Why You Shouldn’t Always Avoid Religion and Politics
Never discuss religion and politics’; the timeless advice for travellers who want to stay out of trouble. These topics can lead to discomfort, suspicion and in extreme cases even arrest and a free trip to the nearest border (or worse). Is it good advice to adopt wherever we are? we have to admit to ignoring it frequently and as a result having some of my most memorable conversations on our travels.
There are different ways to broach these subjects of course, and knowing a little about the local sensitivities does go a long way toward getting it right.
I am going to share Andy Jarosz ‘experience.
In Kyrgyzstan I had a fascinating conversation with an old man who had been in charge of the collective farm during Soviet years and looked back on those years with nostalgia. He spoke of the good and bad of Russian rule, of his work in the Party including his educational trips to the furthest corners of the USSR; and of the departure of the Russians when independence was ‘dumped’ on this tiny country, leaving them with no currency for 18 months. My faltering Russian and his unwavering patience enabled me to understand most of his tales although I wish I’d known more.
On the other hand I overstepped the mark when hiking in Laos with a local guide. He was part of the ethnic Hmong group who had suffered years of repression from the Lao government. While happy to talk with the two of us about his family life and his work, when I asked about the difficulties of life for the Hmong in Laos he didn’t answer. I proceeded to repeat my question, thinking that he didn’t hear or understand me the first time. When this was met again with silence I realised that this part of the conversation was finished and that I needed to move to a less contentious topic. Similarly in Belarus the cheerful old lady was happy sharing many stories with us but when we asked a general question about the struggles of getting by, she smiled and said ‘you know we’re not allowed to talk about these things’.
In many cases people will talk freely within the parameters that their society has set. The driver who took us to Beirut from Damascus spoke openly about the wars with the Zionists (on several occasions he carefully avoided the use of the name Israel) and gave his frank thoughts on Hezbollah as we passed through the Beirut suburbs. He was a young articulate man who spoke with fierce national pride and shared his frustration that the rest of the world was so negative about the Syrian regime; he was eager to talk and I was happy to listen. I hope he is ok now…
Politics and religion do go a lot way in defining and dividing a population. These are the topics about which people often harbour the strongest emotions and take up much of their thinking time. To studiously avoid these can mean that a visitor misses out on some of the real substance behind what a country or region is all about. Let’s face it, the topic of the weather will soon run dry in much of the world; and how many times do you want to listen to someone listing their favourite Manchester United players?