Face of the ‘new diplomacy’

Backpacking through Europe down to North Africa, Andy Andersen first felt a world away from south Louisiana while riding on a Moroccan bus.

Trucks, buses, donkeys, camels, bicycles and scooters haphazardly shared the same narrow road, all weaving in and out of lanes.

“I couldn’t help but smile,” Andersen said, remembering the scene while at a Lafayette coffee shop. “This is the world. This is the real world.”

A travel blogger and Lafayette college student, Andersen, 25, has left south Louisiana as often as possible for the last four years. His blog, Backpacking Diplomacy, covering his travels around the United States, Europe and Africa, was one of 16 finalists out of 1,100 entrants in the Big Blog Exchange competition sponsored by an international youth hostel organization.

For the final round of the competition, Andersen traveled to Madrid, Spain, in early June to switch places with a Spanish blogger for 10 days. Readers across the globe will vote for the top travel blogger.

Andersen didn’t grow up in a globe-trotting family. He believes his love for travel stems from a passion for learning — Andersen has two bachelor’s degrees from LSU and is completing a third at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Like education, travel causes him to sit and contemplate the world.

“You’re stimulated by so many different things, whether it’s people, places, new smells, sites, everything,” he said. “You’ve taken in all this at once. It really challenges you to grow.”

At LSU he studied international relations and befriended a group of foreign students, which made him more curious about the world, he said. He had never left the United States before he traveled to Europe with a group of students in 2009, then stayed for three weeks to travel solo.

After graduating from LSU, he flew to Europe for five months, trekking from Iceland to Istanbul, Turkey. His travels have also taken him across Canada and to some unique spots in the United States, including a night staying with squatters in a Detroit house.

For Andersen, travel is the “new diplomacy,” the opportunity for regular people to play a role in international relations.

Whether half a world away or road-tripping to another state, Andersen focuses on getting to know the people he visits. Speaking the language, eating local food and staying at private homes and hostels helps to dispel the stereotype of the self-centered American traveler, he said.

“A lot of people don’t realize that when you travel, you are an ambassador of your home,” he said. “You are what they remember whether they like you or not.”

While in western Spain this month, Andersen’s first 10 days are packed with day trips planned by Hosteling International, which funded the trip. Writing from the blog Mindful Travel by Sara — the website of his Spanish counterpart, who is visiting the U.S. — he is touring the ancient cities of Segovia, Toledo and Granada, where remnants of the Roman and Moor empires still exist.

“So much of the history of southern Spain, I won’t say it’s forgotten, but it’s not talked about,” Andersen said. “Spain is the ultimate connector between the East and the West.”

His mother, May Olivier, of Lafayette, said she no longer worries about her son while he travels as long as he emails or texts occasionally to let her know he is fine.

“I think Andy has found his passion,” she said, “and I’m proud he chooses to pursue it.”