It's been said before, but it's absolutely true — when you travel abroad, you become an ambassador for your homeland.
In spite of the rise of low-cost travel in the last decade or two, it's still true that a majority of the people you will meet in any country have never left their border. It's cheaper than ever to see the world, but for many people it's still too difficult, too expensive, or maybe just too scary.
Many of the people you meet on your journey will only know about your country what they learned in school, what they've seen on television or in books, or what they've heard in stories told by their friends.
When you travel, you become the face of your country. You become the thing that these people will talk about with their friends.
As an American
As an American, this is especially important to me. My country's politics are always on the center stage for the world to see, and honestly, my country's politics are not always something I'm proud of.
When I travel to a new land, I am often much more than just a foreign visitor. Often, I am the guy who voted for Obama (yes, I did), or the guy who voted for Bush (no, I didn't). Sometimes I represent the latest military action in the middle east. Sometimes I represent the ignorance of American education.
But when I travel, I'm the American who speaks more than one language. I'm the stranger who helps carry your heavy bag up the stairs in the train station. I'm the patron who takes my scraps to the trash instead of leaving a big mess for the waiter. I'm the passenger who gives up my seat for you on the metro. I'm the houseguest who folds the sheets and puts them away rather than leaving a task for my hosts.
When people put on the news, they'll see Americans acting badly. And if they watch any American television, they're likely to see more. But after they've met me, I hope they see that America is not limited to these things.
Americans are more than just the charicature you see on television. We're a good and friendly people, with the best of intentions. But most of the world has no way of knowing that, so I do my part to be a good ambassador of my country wherever I go.
Wherever you're from
Are you a Russian, still living in the shadow of the Cold War? Are you a German with a reputation for having no sense of humor? A Frenchman perceived as pompous, or a Brit who makes bartenders fear for the peace of their establishment?
Every one of us has a reputation we didn't earn. But when we travel we have an opportunity to correct that in some small way. And maybe though our combined efforts, we'll all learn to see that we're not all that different, no matter where we come from. As Mark Twain famously said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness."