On Fixed and Fluid Worldviews: Were You Hoping to Catch a Bullet?

me and abdul 2

With Omani paratrooper instructor Abdul in Al Hamra, Oman

“I heard you got back from traveling,” a local man in New Hampshire said the other day, before explaining about how he’s heard Europe has a bunch of great hiking trails. He seemed to assume that we visited Europe because, after all, could there possibly be any other foreign place that would be safe to explore our there in the big, bad world?

“Sure did,” I replied. “It’s good to be back, but it was an amazing journey. We didn’t go to Europe, but we did go to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.”  His eyes widened after I mentioned traveling in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

“What?! Were you hoping to catch a bullet!?” he exclaimed in disbelief.

I mustered up a forced chuckle and told him that by embracing basic vigilance, we felt quite in those places; after all, they are ranked as some of the safest places in the world according to a report from the World Economic Forum, ranking 2nd (UAE) and 4th (Oman).

I didn’t feel like engaging on this topic further, sensing the possibility of a mildly contentious exchange. I instead changed the subject to deer hunting–something we ended up sharing a mutual interest in. I learned that as a dormant bow hunter, I can revive my hobby here in the Granite State on any land that isn’t posted, but that courtesy should rule: it’s best to ask permission.

Our short exchange seemed to encapsulate an argument explained by Thomas Edsall in this New York Times column about political leanings and a fixed or fluid worldview.

People with fixed worldviews tend to be wary about perceived (and real) dangers around them, are more likely to embrace authoritarianism, and prefer stability over social change.

On the other hand, folks like Rebecca and myself embrace a fluid worldview. We don’t see the world as a threatening place, we value openness, and we generally see change as a natural process that can often bring about positive results.

For us, fear rarely manifested itself while on the road. There was some discomfort being subject to a procession of curious and vaguely hostile stares at a local market in Tanzania, far off the tourist circuit. One time, on a bus in the countryside outside of Hanoi, a deranged man threatened me with a long pair of metal scissors because I wouldn’t give him my sunglasses or money. I was prepping for a potentially dangerous physical confrontation for a moment, but fortunately he got off the bus shortly thereafter. These experiences were anomalous–over the course of seven months, we experienced a lion’s share of hospitality, kindness, and curiosity in all six countries.

I wasn’t blind to this strong variance between a fixed and fluid world outlook before the journey, but my awareness of this gap is now heightened. Rampant bipartisanship is deeply rooted in a conflicting set of values, and on more than one occasion during our journey I commented to Rebecca that it’d be incredibly unlikely that we’d meet traveling Americans who supported Trump.

One commonality shared among the people we interacted with was their utter confusion and disdain for our President. Fortunately, not one person we encountered conflated us being Americans with supporting Trump. Traveling in four countries with a plurality or majority of Muslim citizens made it more likely, perhaps, that this could have occurred.  People in most countries also expressed justified fear of visiting America due to its obsession with guns.

I suspect that most people who have followed this journey see the world in a similar vein as we do. And while I wouldn’t go anywhere, I feel even more confident and comfortable to embrace future adventures in places where millions of Americans would be fearful of catching a bullet.

 

Advertisements

The Mystery and Allure of Vietnam

motorbike with tree

Walking in Hanoi always puts us on high alert as we’re pedestrians in a city characterized by its crazy flow of two-wheelers. The motorbikes honk incessantly. They transport whole families, trees, dogs, kegs of beer, and bouquets of flowers. They U-turn with impunity, somehow snake through still traffic (as a taxi passenger, I often consider giving fist bumps to the passersby).

In order to cross the street, you have to walk into oncoming traffic. Just don’t stop moving because the motorbikes and cars will adjust. This can be a terrifying experience.

Nonetheless, Vietnam has been a great and fascinating place so far. If you hear people say that the food in Vietnam is amazing, they aren’t kidding. Count us in as being enamored by the mixture of flavors often available at modest street stalls, with colorful and tiny plastic chairs and tables strewn about. The other day we ate Bánh Xèo, a crunchy, omelette-like concoction that you cut up with scissors and then wrap in rice paper. Add lemongrass, fresh herbs, green banana, fish sauce, maybe fresh chilies. Throw in some grilled pork sausage on skewers if you’d like. Unbelievably delicious (which I repeated to Rebecca in between bites over and over again). Plus, the feast amounted to about three bucks.

Hanoi is huge, with many distinct districts and neighborhoods. We first stayed in Tay Ho, which has an international feel and plenty of expats, where you can readily find Vietnamese street food but also a brew pub and a bacon cheeseburger. We’re now staying in a district northeast of the city center, where it’s rare to see any foreigners. The touristy Old Quarter seems to be poppin’ at all hours; admittedly, the coupling of sensory bombardment and survival mode to avoid being run over by motorbikes overwhelmed me a bit during our first foray there. We sought refuge at a spa where we enjoyed some outstanding foot massages.

We’ve only spent one night outside of Hanoi thus far. Uncle Ty’s Farmstay was in a small village near Hoa Binh, where farmers led small herds of water buffalo to wallow in the irrigation canal. The haze draped the hills and rice paddies existed anywhere enough water could be diverted. Some aspects of it felt timeless, old school, a continuation of long agricultural traditions. Yet from 7-10 pm, a local man crooned nonstop during a solo karaoke session. Korean and Vietnamese tunes, we were told. I imagined an impassioned attempt to earn a spot on Vietnam Idol or whatever exists here. As he went silent, we heard the rice fields become ablaze with noise, almost like we were tuned into 94.9 The Insect. I’m looking forward to our next trip to a rural area where the collision of tradition and modernity will certainly manifest itself in other ways.

It’s a country that seems to be a polarizing place for many visitors as many love it and others vow never to return. Here, Nomadic Matt describes his experience almost 10 years ago and, due to the popularity of his blog, there are interesting comments and rebuttals worth reading if you are considering traveling here. Not sure if it’s still relevant, and since Rebecca and I are doing more living in local neighborhoods than touristing, our perspective is different as we haven’t inhabited places where we’d be bombarded daily with tourist hawkers and schemers.

Being here has made me think back to a post from several months back, during which I reflected on what it means to truly know a place. The motorbikes hum and honk in every direction; being outside of this traffic flow is a metaphor for simply being a spectator of the culture. Here are some snippets that have captured my imagination:

  • While at the B-52 Victory museum, I read placard after placard describing Vietnam soldiers’ heroic actions in the face of wars of sabotage of American Imperialism.
  • The language is really tricky. So much so that a fellow American we met here with an advanced degree in linguistics basically gave up. Rebecca and I laugh because locals often don’t even understand our attempts to say ‘thank you’.
  • It’s a place where, in the midst of a modern apartment complex and planned neighborhood, you’ll see goats tethered to light posts. They’ll find themselves roasting on a spit within days. And where we’re told a very large portion of people still eat dogs. Which I’m not disgusted by, given the French colonial history and ensuing wars of sabotage of American Imperialism, people will do what they have to do to survive.
  • There are 53 ethnic minority groups in the country and most people don’t affiliate with formal religion. But it’s obvious that folk religions and spirituality factor into daily life. There are small altars with gifts where prayers are offered to ancestors in almost every home and business we’ve been to, even in the bustling, modern fitness center, where an altar with cans of beer, fruit, and a tree-like sculpture adorned with burned cigarettes is displayed.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I could never really know Vietnam, especially due to the language barrier, but I wholeheartedly suggest intrepid travelers add it to their destination list. We’ve felt very welcome and feel fortunate to snag insights and new understandings of the culture when we can. Next stop in this country is Ha Giang, which we’ve read is one of the final frontiers for tourists. It’s the northernmost province and borders China. We might be crazy but we’re going to attempt a motorbike tour, finally joining the flow of people and goods as we attempt to understand a little more about this compelling country.

