Berkeley diary: The way of the tortoise

I’m sitting at Berkeley’s Caffe Strada on a sun-washed April morning, surrounded by the clamor of students and espresso machines. In front of me, a trio of young men is conferring earnestly in Korean and English over biology textbooks; to my right two women — one clearly American, the other fervently French — are planning their weekend en francais; and behind me what must be a hot-button seminar is unfolding in a flurry of flying hands and impassioned outbursts in Spanish and Ingles.

A week ago I sat at this same table, cloudy and clouded, recalling an afternoon almost a decade before when I stood on a hilltop in Umm Qais, Jordan, looking out over Syria, Israel, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee. I remembered thinking how indistinguishably the landscape of one country flowed into the other, and how confounding it was that people raised in such similar environments, confronting so many of the same challenges of soil and climate, could be so intractably divided.

“Intractable divisions,” I wrote in my journal, “delineate our world still.”

I recalled a scheme I’d dreamed up a few years ago: I’d called it The 1000 Dinners Project. The idea was that we would bring 500 families from Iran to the United States and 500 families from the U.S. to Iran. Each family would spend the day with a host family, going to the market to select the food for the evening’s dinner, then preparing that dinner in the host family’s home and finally sitting down together to enjoy it.During the course of the day they would learn about the ingredients and routines of each other’s everyday lives; they’d share concerns and dreams and hopefully little jokes as well. And slowly, slivering cracks would appear in the stereotyped images each had brought to their encounter, and by the end of the day they would have formed a bond, however frail and fledgling, with someone who had once been branded the “enemy.” And some of them, at least, would return to their villages and towns and tell their friends, relatives and neighbors that those foreign people were not so foreign after all, and seeds of tolerance and peace would be planted.

Of course, it was impractically hard to organize and fund this dream, and it fell by the way.

But on a deeper level, that dream has inspired and defined my life as a traveler and as a travel writer. For the past quarter-century I have been dedicated to the proposition that travel seeds understanding, and that understanding nurtures open-mindedness and compassion — and that these pave the pathway to peace and progress. As a wandering pilgrim, I have come to worship in the church of insatiable inquiry and unconditioned kindness.

Still, last week I looked at the world’s headlines and wondered: Are we really learning anything? Are we any closer to the catechism of kindness than before?

Then in the ensuing days my wife and I attended the screening in Berkeley of a wondrously moving documentary called The Miracle of the Colored Light, by Japanese filmmaker Fumiko Irie; Irie-san had flown from Japan to attend the screening and graciously opened her heart to the audience afterwards, answering questions in Japanese and English. David Farley flew to Oakland from New York and we dined a block from my house in culinary Italy, savoring authentic salumi, porchetta and arancini at a corner eatery called Adesso. I toured Canada in San Francisco at a conference with more than 100 enthusiastic travel folks who had convened to convey the riches of their country, from Newfoundland to the Yukon. I edited dispatches that took me to France and Nepal, and read tales of food adventures sent from Syria, Mexico, the Netherlands, Morocco, the Philippines, Sweden, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Japan, Wales, and the Micronesian island of Fais. And I taught a writing workshop where students were shaping life-changing journeys in Brazil, India, Germany, and other far-flung places.

Now I sit at the Strada reflecting on this gloriously global week and realize, once again, that the world is interwoven all around and through me in a way that would have been unimaginable even a half-century ago. I look around this sunny cafe and see tangible evidence that the world is growing closer. It’s just that when change is tectonic, molecular, you have to be attuned to the slightest movements.

I open my journal and write: “Hard as it sometimes may be to discern from the headlines, I have to believe that humanity is evolving, plodding tortoise-like across the Galapagos of time, toward some enlightened end. Step by step, we lumber, a moving film here, a bridging encounter there, seeds of goodwill and understanding borne around the globe. The end is not in sight, but on this April day, I’ve found renewal of spirit to keep plodding on the way.”