

Business types aren’t the only ones who need nice places to stay. So do diplomats. The African Union has its headquarters (seen above) in Addis Ababa, where this year’s forum was held. And several of those hotel deals were for new hotels in Addis.

So what does any of this hotel boom have to do with you, the potential Africa visitor who’s not looking to swing business or political deals?

Potentially, a lot.

Currently, the top form of African vacation travel by far is safari travel. Has been for decades. The best safari operators have it down to a science, an art form, and it annually draws travelers from around the world.

But not everyone interested in Africa is necessarily interested in safaris. And those who aren’t often forgo Africa for other destinations.

The other reasons to visit the Mother Continent are almost too many to list — history and heritage, music, art, food, fashion, film, education, adventure, culture, religion.

But the travelers looking for those things need places to stay, preferably in the cities where they’re most likely to find what they’re looking for.

For this kind of traveler, even the most luxuriously appointed safari camp out in the bush probably won’t work.

Having more and better hotels means that African countries will be able to offer travelers more lodging in their urban centers. Keeping those rooms filled — and adding more of them — will give those nations incentive to do something they have long needed to do — diversify their attractions for the leisure traveler.

African travel and tourism will never reach their full potential until they can offer the traveler a broader range of options and attractions. Building new and better hotels could be an important first step toward achieving that.

Interior of airplane with people inside

Reclining airline seats:
Do (not) unto others

Rather than pricey seat-blocking gadgets or juvenile, combative behavior, try this old-school alternative when you fly: courtesy. Works every time.

The buzz in the airline industry these days is about passengers apparently losing their minds when the passenger in front of them reclines their seat.

Airline travelers of a certain age will remember when there was enough space between each row of seats for every passenger to recline in comfort. No need to worry about bruising someone’s knees or maybe breaking their laptop…or their nose.

To put it mildly, things have changed.

The airlines’ determination to squeeze every possible dollar out of every flight has seen them cram extra rows of seats into their aircraft.

That’s how it is in Economy, anyway.

The farther you go toward the front of the airplane, and the more money you pay for your seat, the more legroom you get. Which makes all this a non-issue in First or Business class.

Back in Sardine Class, unfortunately, “it’s on!” Instead of Star Wars, we now have Seat Wars.

Nowadays, when we recline our seats, or the passenger in front of us reclines theirs, it’s increasingly becoming a cue for airline drama. Passengers are defending their precious few inches of “seat pitch” as if they were the Alamo, and the entire Mexican army were occupying the seat in front of them.

Complaints to flight attendants. Foul language. Kicking the back of the offender’s seat. In some instances, fights have broken out — three in the last week or so.

Some passengers are even resorting to using expensive gadgets designed to block the seat in front of them from reclining, leading to yet more drama.

The result: Flights having to be diverted due to disturbances on board. Passengers have been kicked off airplanes, even arrested after unleashing their inner brat at 35,000 feet.

(NOTE: Some airlines prohibit the use of seat-blocking devices. In some cases, breaking them out will automatically get you in trouble.)

Seriously, people, is this the 21st century? Are we grown-ups? Air travel isn’t already miserable enough?

IBIT has a solution to stop this madness. It’s simple. It’s been around forever. Best of all, it’s free.

It’s called “courtesy.”

If you want to recline your seat, ask the passenger behind you. If they object, don’t recline.

As soon as you can, even before the plane takes off, politely ask the passenger in front of you to give you a heads-up when they want to recline their seat. Or even more politely ask them not to.

Anything beyond that, explain the situation to a flight attendant and leave it with them.

I’m reluctant to call this “common courtesy” because, frankly, it no longer seems all that common, if it ever really was. But I’m convinced it still works, especially if we all commit to using it.

And there’s no better time to break out a courtesy jihad than when encapsulated in an aluminum tube moving at not quite the speed of sound seven miles above the ground.

We paying passengers may not have created this situation, but taking our frustration and discomfort out on one another is unlikely to make any of it better.