 

Travel: Escape, Growth, and Everything in Between

 

In a region of Central Nicaragua, the sultry air of Muy Muy town put us into a sweaty daze. Rebecca and I took turns swinging on an indoor hammock and sipping warm Toña beer in the musty interior of my friend Angus’s Peace Corps abode, a one-room home constructed with cinder blocks. We swatted flies, sorted beans, and lazily let time pass. Earlier in the day, I had walked the town’s dusty streets in search of a vendor selling shirts sin mangas–without sleeves–because I had to do something to remedy my perpetually dripping back sweat. This was spring break 2011.

Later that evening, or was it another one?, we walked up to visit Muy Muy’s most prosperous hacienda. Angus’s friend, apparently one of the wealthiest men in town, was patriarch of the spread, which contained a significant amount of land, some cattle, a sweeping one-story wooden home fronted by a rickety and undulating front porch.

I remember plenty of giggling as I tried to make corn tortillas in the hacienda’s indoor kitchen, smoke billowing from little ventilation and open flames. The owner’s young girlfriend and her sister barbecued fatty cuts of beef. We sipped homemade hooch served from a plastic gasoline container, which turned out to be fitting given its taste and potency. When we got a ride home, we hopped in the bed of a pickup truck and the man’s girlfriend came running out of the house with a shotgun; we learned the property owner had recently killed a trespassing man, igniting a family feud, so it was best to leave the property armed. Especially at night.

I’m grateful that Rebecca is an adventurous traveler; otherwise, aspects of this trip detailed above–and other detours–could have proven fatal to our relationship: the American school buses sent to Central America to be converted into colorful passenger caravans, bus after bus packed full, bumpy roads, blaring horns, passing and being passed on blind corner turns; the two hour “cab” ride in a man’s personal vehicle from Matagalpa to Leon and wondering if we had just gotten suckered into being kidnapped by these two men; pickup trucks, shotguns, and head lice in Muy Muy.

But overall we certainly learned a lot about each other, about Nicaragua, about local culture, all while solidifying and reflecting on our own values. While we did end up chilling in Las Penitas, a quaint coastal town on the Pacific Ocean, overall it wasn’t a relaxing trip. It was enlightening, adrenaline-inducing, frustrating and sweaty, all rolled into a messy nine or so days.

There’s travel or vacation to escape, recharge, and relax. And then there’s travel containing trials and tribulations, rife with uncertainty and the slight increase in pulse when trying to navigate through new situations. Personal growth or transformation, of course, is likely to occur during the latter.  Prolific vagabonder and traveler Nomadic Matt writes, “Traveling forced me out of my routine. It helped me become independent, take more risks, be ok with change, get better with people, learn more, and be more versatile. Travel is not some panacea. The baggage you have comes with you on the road. There is no place far enough away to escape your problems. But what travel does is give you the space to be someone else and improve your life.”  

But there’s a whole lot in between traveling to get away and travel to transform. It’s not like you can’t escape to relax and also gain insights about people, places, and self. I happen to think a combination makes for the most memorable and satisfying sojourns. And as we are in the midst of long-term traveling, we’re experience the range of possibilities inherent in breaking free from home.

In Dubai, I learned that I will never choose to live in such a manufactured place, with daily life revolving around escaping heat and over-the-top modernity, where an absurd strain on limited natural resources is par for the course. But I also began learning about the staggering diversity within the Muslim world. And what a different version of a “melting pot” society can be like. And how many people can live satisfying lives within an absolute monarchy.

In Oman, I was reminded that human decency and warmth can be an aspect of a place that trumps all other potential attractions. I learned that sometimes GPS is overrated; we had to navigate the country with maps, roadside advice, and signage. Gasp! To imagine doing this in 2018!

In Georgia, we learned how nationalism can be a double-edged sword–it can easily breed resentment of the other, but it also can be used to celebrate the best things about a place. Georgian language, food, wine, and history is rife with unique utterances, flavors, and lore.

