The world is an awfully big place, which is why I believe the myth of the well-traveled statesman can be a dangerous one.  That is, in part, why when I’m asked how many countries I’ve been to, I tend to shrug.  I’ve certainly set foot in more countries than I think I have a rightful claim to say I’ve “visited,” thanks to things like long duration layovers.  In other instances, I’ve only spent a single day exploring just one city – which often served as an incredible experience, but seems unfair to qualify as having gotten to know an entire nation and its corresponding culture.  Based on my ever-changing and loosely managed criteria, I’d say I could speak to visiting 22 or so countries, with some of the memories pertaining clouded by time passed… or alcohol consumed while I was there.

The more of the world you see, the more you realize the world is far too big to appreciate in meme form – with cultures far too nuanced, too complex, to appreciate fully after visiting the tourist attractions we’ve all grown up seeing on TV.  Tourism, for many of these places, serves as the primary source of income for the surrounding populous, meaning what you see while you’re there is often a depiction of what they assume you want to see, rather than what that country, or community, actually is.

Every once in a while though, reality slips through the cracks, and even an extremely pale outsider like myself gets a chance to peak into the real lives of people who live in a world completely foreign to most of us that grew up in the relative comfort and safety of the United States.  What follows are three pictures I’ve taken over the years that taught me more about life outside our American perspective than any trip I’d taken to see wonders of the world like the Pyramids of Giza, the Acropolis in Athens, or the Coliseum in Rome.  Beautiful as they are, each of those locations are full of other tourists like you, and people there to take their money.  If you want to truly experience the world beyond our borders, you’ll have to pay attention to the folks that aren’t selling umbrellas just outside the Vatican.

Local villagers conducting a sacrifice ritual in Mozambique.

During a deployment to Mozambique, Africa, I was one of four Marines chosen to serve as a Color Guard for an event that included the U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique and the senior ranking general of the FADM, or Mozambique military.  As we rehearsed for the event, a crowd gathered nearby and we decided to take a break and go check out what was causing the excitement.  I arrived just in time to snap a few pictures of some of the locals cutting the heads off chickens and slitting the throats of other animals.  When I asked why they were doing this, one man from the crowd explained that it was a part of the day’s ceremonial events.

I rarely tell this story, because I know so little about what was going on.  I simply nodded my head and got back to work.  My job, at the time, wasn’t to learn about their culture, nor was it to pursue a story – it was to make sure I represented my service, and my nation, appropriately in the event that was rapidly closing in.  In the following days, however, I couldn’t shake the juxtaposition of ideas these people represented to me.  Each of them had smart phones, some drove newer cars than I did, and yet they still seemed to be clinging to what I perceived as outdated, and even barbaric, rituals.

And that’s when it hit me.  Religion always looks weird to outsiders.

Opinion: When people say that 'this is why everyone hates America'

Read Next: Opinion: When people say that 'this is why everyone hates America'

If I were to drag some of these people into the church I (sporadically) attended in my childhood, they might be horrified to learn that we ate bread that represented the body of one of our most important holy idols.  They might be dumb founded at the immense expense we’ve devoted to building massive, ornate structures intended to house us in our times of prayer.  After all, their ritual only cost them a few farm animals.

It’s easy to judge other as barbaric, stupid, or savage – our people have a long and illustrious history of doing so, but it can be much harder to view ourselves through the scope of that same prejudice.  At the end of the day, our beliefs do inform how we perceive the outside world, but it’s important to remember that the outside world has an important belief structure of its own.

Shipwreck off the coast of Roatan Island, Honduras

While in Honduras, my wife, brother and I took a foolish chance, and agreed to meet some locals and an American beneath a closed Hyundai dealership, to leave on a boat tour of the surrounding area.  When we arrived, a man covered in awful burn scars offered us paper cups full of “punch,” which was actually just terrible rum.  I may have had a few more paper cups, once I realized that.

Despite his appearance, the man was incredibly friendly – and my wife immediately took a liking to him.  I was a bit more cautious, but as the catamaran pulled out of the dock behind the dealership, he managed to spark up some conversation with me as well.  Only a few minutes later, we came across the shipwreck above.

As Americans, we were so excited to see such an unusual wreck, I almost didn’t notice the solemn look stretched across the face of my new, scarred friend.  Curious, I asked how the ship ended up there – after all, it didn’t look all that old.  He explained to me that in Honduras, it wasn’t uncommon for law enforcement to simply burn a boat down if they catch you using it to transport drugs.  Sometimes, he told me, they don’t even wait for you to get off the ship before they start the fire.

 

Suddenly, his scars made quite a bit more sense to me.

 

In the United States, we tend to rely on the idea that the systems in place to protect us will do just that.  We count on local police and fire departments to help us in our times of need, and I can attest that they do… even as criminals in the United States, Americans expect to be given a fair trial before their peers – and when it doesn’t happen, we spark entire political and cultural movements championing our cause.  In other parts of the world, however, the people are given no such option.  After almost being killed by local police, my new friend simply had to find a new line of work.

 

Rooftop security in Alexandria, Egypt

While in Egypt, I had the opportunity to climb aboard a cruise ship that was docked in the Port of Alexandria.  Having taken a few cruises before, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing the interior of the ship, and was much more intrigued by the idea of getting an elevated view of the city that surrounded us.  However, once I got to the top deck, I noticed these two men on the roof of the port facility.

The man at the bottom, right hand side of the screen is on a cell phone, and looking out over the mostly empty port.  There were no people walking around at the ground level, and I could make out the uniform of the Port’s security officers on the other man approaching him.  Alarms started sounding in my head… every bone in my body told me that this was a high risk situation, and as has often been the case in my foolish adventures, my wife was with me – meaning it wasn’t just my life that I now felt could be at risk.  I got the attention of the person giving us the tour, and he admitted that he wasn’t sure what was going on, but tried to assure me that it was nothing to be concerned about.

Exclusive interview with Major James Capers, Marine Recon pioneer & Medal of Honor nominee

Read Next: Exclusive interview with Major James Capers, Marine Recon pioneer & Medal of Honor nominee

I chose not to take him at his word, grabbed my wife, and got the hell out of there.

Chances are really good that these two men were simply checking out the view from the top of the building, or maybe they were as interested in seeing the Alexandria skyline as I was.  I’ll honestly never know, but this picture still serves as a reminder to me that, as dangerous as the world can be, it’s often hard to be sure that a dangerous situation is about to occur.  In the moments, or seconds, before everything goes terribly wrong, it likely continues to feel like everything’s just fine.  It’s always better to have a plan, and react to your own suspicions, than it is to find yourself at the mercy of circumstance.

While many of the lessons I’ve learned over the years boil down to the inherent goodness, or at least sameness, of people – a fair number of them serve as reminders that bad people are real, they’re out there, and sometimes the only difference between you and a victim is how quickly you’re willing to act on those bad feelings in your gut.

Images courtesy of the author