Thursday, February 24, 2011

Don't Wait Too Long to Go to that Special Place

     In an earlier blog where I mentioned the indigenous Indians who can still be visited in Panama, I described the Embara of Panama whom I visited on two separate occasions about six years apart. The most dramatic observation I noted during my travel to that area was the enormous change that had come to the relatively remote culture in such a short time. The Embara were half naked in their villages the first time I visited and were now much more fully clothed. The children were almost all attending school by the time of my second visit and were trekking home in school uniforms. The folks we saw at lunchtime were serving us instead of our bringing prepacked lunches on our first trip and sharing what we had with them. The main house of the village was more organized and the formality of the visit had increased significantly. More canoe loads of tourists dropped by also. The most important change to this smalll cultural group, however, was their dependence on outside visitors for income. The government had recently provided help for that purpose but, in exhange, they had prohibited the group from hunting animals in their habitat. The hunter-gatherers were now tourist show persons. I guess a group can't change much more than that. The neighboring group of island dwelling Indians I mentioned in the previous blog had long since been "touristized". They were managing their islands like businesses, charging $1.00 per photo and selling artifacts clearly made for visitors.

    I fully support cultural development and economic improvement customarily. Advancements in agriculture, medical care, self-government, technology, etc. are generally beneficial to the people of the world. But the traveler should be alert to the impact of such changes on the uniqueness and history of the places and people they wish to visit. The most enlightening and interesting aspects of Third World Travel are the differences in how people live in various places. We Third Worlders look to learn from others and how they have adapted to the challenges that life offers them in their environment. Most of the recent changes in those cultures have been the product of assimilation into a larger, more homogeneous culture and these, in turn, tend to weaken the singularity of the group that offers the traveler and the world a special experience. We know how languages are disappearing rapidly from the world's richness and history and the same is true about distinctive subgroups in remote areas.

    So, travelers, the moral of this tale is Do Not Wait for some Future Time.  So many of us put journeys to the Third World (or any place for that matter) in the back of our minds seeking a perfect time. Often that time is an anticipated retirement or some other life event that may make such travel more opportune. While we are waiting, however, the world is changing rapidly around us. New governments rise and induce conformity in many places, i.e., Afghanistan, Libya, Venezuela, Ethiopia, etc., where indigenous tribal life morphs into nationalism.  New technology introduces information  to isolated peoples about the rest of the world and lures the group into competition to match what they see. Much of Africa fits this category. The internet, in addition to its being a very valuable new tool for knowledge is also a powerful culture changer. Who among us does not want to see more representative government in Egypt or Somalia, Zimbabwe or Cambodia. At the same time, adventure seekers who want to learn about the world with its incredible cultural diversity better get moving. It is still a challenging and exciting undertaking but the prospects of such adventures diminish as small cultural groupings with their unique ways of being, talking, honoring traditions and believing reliable narratives, etc. disappear from the earth we live on. Get going, fellow travelers.

Smile and Sadness, Lombok Island, Indonesia

Friday, February 11, 2011

Packing for the Third World

     One question that my friends and followers always ask when they are about to launch their third world travel experience is what they need to bring with them. There are two things to keep in mind when contemplating the answer to this question. The first one is that the people one is likely to encounter in New Guinea or West Africa, Nicaragua or Cambodia are likely to have far fewer possessions than we do. In some places folks own only the clothes they have on their backs- no substitutes, no closets, no fashion consultants, etc. It is hard to underdress for places where that is the case. The second point is that the movement from one place to another can be on a little plane or a small dugout canoe or a rickety bus in certain locales. One does not get luggage picked up at the door and transported to the next town. There may not even be anyone to help with the lifting of your packages. Unless you are on a luxury group trip to Timbuktoo (ha! ha!) you need to be aware of this issue.

     We almost never avail ourselves of laundry services even if they are offered at the places we stay. My wife and I carry three sets of under clothing and socks which we rotate. We wash each evening which gives us a change for each day and an emergency pair of everything. That takes little space in our luggage and does the trick for cleanliness and comfort. We then add in a pair of shorts or two, a pair of long pants, a sweater or jacket (depending on the weather), a couple of short or long sleeve shirts as needed, comfortable shoes and flip-flops for the shower or occasional beach visit. If you have special requirements or interests, you should have plenty of room.

     Our single piece of baggage leaves for the trip almost empty except for the items listed above. We augment the luggage with a small toilet article bag and my camera equipment. Since there is frequently an absence of available medicines in some of the towns we stay in, we take bandaids, aspirin, a general antibiotic and an antibiotic cream, an anti-itch cream, cold pills and lozenges, insect repellant, sunscreen and wipees (clean water is not always available) and tissues. We add on any medicines we take regularly. Make sure to carry these with you if you send any luggage through on a plane.

     What do we do when we need to dress up? We almost never face that problem. We have found that hotels and restaurants will take our mastercard no matter how we dress, we look at least as good as the people we are visiting, and we don't expect to see the people we meet ever again so making an impression is not a goal. Keep it simple, light and convenient. One additional tip is to leave enough space when you depart for picking up some of the wonderful artifacts you will encounter. On the way home, we send our remaining belongings (the stuff we don't throw out) home in a bag and carry the things we purchase in our luggage safely packed for our enjoyment upon arrival. Happy travels.

Tibetan Woman Spinning Wool