While on a luxurious family cruise about six or seven years ago, I don’t think I learned anything too meaningful or underwent any personal transformation. And that’s perfectly cool. It was about creating memories, some serious family bonding, shared meals. We basked in the sun on the top decks, snorkeled and drank spiked fruit punch, and I remember sampling so many different foods at the over-the-top buffet spread that I kept a journal, thinking how absurd this abundance was.

Now we’ve been in Tanzania for a few weeks. I’m writing this enjoying the breeze at my back from the Indian ocean, hanging out with our British expat hosts. It’s pure escape in many ways. But when I leave their compound, abject poverty and the vividity of being here offers a constant reminder of what it’s like being an outsider, in addition to thinking more deeply about ethical travel–what are the consequences of spending your money in various ways as a privileged visitor to a place so impoverished?

But however you may choose to travel–whether on a cruise ship or in a village in Nicaragua–there’s little doubt experience and ensuing memories will likely enrich your life, possibly by imparting some wisdom or insight, or simply providing a respite and dreams of the next escape.

Related Reading:

Reasons not to quit your job and travel the world

Meaningful travel–what the heck is it?

Travel is…

Resonance and Revisiting Past Travels

 

For this latest dispatch, I’ve decided to revisit some travel posts from years past, in addition to sharing a few essays I’ve read while on our current journey. So far, many of the themes and questions found in the posts below–the ridiculousness of American exceptionalism, valuing experience vs. material comfort, mindfulness, and human decency–continue to churn around in my head as we confront new experiences daily.

Thailand: Idealism and Reestablishing the Travel Bug: For our honeymoon, Rebecca and I journeyed to Thailand over Christmas in 2013. As I look back at this post, the themes continue to resonate: while traveling, it’s natural to imagine new possibilities, but with this idealism comes reflection about what it would really look like to move thousands of miles from home.

“Certain travel experiences undoubtedly unearth a sense of idealism and adventure, providing visitors to new places the sense the grass is greener. I couldn’t help but feel this at certain times in Thailand.

But after we began considering the possibility of living in such a different place, we realized we’d probably never learn much more than how to say hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom? in such a challenging language.  And it’s so far from our home in Kentucky and families in New Hampshire. We even got tired of eating delicious coconut, lemongrass, chili, and lime infused flavors by the end of the trip. (But if I had to only eat one type of food the rest of my life, Thai would be high on the list.)”

Why You Should Rent a Car in Europe: Or just about anywhere else where the driving isn’t too chaotic (Georgia tested my limits a few months ago!)

“Driving led us to places I never imagined we’d go. We talked and laughed with an elderly man in the stunning wine country of Jeruzalem, Slovenia. He had barely spoken English during the past forty years, but filled us in on regional history and insights into the work of a vintner over countless glasses of local wine. We explored the Istrian Penisula of Croatia, where ancient Roman towns dot hillsides surrounded by olive groves and grapes and the cuisine is superb. We awoke to the clanging of cowbells and the rich scent of Eucalyptus groves in Sao Luis, Portugal.”

Europe, 10 Years Later, in the Moment: One decade after my study abroad experience, I found myself back in Europe, finishing a degree in Oxford during the summer of 2013.

“I’ve attempted to allow myself to be in the moment this summer: to hear the Wood Pigeons cooing in the 14th century courtyards of Lincoln College; to see the egalitarian cyclists of all shapes, colors, and sizes jockey for position on narrow Oxford streets busy with double decker busses; to taste braised pork cheeks cooked in brown beer sauce in a local restaurant in Ghent; to feel the vibrations of the oncoming trains at Paddington Station in London; to read and reread 16th century English Literature without the rhythms and demands of multitasking that can become commonplace during the teaching year.”

And here are a few travel essays worth checking out:

Dave Eggers, on traveling via taxi across Saudi Arabia

“When I first traveled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realized no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.”

Michael Chabon on Traveling in Van with Family in Morocco

Nothing moves me more profoundly, I hasten to add, than discovering the extent of my own ignorance. That is why I travel—by nature I’m a homebody—but sometimes it can be hard. Some days you get tired of decoding, of interpreting, of working to understand, of constantly orienting yourself, or, to put it another way, of being constantly lost.”

