"Go on over there, Linda Jane." My mother points to a group of kids playing tug of war, using another kid, probably someone's little brother, as the rope. "Tell them who you are."
Aw, Mama. Who am I? I'm a shy little girl who doesn't want to ask a bunch of ferocious-looking strangers to let me play with them. They won't like me, and I won't like them, and, no, I don't want to be the rope, so please couldn't I just go sit under a tree and read something?
No, I can't. Mama gives me a small shove.
New Mexico. Texas. Colorado. Oklahoma. Louisiana. Mississippi. Caverns, rivers, lakes, parks. It's not the scenery I remember when I think of our family vacations. Because I am an only child, my parents routinely required me to engage with the offspring of other vacationers. They said it was for my own good.
And so, feeling dragooned, I would go over to those kids, whoever they were, wherever we were, kick a stone for poise, then introduce myself and ask to join in whatever they were doing. The results were mostly good (OK, once in a while I had to be the rope, but so did every other kid), and I wouldn't return to my family until forced to by dark or dinnertime.
Eventually I came to understand that when you talk with strangers, they stop being strangers, a lesson that has served me well in my work and personal life, both of which have involved big chunks of travel.
I think about those childhood trips today, living, as we do, in a world reshaped by the events of 9/11 and all that has followed since. I think about them every time an American tells me he's afraid to travel abroad, that it's risky, that people out there don't like Americans anymore. But I have been "out there" often these last four years, and I've found that, although some people may disagree with our government's policies, they rarely transfer that to me.
Last April, in Alexandria, Egypt, our group, all Americans, was told to stay together, to travel only in the specially arranged bus, the one with the armored car escort. The "or else" was implied. Another journalist and I ignored the warnings and struck out on our own, on foot, to get up close and personal with an old white city by an old blue sea, and its citizens.
We wandered markets, buying and eating freshly made bread. We went into stores. We sat in street cafes and drank coffee that tasted (to me) like mud, but, hey, it was Egyptian mud, so call it an adventure.
And then, walking down a crowded street, we heard behind us the sound of pounding feet and somebody yelling. At us. We turned to see what was going on. A man was chasing us. We looked at each other. Had we made a mistake? Would now be a good time to start running? Before we could decide, the man caught up, grabbing my arm. Panting and wild-eyed, he paused to catch his breath, then smiled and handed me the half-empty plastic bottle of water I'd accidentally left in his store (where I'd bought nothing). He'd run six blocks to return it.
I thanked him, then inquired where he and his family went to eat the freshest fish in town. He smiled again, told us where to go, even what to order, apologizing because he could not leave his store long enough to join us.
He was right about the restaurant, which was good and filled with other Egyptians who seemed happy to see us — or at least not offended by our presence — and I am right about traveling.
If we do go elsewhere, if we meet people of other cultures, if we break bread with them or simply taste their bread, which is, presumably, different from our own, we cannot help but discover that essentially we are all more alike than we are different; it's only that our differences are so much easier to define.
It's not just other countries. Having recently redefined our own into red and blue states, right about now we need to get out and around to see that neither states nor people are so easily categorized. I can't think of a better summer for Americans to vacation in America, if only to actually meet those Americans who see the world, and our country, in ways you do not.
My parents were right to push me all those years ago. So now I'm pushing you. Go on out there. Tell them who you are. Ask who they are. Listen to the answers. I'm no Pollyanna; I know we can't all play together, but perhaps if we begin to get to know one another, we can get past our mutual fears and learn how to be, if not friends, at least better strangers to one another.
Linda Ellerbee is the author of the new book "Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table" (Putnam, May 2005, $24.95). She lives in New York and Massachusetts, but only when she's not on the road.