Coming to Barcelona? Bring a good money belt.

  • More people died in the U.S. last year from “accidental discharge of a firearm” than died in the whole world from airplane crashes.
  • Guatemala’s crime rate is higher than Mexico’s by a wide margin.
  • Eight of the top-10 worst cities for pickpockets are in Europe. (And all of the top 5.)
  • The top-selling beer in the world is not Budweiser—it’s Snow Beer.
  • “Budget” airlines Southwest and JetBlue have more legroom (average seat pitch) than British Airways, United, or Delta.
  • Turkey gets more international visitors each year than Canada, Mexico, Holland, Greece, or Egypt. Malaysia gets more visitors than Thailand, Indonesia/Bali, or Japan.
  • The U.S. stock market has historically dropped 6.5% in the year after a Republican wins the presidency, but climbed 9.1% when a Democrat wins reelection.

Surprised by any of those?

Our assumptions are shaped by many things: the people around us, where we get our news, the anecdotes we’ve heard, forwarded e-mails, what our parents taught us. Some people cling to these assumptions like a badge of honor, brandishing them in arguments like it would be blasphemy to expose them to factual scrutiny. There are whole TV networks and political campaigns that rely on this impermeable wall of assumption. Tell the right story and you know it will be believed by the base, real facts be damned.

Now here’s the really thorny issue to consider as you travel around the world. What would you believe about God or religion if you had grown up in a remote jungle in Peru? With the nomads of Algeria? In a devout Hindu home in a rural village in southern India? In a family that sent all the boys for a stint in the next-door Buddhist monastery in Thailand?

We are all shaped by the forces around us. The key to being a free thinker is to question why you believe what you believe—and determine if it’s real or something pushed into your brain by someone with an agenda.

 [Flickr photo by ponglest]