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.

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.