We’re all in this misery together; we might as well cut one another some slack and make the best of it until we reach our destination, yes?

© Illuminativisual | Dreamstime.com - Ethiopian Airlines Photo

AFRICA: Ethiopian and United hook up

United logo

The new codeshare agreement between Africa’s largest airline and North America’s third largest promises smoother connections for air travelers between the United States and nearly the whole of Africa.

Little by little, the handful of Africa’s transcontinental airlines are reaching toward the US market. And America’s airlines, slowly and quietly, are reaching back.

The latest gesture came last month, when Ethiopian Airlines signed a codesharing agreement with United Airlines.

Ethiopian is the largest airline in Africa and has a solid reputation among international airlines. United is one of largest airlines in the world, one of the few remaining “legacy airlines” in the United States, and one of only two us airlines flying to Africa (Delta being the other).

Both already were members of the Star Alliance when they signed the agreement.

When two or more airlines agree to codeshare, they are agreeing to let the other airline(s) in the agreement list flights in the name(s) of the other airlines(s).

Essentially, my airline actually makes the flight in your name, under your flight number, while your airline pockets the airfare. And vice versa.

This enables United to sell tickets to African destinations without having to use its own aircraft and flight crews. Ethiopian can do the same for its customers wanting to fly to more US destinations than Ethiopian is now allowed to serve.

(As we’ve talked about before here on IBIT, our FAA allows African airlines access to extremely few US airports. As of this writing, only one of them, Los Angeles, is west of the Mississippi River.)

The new agreement means that Ethiopian will run flights on behalf of United between Washington Dulles (IAD) and a dozen African destinations, from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar.

United, in return, will operate flights for Ethiopian between IAD and 22 US cities, nearly half of which are in Midwest or western states — all the way to Honolulu.

So what’s in it for you as a traveler?

For one thing, it gives you seamless connections between your home airport and your African destinations. It also means that the frequent-flier miles you amass on either airline will be good on both, as well as many, if not all, of the other Star Alliance airlines.

And the Star Alliance just happens to be the world’s largest airline alliance, with 27 member airlines serving 192 countries.

Short form: This is a good thing.

ALSO CHECK OUT
AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 1
AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 2

Comoros, Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles

AFRICA: Go North, East or South

Does the ebola virus outbreak make you nervous about visiting West Africa? That still leaves you with a whole continent to explore and treasure.

A longstanding, widespread ignorance about Africa in the United States predisposes a lot of would-be visitors to a hysterical view of events on the Mother Continent. And when it comes to Africa, mainstream media always stand ready to deliver hysteria in abundance.

The latest example is the current outbreak of the ebola virus that now affects a total of six African nations.

Five are in West AfricaLiberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and most recently, Senegal. The sixth is the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

As a virus that creates deadly infections and has no cure, ebola certainly is no joke, but a little perspective may be in order here.

As of this writing, ebola has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa since the outbreak was first recognized as such in February of this year.

Across the African continent, malaria will have killed more people than that by the end of the day, maybe even before you finish reading this. It’s been that way for centuries.

Yet malaria somehow has never stopped people from traveling to Africa for business, education or leisure.

A little more perspective. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, some say as many as 100 million, more than were killed in World War 1. Did the world stay home after that? I think not.

Ebola is scary. Terrifying, in fact. So if you’d rather wait until West Africa gets the current outbreak in hand before returning the region to your list of must-see destinations, that’s perfectly understandable. And at this point, it’s highly unlikely that the DRC was on your must-visit list, anyway.

Africa flags

Meanwhile, allow me to point out something that mainstream media will not tell you: Africa is a continent of 54 nations, 48 of which are utterly unaffected by ebola.

AFRICA IS A CONTINENT, REMEMBER?
At least nine of those nations are in West Africa, but you’ve written off that entire region for the time being, right? So what does that leave us?

It leaves us the northern, eastern, central and southern regions of the world’s second largest continent to see, explore and treasure.

In North Africa, it leaves Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Yes, Egypt. You remember Egypt, right? Cairo. The pharaohs, the pyramids, ancient history and culture that predate the birth of Christ.

There are no State Department travel alerts or the more dire travel warnings in effect on Egypt. None. Not on Morocco or Tunisia, either.

Most travelers associate the Nile, ones of the world’s great rivers, with Egypt…and only Egypt. In fact, the Nile is not just a river, but a river system shared by 11 African countries — Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.

To see where that system begins, and what it means to life in nearly a quarter of the African continent, you’ll have to go south of Egypt and into East Africa.

THE OTHER “GREAT LAKES”
The first thing you’ll find out is that the Nile has more than one source. The Blue Nile originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The White Nile has as its mother the far larger Lake Victoria, whose shore is shared by three East African nations — Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

This also is where you find out that Lake Victoria is one of the Great Lakes.

That’s right: North America is not the only continent in the world with a Great Lakes region. The North American version has five lakes in all. Africa’s boasts 15.

Cross-border incursions from Somalia by the jihadi terrorists of al Shabab might make some folks a bit nervous about visiting Kenya these days, but Tanzania and Uganda have no such issues.

And no ebola, either.

So what do they have? Start with great natural beauty. Tanzania has 13 national parks, Uganda 10. Thirty percent of Uganda is covered by water, not bad for a country that is 100 percent land-locked.

Tanzania has Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa and one of the world’s Seven Summits. In the entire world, there are 700 mountain gorillas; 400 of them live and can be seen in Uganda.

Another good place to see the beauty of nature and the majesty of the mountain gorillas is Rwanda. Indeed, TripAdvisor can show you a list of 62 different things that make Rwanda worth a visit.

NOT JUST IN KENYA
Kenya has worked hard to give the world the impression that all the Maasai people live within their borders, to the point where they’ve practically become a living symbol of the country, a very tall national brand.

But if you’re skittish about visiting Kenya these days, you can still get to know the Maasai in northern Tanzania, one of the 125 different ethnic groups that live in the country.

Uganda, a country no bigger than Oregon, has 56.

(NOTE: You’ll be hearing more — a lot more — about Uganda on IBIT in the coming days and weeks.)

Keep going south and there’s South Africa. Its wildlife. Its cities. Its wine country. Its coastline. Its history. A whole nation still sorting itself out, post-apartheid, post-Nelson Mandela.

But as you look south, you’ll soon realize there’s a lot more to southern Africa and just South Africa.

Angola. Zambia. Malawi. Mozambique. Botswana. Zimbabwe. Namibia. Each with its own charms, its own attractions, its own layered, complex past.

Off the eastern coast of southern Africa, a short cruise or even shorter flight from the mainland, you have the islands — the Comoros, Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles.

Speaking of islands, there’s a lovely set of them off West Africa, untouched by ebola — the Cape Verde Islands. They even have their own airline that connect to the United States via Boston.

So as you can see from all the above, if you want to visit Africa without exposing yourself to major hazards, be they natural or man-made, it really isn’t all that hard when you’ve got most of a continent to work with.

All you have to do is turn off the hysteria of the mainstream media and do some research of your own.

Then find yourself a good, knowledgeable travel agent and start making plans for journey of a lifetime.

WHERE TO START
Some links to help jump-start your research. Let me emphasize that this is just to get you started. If you encounter a problem with any of these links, leave a comment or send me an email:

North Africa
Egypt
Morocco (in French)
Tunisia

East Africa
Ethiopia
Kenya
Rwanda
Tanzania
Uganda

Southern Africa
Angola
Botswana
Malawi
Mozambique
Namibia
South Africa
Zambia
Zimbabwe

African islands
Cape Verde
Comoros (in French)
Madagascar
Mauritius
Reunion
Seychelles

In addition to guidebooks and Web sites, make a point of seeking out expats from the African countries you wish to visit. Let them know of your interest and ask questions.

AIRLINES: Anatomy of an airfare

Airbus A330 in Turkish Airlines livery.
Turkish Airlines A330. Image courtesy of Turkish Airlines.

