Thursday, July 19, 2012

On Travel

Interesting piece from the NY Times on meaning, romance, and myths of travel:

The constant tension within travel as an exercise in self-sufficiency versus dependence on others mentioned in the article really resonates for me. Sometimes I want more hand-holding, I want to be led around to learn and see and experience. Other times, I want to be able to do things on my own. Case in point, I bought a bike here so I wouldn't be dependent on others for transportation. (In part, the bike example is a resource issue - I knew it would be more taxing for my organization to provide transportation for me every day than it was for me to buy a bike of my own, and I don't want to use up more resources than necessary.)

The line between loneliness and independence is fuzzy. 

This tension feels particularly exacerbated here by the tendency of adults to leave me alone, in accordance with the cultural norms of honoring guests with their own space, peace, and quiet (as I understand them*). So whereas I'd prefer to spend time with people, building those important relationships I mentioned in the previous post - such as during my lunch hour at work - I am (sometimes) invited/instructed to enjoy the solitude of my office instead. The presumption of that preference, perhaps, is related to differing concepts of personal space between American and Ugandan culture? Unsure.

Children, on the other hand, tend to be more bold - they want to check out the munu (the Luo version of mzungu, the common Kiswahili word for white person, exotic, foreigner), shake my hand, learn my name. Many times, if they can come close to me, they do. And I love it! (well, most of the time) Adults seem to keep their distance more, at least in this professional setting. Of course, there are also variations across these groups, across genders, across settings.

Certainly, I admit, my own agency is relevant here as well - this is a two way street. I can't just sit around and wait for locals to come engage with me and feel upset if they don't. Yet sometimes it feels like an imposition - they didn't (necessarily) ask for me to come into their space, interrupt their routines with questions, conversations and distractions. I don't want to burden others, I don't want to intrude.

But - on some level, that's what travel is, right? An intrusion, not necessarily invited. No one asks to be a tourist attraction. As the article posits: "Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism."

So, how do I get there? Balancing my inquisitiveness and natural extroversion with respectful limits and culturally appropriate behavior is an ongoing dance this summer, and beyond.

*Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist or cultural expert of any kind. These posts are full of my own assumptions, generalizations, and projections. As they say - we see things as we are, not as they are. So, I recognize that there are likely exceptions to many of these statements, they are subjective and often rife with stereotypes. I am just trying to make sense of things as I go along, with as much sensitivity and curiosity as I can muster.