Today I rummaged around until I found a 2008 Obama for President campaign button, and proudly affixed it to my battered day pack. No repeat of the Bush years for me – I want to deflect as much awkwardness as possible when interacting with foreign locals on my future travels.
Going abroad as a U.S. citizen during W’s years in office I was often aware of a certain wariness on the part of others, and of a hesitation to fully engage – no questions, and certainly no hostility, just guarded looks suggesting that people were evaluating my likely voting record. I got in the habit of trying to work subtle references to our unfortunate election outcome into conversations, and the dynamic would shift perceptibly. People relaxed, and despite whatever reservations they might have about us for other reasons, that particular sticking point was removed. Now, of course, it has returned in spades.
However history evaluates him, there is no questioning the fact that Obama was an inspirational figure to much of the world, and one that travelers could be proud to own. I was in a Korean truck stop in 2008 when its big screen TV broadcast his electoral victory. Locals cheered and, realizing there was a group of Americans in their midst, gave us high-fives. It felt at that moment as if the whole world had breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Nowhere, I suspect, was his ascendance to the highest office in our land more celebrated than in Africa. The photos accompanying this post were taken in Ethiopia, where I experienced the twin novelties of having strangers approach me to express their good will, and of seeing my president’s name in the unlikeliest of places.