Welcome to Operation Amigos!
What does that even mean, you ask? It means I'm on a mission that is dear to my heart.
And to explain it, I need to start here:
I love to travel. It's just about my favorite thing to do. Thinking about an upcoming trip, to anywhere, makes my stomach flutter and my heart beat faster. Planning a trip makes me feel like a six-year-old anticipating her own over-the-top birthday party. Like a kid awake at four o'clock on Christmas morning, just waiting to run downstairs and see what Santa left. Like a ravenously hungry person at her favorite restaurant, knowing the basket of warm rolls will be placed in front of her at any second. (No? That one doesn't work. Well crap. Then maybe I'm just hungry.)
I love making lists of the things we'll do. I love reading about the place I'll be visiting. I love searching out cheap (cuz, no, I'm not rich!) places to stay. I love discovering little-known gems that other explorers have found and shared. I love printing out all of my itineraries, confirmations, and tickets ahead of time. I love imagining the trip before it even happens.
And then the day finally comes (and my eyes are burning because I've spent the past six months staring at a computer screen and the tiny print in too many guide books)! And it's glorious and amazing, and everything that I hoped it would be.
I explore new and amazing vistas. I wander down a street, so different from my own world, listening to the sounds, noticing the colors, tasting the food. I go to bed, almost too excited to sleep, thinking about what's to come tomorrow. It's fantastic, and exciting and truly magical.
But it's not enough. Seeing the sights and buying the stuff and eating the food is not enough. Here's what makes the experience exceptional: Meeting and interacting with the people who live there.
The people and culture are the heartbeat of any location. They are what makes a place worth visiting. They are the ones who can tell you why a certain restaurant (oftentimes the most rundown in appearance) is the best, where the most stunning panoramic photo can be taken (off the beaten path), and how (and why) to be respectful of local customs and practices. They can tell you personal stories that will make the things you see richer, more meaningful, and infinitely more memorable.
Some may disagree with me. Some may be interested in only the touristy things, and that's it. To those people I say: YOU ARE MISSING OUT! You are missing out on the true travel experience. To visit a place and its people is to see and learn about life outside our own little bubble. It's seeing, not just the Colosseum, but the people who have lived in its shadow for decades. It's not just seeing the ruins of Chichen-Itza, but the people whose ancestors BUILT those pyramids, and how they make a living. It's seeing not just The Great Wall of China, but also the man who sells kites at one particular entrance. He has stories to tell.
It's understanding that I, as a citizen of the U.S., am not alone on this planet. Nor am I superior to all others. In fact, when I'm quiet, when I stop touting my own way of doing and seeing things, I may even come to appreciate the way others see and do things.
And here's the other thing: Once you've become friends with people abroad, you get excited when you see people from that group at home! If you're walking around downtown and hear someone speaking Portuguese, after you've been to Brazil and come to love the people, chances are, you'll want to talk to them. You'll want to learn what they're doing in your city. You may even become a little possessive of them as you guide them, and help them get around. You'll remember the Brazilian people who helped you when your Portuguese/English dictionary wasn't cutting it. You'll want to pay it back.
But, there are places you haven't been, and people you don't know.
When I think about the place I live and the cultures and countries that are represented in my city and state: Are there any that I'm afraid of? Are there people that I don't like? Are there people I don't understand? Are there people I wish would go back to where they came from? Chances are, I don't truly know these people. Maybe I've never visited their home because it's war-torn. Maybe I've never toured their cities because their beauty is second (or third, or tenth) to their danger. Chances are, I don't know these people's stories, why they're here, and who they left behind.
My mission with Operation Amigos is to help you (and ME) get to know these people. Get to know their stories, their motivations, their loves, their cultures, and their hardships. Maybe even become friends.
Because when we become amigos, that's when we truly start to care.