Picture this: a scruffy looking anarchist vegetarian - born to parents who conceived their first child in a squat - sitting round the dinner table with right-wing meat eating militarists who enjoy a spot of hunting. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. But the next part of the image is everyone laughing. We all share a human experience and find ways to communicate and learn more about each other's lives despite our differences.
People are regularly defined by, or we even define ourselves by, our set of values. We keep a whole bunch of prejudices and stereotypes about those on the "other" side and a lot of us tend to stick within our own groups, with people on our team. I wanted to find out what happens when I let go of my preconceptions about others and emerge myself into their lives headfirst. After all, one thing everybody definitely has in common is that we're human, and that similarity has got to count for more than any perceived difference could.
So, for the last eight months I've been travelling because that's always a good starting point for discovering different ways of living and pushing the comfort zone. At first I explicitly sought out vegetarian hosts, eco communities, yoga centres and places that were aligned with my lifestyle. Then one thing led to another and I thought that whilst it's great to be around people with a similar set of values, working together on projects you can really believe in, there is also so much to learn from people who are completely different. Whilst I know exactly what type of projects I want to put my energy into co-creating, in this bit of free time I have, why restrict myself to one set formula?
I realised that the experience of travel can be just as valuable when living with someone who completely disagrees with everything you campaign for. Why? Because it bridges gaps, it builds understanding, it forms bonds that transcend the narrow minded belief that there ever was and always will be an "us" and "them".
Whilst I can spend a lot of my life being serious and campaigning for what I believe in with unfaltering conviction, I can also spend a couple of weeks or months with the people who I guess technically I campaign against and actually make friends with them.
Life isn't black and white, there are infinite grey areas. When I was younger and the adults were talking about complex political matters I'd always ask my dad "who are the goodys and the baddys?" and base my judgement of the situation on that. Obviously, kids grow up and start to experience life with more depth. But what's always amazed me is how many grown adults hold onto this notion that there are the good guys and the bad guys and you're either one or the other.
If we shut down communication and the chance of having a relationship with someone based on slippery labels or whose name we put a cross next to on a ballot paper then how can we move forward in a functioning society?
Regardless of labels or political affiliations, people from completely different backgrounds can always find common ground. The military family I stayed with were surprised when they asked me about the Royal family and I couldn't even remember their names never mind divulge any interesting inside information about them. There were many differences like this but it really didn't matter, we went on hikes together, we watched tropical fish in the ocean with our masks and snorkels, we exchanged and practiced language skills. If I had chosen to stick with "my kind" then I would never have experienced these wonderful memories with people not so unlike myself.
Labels might be indicative of our set of values which we hold with the utmost importance but words can carry so many different interpretations that sometimes we get lost in an endless sea of meaning.
There's a reason why the cliché of travelling is to find yourself and open your eyes. When living with all kinds of different people, with all kinds of different habits, how could we possibly not start to see the world in another way?
I'm still a scruffy looking anarchist vegetarian and I won't be eating meat or voting Tory anytime soon but I'm not going to write somebody off because they do. We're all walking our own paths and doing the best we know how in this messy and complex thing called society.