Why does international air travel cost so much? A breakdown of a single transcontinental flight reveals just how much you pay in taxes and fees — and why.

If you’re like me, you dream of seeing the world. You read travel magazines, watch travel shows on television. The destinations are breathtaking. You want to go.

The you start pricing airline flights to some of those far-flung destinations. The airfares, it turns out, are just as breathtaking, and not in a good way.

To borrow from a rhetorical riff made famous by New York’s Jimmy MacMillan, the airfares are too damn high.

The airlines cry foul when they hear such complaints, arguing that airfares, often, are lower now than they’ve ever been, thanks in no small part to the many jumbo jets moving enormous numbers of passengers around the world every day.

So who’s right?

Welcome to Tax & Fee World, ladies and gentlemen. Wish I could tell you to enjoy the ride.

To see just how ugly it can get, let’s break down a typical international airfare.

Turkey, a living bridge of history and culture between Europe and Asia, is one of the destinations on my list of must-see countries. So let’s look at a round-trip airfare for two from Los Angeles to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.

I also chose Premium Economy seats over Economy (or as I like to call it, Sardine Class) because LAX-IST is a 13-hour flight, I’m not a small guy and I don’t feel like suffering for 13 non-stop hours.

BREAKING IT DOWN
The fare that I found on Turkish Airlines came to $3,811.20 for two people, or $1,905.60 per person. But the base fare for that flight is $1,488 per person, or $2,976 for two. For a flight of that distance on an upscaled seating class, that’s not bad.

But what accounts for that extra $835 and change?

This Turkish Airlines fare comes with nine added taxes and fees, each charged per passenger. Seven of these are levied by the United States government:

  • An international departure tax and an international arrival tax. That’s $17.50 four times: $70.
  • A 9/11 security fee of $5.60. Multiply by two: $11.20
  • A passenger facility charge of $4.50, which goes to LAX for airport improvements. Again, multiply by two: $9.
  • A $5.50 Customs fee, twice: $11
  • A $7 Immigration inspection fee, times two: $14
  • This one’s for animal and plant health inspectors, the folks who keep destructive non-native plant and insect pests out of the US. Five dollars per passenger: $10.

Added together, that’s a hefty $125.20. That alone would be bad enough. But we’re not done. Two of those nine added taxes and fees are from the Turkish end of this trip.

There’s the international airport service charge of $15. Again, multiply by two. That’s another $30. So we’re now up to $155.20 in taxes and fees.

But I’ve saved the “best” for last, the fuel surcharge imposed by Turkish Airlines — $340. Yes, per person.

Drum roll, please: $680. And that’s before you’ve paid a dime in baggage fees.

(NOTE: Airlines have a more generous baggage allowance on international than on domestic flights, so as long as you don’t overpack, you should be able to get by without paying to check your bags.)

It all adds up to $835 in added taxes and fees. For that amount of money, you could fly round-trip between LAX and Miami. Twice. With enough cash left over to pay for a day or two’s worth of car rental.

So why should we have to pay all that?

THE REASONS WHY
First, note that by far the largest add-on goes to neither the US nor the Turkish government. It goes to Turkish Airlines to help cover their fuel bill.

All those who have no clue about the high cost of fuel these days, raise your hand — as you board your bus.

Two of those fees go to the airports at either end of the flight. Airports, especially international airports, cost money to run, and even more to upgrade. Should at least some of that money come from the travelers using that airport 24/7?

Four of the charges go purely to security — passenger control, customs checks, immigration checks and agricultural inspections. None of that is what you could call frivolous.

Only the arrival and departure taxes ultimately wind up in Uncle Sam’s general fund.

So the next time somebody agonizes aloud over the high cost of international air travel, you’ll be able to break it down for them. It won’t make paying it all any less painful, but at least you’ll know the reasoning behind it.

FLYING FOREIGN
If you’ve never flown internationally before, you might wonder why I would choose a foreign national carrier like Turkish Airlines over a US-based airline to fly all the way across North America, the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.

