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After Bali, Will Travel Become a Radical Act?

Human movement across borders is greater than ever in history. The world is too interconnected for that trend to be reversed by fear of terrorism.
 
 
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I am old enough to remember the days when traveling across international borders was only for the privileged few. When I was 5 or 6 years old in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, I listened to my father's stories of snow. Snow on the gilded bridges across the Seine, in Central Park where lovers held hands as they strolled, and snow on barren trees and moss-strewn rock gardens and temple roof tops of Kyoto.

I remember standing tiptoe on a chair next to the opened refrigerator then, my hands in the freezer compartment, scraping at the frost until my fingers turned numb. In the tropical sunlight, with eyes closed and a modest snow ball in my palm, land-bound and full of yearning, I had already begun to travel.

The world has changed. Since the Cold War ended, travel has become increasingly possible for the many, including myself. Refugees move. Immigrants move. Middle class tourists go to see famed and fabled palaces and ruins they had only dreamed about.

Indeed, such mass movement is unprecedented in human history, and freedom of movement is increasingly recognized as a basic human right. The increase in tourism and world migration flows naturally from the fading of geopolitical problems associated with the Cold War. Old enemies shake hands and trade moves swiftly back and forth across now-porous international borders.

Meanwhile, the business of travel and travelers -- hotels, transportation, tours, cruises, restaurants, conferences -- has evolved to become the world's largest single industry.

Nations depend upon it. Some heavily touristed cities -- San Francisco for instance, and New York -- might unravel without it. In some poorer places, Thai cities and Indonesian Bali, the tourist dollar is the prime source of income. One out of nine adults in the world - over 200 million people -- is employed by the tourism and related industries, according to the World Travel Organization.

I have no doubt that those who killed the young backpackers and other tourists in Bali are hoping to reverse this trend of globalization. They see the tourist as the embodiment of decadent and materialist culture.

While I mourn the deaths of those killed in Bali, I remain optimistic that human movement will continue. The world is too interconnected, too integrated, after all, for that trend to be reversed by fear. There is a practical side to it as well: When El-Gamaa El-Islamiya, a militant fundamentalist organization, attacked tourists in Luxor, Egypt, in 1997, local vendors turned on the terrorists to protect their livelihood. Lives are interdependent more than the terrorists would want to acknowledge.

As a perennial backpacker who left his own homeland as a refugee, I see travel itself as a radical act: Travel, to really lose oneself in a new setting, to absorb new horizons and ways of looking at the world, challenges orthodoxy.

In that C-130 full of refugees, I was moving not only across the ocean, but also from one set of psychological understandings to another. Before, my inheritance was simple -- the sacred rice fields and rivers that once owned me, defining who I was. Today, Paris and Hanoi and New York are no longer fantasies but places where I have relatives and friends, where I am intricately connected and in which I feel at home. My imagination, once bound by a narrower sense of geography, expanded its reference points.

These days, with the world under threat from individual and ideological terrorists, those who cross borders to descend upon another culture and set up a temporary home there are carrying an important message as well: They are saying to terrorists that fear shall not deter movement and exchange.

"Travel," writes Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow, "equals transformation over time." In its relentless way, human movement shapes and reshapes the world.

And recently in human understanding, travel has become a precious right. It is one that fundamentalists would love to take away from us all in their hopes to rebuild and fortify artificial demarcations out of resentment and hate.

I will continue to travel. The idea of a static world immobilized by fear is one where the imagination dies. That is far more terrifying to me than any terrorist bomb.

Andrew Lam is a short story writer and journalist who has traveled to Bali three times in the last decade.