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When I first learned about the history of Yugoslavia—I couldn’t wrap my head around it. How could a country break up, dissolve and disappear? I mean, it’s there, it’s on the map, it’s a piece of tangible land! But the puzzle slipped my mind as soon as the next plate of food arrived on the table; at that age to me, there were more important things in life to care about than the citizenship of Mother Teresa.
Fast forward to today, I’m sitting at a cafe in southern Turkey, considering whether to offer my loose change or food to a child refugee from Syria. As I travel in Turkey, many of the world stories become real problems. Every refugee I meet takes a chunk off my mental block. Suddenly, Syria and Iran are in my backyard. The Kurds and Laz people are my friends. The residue of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey make up some of the great sights for my evening strolls. The Armenian genocide becomes a common reference in breakfast conversations. The turbulent affairs in Abkhazia is a personal interest. Every day, I am surrounded by the contrast between picturesque beauty on the surface and furtiveness of a bloody history.
As the world continues to skid on chaos, we often fail to keep track and care enough to find out what’s happening in a random blob on the map. The benefit of travel is it can transform any blob into a personal link; it can shift our passive interest in history to a first-hand perspective; it can galvanise nonchalant comment into action; and for the more fun part—this enhanced worldly awareness can also enrich our travel experiences.
We don’t need to visit famous ancient ruins like Ephesus or Sagalassos to remind us that cities, civilisations and personal achievements are fleeting—though visiting them can provide a handy context as we anticipate problems of the contemporary times. What is particularly interesting is that many of these ancient cities were wiped out by natural disasters. Now, borders are created and redrawn, people are grouped and divided based on political motives or human errors.
Today, I can fully comprehend the impermanence of a country and the fragility of a culture. On one hand, societies consisting of religious and ideological diversity are always fragile, but they also have the opportunity to bring radical progress if they choose to work in unison. On the other hand, a national culture can easily slip into self-defeating nationalism and blood-and-thunder games of politics. The point is that a valid constitution is more complex than we think and trickier to enforce than we can imagine.
While travel has certainly made me think more like a global citizen, simultaneously I feel more proud to be a Singaporean. It’s so easy to notice the chips in our lives, to criticise the society we live in and to reproach the government that shapes it. A first-hand experience of how fortunate we are on a global scale can instil some empathy and gratitude in our opinions.
Let the BBC News hit home–Charine