The reasons have nothing to do with bargain fares, since all international airlines charge pretty similar rates these days.

When traveling to a different part of the world for the first time, I’ve found that using that country’s national airline can serve as a nice introduction to that country and its culture.

It’s perhaps the most comfortable way to take that first step out of your cultural comfort zone.

Pride also enters into it. National “flag carriers,” as they’re known in the airline industry, are representing their countries to the rest of the world, and they take that seriously. As such, they work hard to make the best possible impression on their passengers, especially those from abroad.

So when air passengers polled by the British airline rating site Skytrax rate Turkish not only higher than almost any US airline, but also the best in Europe, it wasn’t a total shock. The in-flight service on major foreign airlines is often better, sometimes markedly better, than that of their US counterparts.

If you’re going to spend a half-day or longer flying halfway around the world, you want to do that with people who take your comfort seriously.

Traveling While Black: Hold Your Fire

We often assume that certain reactions to “us” from people in other countries are based on racism, when it’s really about not knowing. Better to hold your fire until you’re sure.

As Black Americans contemplating venturing beyond North America for the first time, we fret a lot over how we’re going to be seen — and treated — by the rest of the world.

Once on the journey, we’re alert for even the most minor of slights, which we often take as being deliberate disrespect, motivated by racial prejudice. Reaction is almost a reflex.

At the very least, it can ruin a carefully planned and very expensive vacation. The worst-case possibilities, you don’t even want to contemplate.

A lot of this has its roots in an assumption that, since the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, the rest of the world is intimately familiar with what it means to be Black in the United States.

The assumption is wrong.

Does this mean there are no anti-black attitudes anywhere outside the US? Absolutely not. But every uncomfortable encounter is not necessarily what it seems.

NOT EVERYONE KNOWS
A lot of our experienced Black travelers have understood that for a long time, and make allowances for it. As a result, they seldom run into problems when they’re trotting the globe.

Me? I had to go all the way to China to learn that.

Throughout my China trip, I saw more Chinese tourists than foreign ones. Many were from the vastness of rural China, undoubtedly seeing big cities for the first time in their lives.

For them, a city the size of Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong is a seemingly endless series of mysteries, not the least of which may be the sight of a dark-skinned foreign tourist.

I later learned that their relative lack of sophistication earns them contempt, and sometimes abuse, from their more urbanized countrymen. What’s more, the Chinese government for decades has imposed restrictions on their ability to move to the big cities for education, work, even health care.

It would be as if an Iowa high school graduate needed an internal passport to attend the University of California, Berkeley, or go to Arizona for specialized cancer treatment.

If they know so little about urban life in their own country, is it fair to expect them to know all about “us,” half a world away?

Probably not.

NOT EVEN AFRICANS
This is hardly limited to China. In many places, all they know of “us” is what they read in a magazine or see in a film or a video.

It’s not that other nationalities are inherently racist, or hostile to Black Americans. They just don’t know.

This is often true even among Africans, whose cultural conditioning puts them much closer to Europeans than to us.

All of this is compounded by the fact that, even thought our numbers are gradually growing, Black Americans travel relatively little outside the United States. So a lot of people in a lot of other places don’t see us, don’t meet us, and as a result, don’t know all that much about our culture or our lives in the States.

Should we automatically condemn folks for not knowing? Should people elsewhere automatically “down” you and me for the things about other cultures that we’re clueless about?

If so, we could be in line for a lot of grief. Presuming that the rest of the world knows more about “us” than it actually does can lead to misunderstandings when we travel.

The last thing you need 10,000 miles from home is a lot of unnecessary drama.

If you think about it, it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to expect the rest of the world to know everything about our country, even to the point of expecting everyone to speak English wherever we go.

Whether traveling ourselves or encountering other travelers at home, we all need to cut one another some slack. Let’s get to know the world, and give the world a chance to know us.

When in doubt, especially in someone else’s country and dealing with an unfamiliar culture, it’s better to keep calm and hold your fire until you’re sure.

And even then, it’s still probably better to just keep calm and travel on.

