Vice President Biden Shares His Most Powerful Travel Memories
Travel has the power to change your perspective and connect you with people from all walks of life. No one knows this better than Vice President Joe Biden, who has been able to visit over 50 countries during his past eight years in office. As this administration comes to a close, Vice President Biden took time to personally select several of his favorite photographs and sit down with George Stone, editor in chief of Traveler magazine, to share his memories of these moments.
George Stone (GS): Let’s take a look at the pictures that you selected today … The first one is a trip you took to Ireland. Was this a journey of heritage [for] you?
Vice President Joe Biden (JB): It was. I’ve been to Ireland many times, but the taoiseach, the prime minister [and an old friend], asked me to come back … He had been asking me for six years to do it and I [finally did]. [The image shows] my family gather[ed] around me–all my grandchildren, my brother, and my sister. This was a cemetery that dates back to the Knights Templar … I’m putting my hand on a tombstone that goes back to the mid-1880s of my great-great-great grandfather–or at least a Finnegan, it was hard to read the writing of which Finnegan it was. That was my mother’s maiden name. Owen Finnegan immigrated from Ireland with his family around 1841 ... It was an amazing … six-day trip. I’m so glad my grandchildren were there to taste it.
GS: Travel is something that can be shared ... and that’s really the theme of the next image that you chose. Here you are in Baghdad, Iraq, with your son, Captain Beau Biden.
JB: Yes. My son was stationed in Iraq for a year. Right after I was nominated in 2009, I’d been in and out of Iraq a total of 24 or so times. That’s the inside of a C-17 aircraft. That’s called a "silver bullet." It looks like two campers strung together, and it is what the vice president or president travels in other than Air Force One and Air Force Two. I was about to get off the aircraft, and my son was briefing me on what I was about to encounter. I was going directly into Baghdad. This was at Camp Liberty. This was where the base was, and I remember we had to go in at about 85 miles an hour, going through [barricaded] checkpoints because it was still very much a hot war … There’s no one I’ve ever respected more than my son. He was highly decorated and came back with a Bronze Star … I remember getting off the aircraft thinking, as usual, “My son is briefing me about what I’m about to encounter.” I mean it. He was an incredible guy.
GS: Traveling with family can really enrich you ... Here’s another image where you are awarding a Bronze Star in Afghanistan to a Sergeant Jeremiah Workman.
JB: Let me tell you about him. This is what they call a FOB–a forward operating base–which is very lightly supported. It is in the middle of a lot of firefights. There was a Humvee they drove in that was hit by an IED and was on fire, and he rushed into that burning Humvee and dragged out a young soldier that was very badly burned. His commander asked me to pin a Bronze Star on him, and right before this–you see the look on his face–he says, “Sir, I don’t want it. I don’t want it. He died. He died. I didn’t do my job, sir. He died.” And I said, “You risked your life.” And he said, “Yes, but he died. He died.” [There is an] intensity of camaraderie, bravery, and enormous resolve these young, and not all so young, soldiers, sailors, and airmen [have]. It is amazing.
GS: This is an interesting image. You are in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and you’ve raised a bow and arrow.
JB: I went because I wanted to demonstrate our administration’s support for the emerging democracy in Mongolia in a really tough neighborhood, surrounded by Russia and China. What they wanted [was for] me to get a sense of the [nomadic] cultural background and heritage of [the Mongolian people]. They took me out on the steppes of Mongolia. You can see the mountains are way in the distance. [They hosted us in] what would be an ordinary campsite a Mongolian nomadic tribe moving across the steppes [would typically caravan in]. You can’t see it [in the photo], but there was a big table [where] we had a banquet and [entertainment that would] happen at any one of these gatherings when they set camp and stayed for a while ... There was this incredible contortionist that absolutely blew our minds. I had my granddaughter with me and she kept going “Wow!” In addition to that you could see in the horizon … a thin, dotted line of a 20-mile horse race going on that was going to conclude in front of our banquet table. In the meantime, they are famous for their archery, and they took me over to this all-open field, and somewhere between 80 to 120 yards there was this target at the other end of the field. Their archers were firing at the target like they would in a contest. I’m kind of an amateur [archer] and so they jokingly handed me the bow. I accidently hit the target and [everyone was surprised]! But it was a wonderful, wonderful experience to experience … the geography and culture. Then the horse race ended and the kids’ average age riding bareback was 13 years of age. The [kid] who won it presented me the pony and asked me to name it. So there’s a pony named Celtic.
GS: Here’s a really interesting image. You are with President Xi Jinping in China.
JB: At that time, he was still the vice president. President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao, his predecessor, thought that we should get to know one another. Again, all politics is personal, so I traveled with him thousands of miles inside of China, and he with me in the United States. We’re going through this bridge built in the mid-1800s. This is outside the city of Chengdu that was several million and is now 20 million people. We had the ability to spend nine hours together and a number of other hours of private dinners … He asked questions that were fascinating.
GS: Travel teaches you to overcome barriers, [whether they are] language or cultural, and to make those connections … This is the last image. You are in Kiev, Ukraine.
JB: This was a year after the Revolution of Dignity, as they call it, in the Maidan. The Maidan is that square … The young woman I’m with, her husband was a journalist in the previous administration who was very critical of the Russian-manipulated government and he disappeared off the streets. She never saw him again. I was laying a wreath in the memory of the heroes who were killed in that square called the Maidan. That was why I was there, to pay tribute to their enormous courage and bravery. They now have a chance for the first time ever to establish a genuine, democratic, institutionally governed state. That was the context of that photograph.
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GS: Do you ever get fired up when you see things in your travels?
JB: Oh, I do. I feel a great deal of passion. I’m so proud of the United States. We really are looked to as not just the example of our power, but the power of our example. More countries and individuals around the world repair to us because of our value set. They really do want to know whether we believe that we hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator. These are the questions I get asked when I travel around the world, particularly countries under stress and siege. “Do you really mean it? Is that how it works? How did you make this happen?” And I tell them two things. There are two reasons why America is so special: one is that we have a constant wave of immigration from the 1700s onward … Think of the courage it takes to pick up and leave all that you know, go to a country where you don’t speak the language, and say “I’m going to make it." It takes optimism, courage, and the notion that I can do anything. The second reason why we are so incredible is stamped into the DNA of every native-born, as well as naturalized, citizen: the overwhelming disregard for orthodoxy. No child ever gets in trouble in school, no matter how poor the system, for questioning orthodoxy. You can’t make new things unless you can break the old and we aren’t afraid to break the old.
GS: Do you see travelers as having the power to be cultural ambassadors?
JB: They do … My granddaughters speak Chinese, they’ve been taking it since they’ve been little kids in school and one of the great advantages–I’ll be very blunt about it–about the 1,200,000 miles I’ve traveled is I’ve taken one of my granddaughters with me at least 300,000 miles, because it’s the single greatest exposure you can give them to realize how similar we all are all over the world. We all dream … I’ll end it this way: I was in Chengdu with now President Xi, and we are having a private dinner, and he turned to me and he asked, “Mr. Vice President, can you define America for me?” And I said, "Yeah, in one word: possibilities.” America’s all about everything is possible … And you don’t get it, you don’t fully understand it unless you have the opportunity to travel. And you’re talking to a guy who was never out of the country until I was 23 years old.
GS: You’ve seen the world. Thank you so much.
JB: The honor of my life has been serving the country and being able to be engaged in foreign policy.
Caity Garvey is an associate producer on the National Geographic Travel digital team. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.