In a shrinking world, a greater responsibility

Times Staff Writer

At the Hotel Riffelberg above the Swiss Alpine village of Zermatt, I fell in with a party of Japanese tourists. Like me, they were enchanted by the spring scenery and the orderliness of Switzerland.

They spoke English during our dinner in the hotel restaurant, where the featured dish that night was curry. Two of the women in the group were especially memorable. One looked as though she had ordered her turtleneck and khaki trousers from Lands' End. The other had a walking stick, jaunty wool hat and tweed jacket that suggested she had come to Switzerland directly from the moors of England.

The cultural juxtapositions of the encounter -- the language, the curry, the fashion statements -- were as impressive to me as the Matterhorn.

Helping my fellow travelers with the wine list and learning about their lives in Japan, I felt our big world getting smaller and the disparate cultures in it mixing up, with marvelous, funny, telling results. I love to see the sights, but as a traveler, I also live for moments like these, resulting from growing cultural, political and economic links between people.

Pundits call this ever-strengthening 21st century linkage globalization, the geopolitical system born of a revolution in telecommunications that has replaced the antagonism and isolationism of the Cold War. Under it, advocates claim, countries with closed cultures and financial markets will open to the world and, it is hoped, prosper. Poor nations will grow richer. The boundaries between peoples will begin to fade.

But if you look way down the road, as the critics of globalization have done, you see a world in which everyone wears Nikes, listens to the same CDs and eats Big Macs.

For many of us, especially travelers who love to visit different places simply for their differences, this scenario is a science-fiction nightmare right out of H.G. Wells: no more Balinese shadow puppets, French foie gras or cowboys on the range.

In "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," Thomas L. Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, compares globalization to the dawn. "Generally speaking, I think it's a good thing that the sun comes up every morning.... But even if I didn't much care for the dawn, there isn't much I could do about it."

That mirrors my feelings about what seems increasingly a force majeure in our world. I can only hope that globalization will bring all people a better future. Meanwhile, I'm having fun watching it unfold in ways that benefit and discourage travelers.

My long-distance carrier provides access numbers for different countries so I can reach an English-speaking operator in Helsinki, Finland, place a call to Washington, D.C., and get charged for it on my next month's phone bill.

But what about telephone adapters, which are necessary if you want to use your laptop's modem in Dubai or Seoul? According to Magellan's, a travel gear supplier based in Santa Barbara, you'll find about three dozen kinds of phone socket patterns in use today. Isn't a little one-world standardization called for there?

I love the sound of French, with its sexy sibilants and rolled Rs. It's still a relief when a waiter in a Parisian restaurant brings me a menu in English. I hate it that the syndication success of sexist TV shows has made Western women travelers appear to be fair game to men who own television sets, if little else. But I don't mind the looks I get walking down the street.

And then there's the fast-food issue. To many, the proliferation of franchise restaurants symbolizes everything that's wrong with globalization. In America we eat billions of dollars' worth of fatty hamburgers and fries each year, promoting obesity and our no-energy-needed car culture.

In Japan, once a bastion of healthy eating, consumption of red meat and obesity have risen since McDonald's opened there in 1971.

Now there are McDonald's franchises in 121 countries, including France, where fast food has become the meat of controversy. In the last few years, McDonald's restaurants in Dinan and Millau were damaged in protests against the Americanization of France.

People who feel threatened by globalization often equate it with America, hence anti-Americanism, which can be difficult for the U.S. traveler to take. Last month, after publication of my story on visiting Christmas markets in Germany, I received a voicemail message from a German who said he liked the story but wanted Americans to stay away from Germany. My heart sank.

Phone messages aside, I'm enjoying meeting the Japanese in Switzerland, the Israeli families I recently encountered hiking in the desert outside Palm Springs, the French tourists who climb out of buses at the Painted Desert in Arizona and say, "Ooh la la."

Travelers have a special responsibility to be ambassadors, showing the people we meet in faraway places what is best about our homeland, not what is worst. Only then can globalization be a force for positive change.

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