The biggest little nation on Earth

Rome also is home to the world’s smallest sovereign state. Blink and you could miss it. But this tiny country does big things on the world’s behalf.

Next time you’re in Rome, just for grins, you should check out the world’s smallest country. It should only take about 30 seconds, just long enough to snap a couple of “here I am” selfies in front of it.

Officially, Vatican City, nestled within the urban footprint of Rome, is the world’s smallest sovereign state. Technically, however, there is one even smaller.

Much smaller.

This country doesn’t have a capital. It has a street address: Via Condotti, 68. That’s because the entire country consists of one building.

If your kitchen table has four chairs, you could have the entire population nation over for dinner. That’s because officially, this “nation” has only three citizens.

This country goes by several names. One of the better known — and shorter — of them is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, aka the Knights of Malta.

It’s a Roman Catholic Church order that claims the status of a sovereign entity — and is officially recognized as such.

This sovereign state actually has two buildings. The other, fittingly enough, is on the island of Malta.

If you put this entire sovereign state together in one spot, with all its citizens and associates, you could probably fit it all inside a single Walmart.

Comfortably.

As with many other institutions you’ll find within the walls of “the Eternal City,” the Order of Malta, which includes many more than three people, maintains a lot of traditional pomp and ceremony. If you’re into European antiquity, you’ll no doubt find some of that fascinating.

But what hooked my attention was what these modern-day knights are up to in today’s world. These folks, who tend to be either rich or super-rich, have made “giving back” their life’s work.

Hospitals for the poor. Disaster relief. Refugee aid. Services for the elderly and disabled. Training for first responders and emergency service workers.

And they do all that in 120 countries.

They don’t care where you come from, what you look like, whether you’re Christian, Muslim or something else. They don’t care about your politics.

And they say they’ve been rolling this way for more than 900 years.

So if your rambles around Rome puts you in the vicinity of the Knights of Malta, pause for a moment and check it out.

And if anyone ever asks you where to find the world’s smallest country, you not only can tell them, but you can give them the address.

Worshipper in Sof Omar Cave, Ethiopia

A new Grand Tour

First of an occasional series

The Louvre, Paris
The Louvre, Paris — ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

It’s time for travel to take its rightful place alongside the Three R’s.

Back in the 16th century, upper-class Europeans sent their kids on luxurious journeys around the Old World. Sounds fabulous, and it was.

But luxury wasn’t the aim of these extended 5-star road trips. The point was to learn, and learn, they did. Languages. Architecture. Art. Geography. Music. Religion. It was a cultural rite of passage and you weren’t viewed as being truly educated until you’d completed it.

It became known as the Grand Tour of Europe.

Travel has an important role to play in today’s education — not as a pricey elective nor a long-running party, but as part of a serious preparation for life in the modern world.

And any 21st century version of the Grand Tour can no longer be confined to Europe.

There was a time when we had little contact with anyone or anything beyond our own shores, nor did we need it. Ours was an insular existence that seldom extended beyond our own line of sight.

Those days are long gone.

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
You know what’s happening. Most of what you buy/use/wear/eat comes from somewhere else, in ships that were built somewhere else, and more of us can afford more things because of that. We’ve lost jobs to other countries, and gained jobs from other countries.

Challenges and opportunities are coming at us from all directions, and thanks in large part to the Web, both seem to arrive at the speed of light.

Have you ever seen an airport that used to be surrounded by miles and miles of open space? Now, that space is full of suburbia — homes, office towers, shopping malls — and the pilots who take off from and land at that airport have to deal with all that.

The United States is a lot like that airport. The world’s two great oceans no longer serve as strategic barriers or cultural buffers. The world has grown closer — in some ways, a lot closer.

That is our new reality, and like those pilots, future generations of Americans will have to deal with it. We need to do a better job of preparing them for it.

Part of that preparation is to send them out into that world to learn firsthand about its peoples, their histories, their cultures, and yes, even their languages.

It’s time for a new Grand Tour.