 

The Only Mzungus At Market Day

Hawkers selling garlic, fresh ginger root, vividly colored fabrics, flip flops manufactured from recycled tires, and second-hand clothing lined the muddy thoroughfares as Rebecca and I soaked up another sensory-laden scene in Tanzania. The steady Indian Ocean breeze didn’t reach the inland market; the sun beat down on my uncovered head (thank you 50 SPF).

When you’re the only mzungus in a place, you’re going to attract attention, regardless of where you are in Africa. (As a side note, mzungu means “those who wander without purpose” in Swahili and is a term applied to just about all white people in East Africa–this is confirmed by both Urban Dictionary and our host Roy). But we were also with Agnes, our host’s wonderful Malawian housekeeper, who had generously agreed to accompany us; luckily, she likes outings and it’s clear she enjoys showing Western visitors the lay of the land. This made the experience a little less intimidating for us.

Visiting local markets is something we enjoy doing in every country we visit, but this one was the only one we’ve been to as the ONLY visitors/tourists/travelers (at least that I saw), and we did attract attention, some of which didn’t feel positive.

It was certainly a strong reminder of what it can be like to be an outsider, a position that privileged white folks like us rarely find ourselves in by choice or chance. And we have chosen to be in this position. There’s little equivalency between our own feelings of discomfort compared to those who have no choice whether or not to be persecuted/critiqued/harassed/questioned based on their skin color.

Imagine being the lone person of color in a classroom, working in a small office, or married into a racially homogeneous (lily white) family. There’s no doubt that skin color is noticed first, versus the other facets that make you human. Over thirteen years in the classroom, I saw assumptions about skin color play out class after class, day after day, semester after semester, both among students and towards teachers–including myself. Educator Rafranz Davis, who was often the only person of color in her classes growing up, sums up the phenomenon quite well:

Anyone that says that they “don’t see color” is lying. If you say that…stop saying it. You do. Try placing one color of skittles in a bowl. Now place one skittle of a different color in the same bowl. Shake them up and I dare you NOT to see the difference first. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you aware and that is okay. On the other hand, put yourself in the position of “the different skittle”. You are also fully aware that when people see you, they see that you are different first before really “seeing you”.

That is what it is like as the only person of color in the room.

There’s no doubt that the locals at the market saw our whiteness first. It’d be impossible not to. And with that whiteness undoubtedly comes assumptions about wealth, money, etc. In East Africa, mzungus, almost by default due to pervasive poverty, are extremely privileged.

Taking pictures in this market also felt inappropriate, if not tacky. People trying to scrape by and make a living aren’t at the market for foreigners like us to gawk and document. But being in a place like this is also completely exotic for me, and I enjoy sharing our impressions of places and people. I tried to be discreet in taking some of these images and after our excursion, I came across this blog post by Amanda Machado explaining six questions you should ask yourself before taking pictures in developing countries:

  • Are my intentions for this photograph only about myself?
  • Does this photo represent a stereotype of people from this country?
  • If a tourist in my home country took a photo of me in this same situation, would it make me uncomfortable?
  • Do the photos represent people with dignity?
  • Have I tried building a relationship with the person I’m photographing?
  • (Most importantly) Have you asked permission?

During the market trip, I honestly didn’t ask for permission, but I tried to capture “scenes” representative of the feel of the place, and I can say with a little confidence that if I were a random person going about my business in a market at home and ended up in a tourist’s photo, it wouldn’t bother me. Overall, I feel OK about the images I took. And the above list is a good one–these questions are among those that swirled in my head during the market excursion.

The bottom line is this: For Rebecca and myself, being in a non-touristy place in Africa provides endless opportunity to reflect upon our privilege, issues pertaining to race, and what it means to be in a minority group, among other things. There’s no better educational curriculum than traveling on the edge of your comfort zone.