The new version need not be about grand style, but it should immerse the student-traveler in the same academic themes of the original. Languages. Architecture. Art. Geography. Music. Religion.

PRIORITIES
I would add technology and food into the mix. Global trends in technology is an obvious one, but why food? Because knowing something about the world’s staples can give you insights into agriculture and the economies of nations, even continents.

Don’t tell me we can’t afford to do this; we can. It comes down to how we set our priorities.

We spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars every year to send our young people around the world to kill and die in our names. It’s time we used some of that money to help better educate them through travel — not just for their personal benefit, but for that of the nation.

If we did, perhaps we might not need to call on the Pentagon quite so often.

The time has come for travel to take its rightful place alongside “the three R’s” — reading, writing and arithmetic.

So periodically, we’re going to take a look at what a Grand Tour might look like in this new century — where it might go, how it might work, what we might learn.

And first up will be the continent whose importance may come to dominate this century, and the one about which we as a nation know the least:

AFRICA.

How to enjoy the world’s great cities

Shinjuku district, Tokyo
Shinjuku district, Tokyo / © Perati Komson | Dreamstime.com

Want to get the most out of the world’s big cities, without being overwhelmed? Think like a sushi chef.

You know the great cities of the world. Places like New York, London and Paris. Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. Tokyo and Hong Kong. Cairo, Lagos and Nairobi.

Different continents, different cultures, different vibes, but all of them equally, mind-numbingly enormous. Within five minutes of arriving in this massive jumble of unfamiliar buildings, street and teeming crowds, you feel engulfed, overwhelmed.

Jet lag only makes it all worse.

Some of these cities boast an urban footprint so wide that it could take you an hour to fly across it. Some have neighborhoods whose populations exceed a million people.

It’s easy for mega-cities to intimidate a first-time visitor, especially when you don’t speak the language. But even a native-born American hitting Manhattan for the first time can feel lost amid the sheer density, intensity and enormity of the place.

Still, there are too many attractions in the world’s great cities — not the least of which are the cities themselves and the creative energy of their people — to kick them off your bucket list.

So how do you get the best out of a big city, without returning home physically drained and mentally steamrolled?

Start by letting go of unrealistic expectations. Fully getting to know one of these cities could take years, maybe a lifetime. You’ve got what, a week, ten days? It’s not going to happen, so don’t worry about it.

How, then, do you approach one of these mega-cities?

Think tapas, sushi, Szechuan. Tasty meals served up in small bites. You can handle the big cities the same way. Break them up into smaller, manageable chunks. Slice and dice your visit.

The reality is that every city, no matter how big, is still a cluster of communities, a collection of neighborhoods, each with its own character, its own personality.

So just go mentally Benihana on the place.

Most cities are already split into sections and districts — New York and its boroughs, Paris and its arrondissements for instance. Such divisions all serve to subdivide the world’s gigantic cities into smaller bits that a resident — or a traveler — can cope with.

Within each of these urban sub-units, you’ll find neighborhoods. Look for one that holds major interest for you. It could be anything — food, music, fashion, art, architecture, shopping, night life, whatever.

When you find the one that hooks your interest, find a hotel there and make that your base. Even better, find a vacation rental or short-stay apartment and become a temporary “local” yourself.

Turn a block or two off even the largest, most crowded, pulsating boulevards of the world’s biggest cities and you can suddenly find yourself in a small residential neighborhood, an island of calm and quiet, where you can encounter people as individuals and not a churning river of faces.

Walk around. Visit the local shops, eateries. Take advantage of public transportation. Look for excuses to strike up conversations with others locals.

Even if your visit takes you to other parts of the city, make sure you spend a part of each day making yourself familiar with some fresh aspect of “your” neighborhood.

When you return home, you’ll be telling people about your visit to Rome or Rio or Shanghai, but you’ll feel more like you lived there, if only for a short time. You will have mastered a little of one of the world’s great cities, instead of it mastering you.

And believe me, that’s a great feeling.

"Wherever you go, go with all your heart." — Confucius