Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stretching Your Limits in the Third World

     One does not need to climb mountains or explore deep caves to test personal limits and increase confidence and independence. Travel in the Third World alone offers the opportunity to check out your capacity for survival if you wander about independently and take some chances. One of the main differences in Third World settings and travel in industrialized areas is how much the traveler is protected by the surrounding environment. To put it simply, the Third World does not take care of visitors to the same extent; you are much more on your own. As I write these words, the first image that comes to my mind is a swaying rope bridge I crossed in a remote area in Southeast Asia. A small group of fellow hikers and I were told there was a lovely waterfall on the other side of the bridge so most of us crossed over, obviously one at a time. One man was afraid of heights but he took a chance and went with us. As we crossed, we became aware of an enormous drop below us where the earth had parted many years earlier. We saw the waterfall and made our way back to the main path. The man who feared heights stood on the other side paralyzed by his discovery of the distance to the ground below the bridge. With encouragement, he finally made his way across and we all went traipsing farther along. His trauma was partly due to the absence of any signs indicating that there was a gorge so far below but we all were nervous crossing the swaying, vine-covered structure. I could not help but think about what the last time might have been when an engineer (or even a local townsperson) inspected the bridge we had just risked our lives to cross for the sake of a waterfall. Rope bridges turn up in lots of Third World settings from treks through the Thai countryside to gaps in jungle trails in Indonesia or South America. One either crosses them or misses the fun or the view on the other side.

     Another similar challenge that I recall was boarding ships in Vietnam, Borneo and other places by walking on an exposed plank over water which was either deep or polluted or infested with some undesired inhabitants. I remember a day on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea when we arrived at a village we wanted to visit and found a thin, fragile wooden bridge at the entrance which crossed a swamp. It looked very unstable and offered only one rope for balance. One crossed it or did not visit that village. After coming so far and being in such a fascinating place, there was really no choice. On another trip, a ride around a lake in Sumatra presented a similar challenge for us and for our car as well. A bridge consisting of a few loosely connected logs and very shaky side rails appeared before us along the road. We got out of the van while our guide helped the driver stay on the logs and we followed along on foot gripping tightly to the unreliable sides. I recall vividly walking along through rice fields in Bali another time and encountering a large log which connected a gap in the path we were on. It looked a bit too challenging for us initially and we debated retracing our steps until a local woman came along from the other direction carrying a large basket of goods on her head. She walked across the log without hesitation or nervousness at all. That inspired us to do the same although with significantly less certainty. We saved backtracking a couple of miles had we not done so. Such bridges and logs and other hazards exist in the Third World in reasonable numbers. The traveler is certain to encounter such obstacles.

      But there are many other challenges along journeys in out of the way places. We have witnessed stones and boulders blocking our path along "highways" in the mountains of Pakistan. We have driven on unpaved, mile high roads around curves with no markings and no way to discern oncoming traffic. We have come close to running out of gas in deserted rural areas where no one made sure there was a supply available anywhere near where we traveled. Of course all of these challenges exist in countries where the medical facilities are often minimal or absent. Should the traveler sustain injuries, he is on his own. That is just the way it is.

     Yet here I am. My wife and I made it through all those challenges and we are better off for the experience. We know that people can survive and even enjoy themselves without all the protections that customarily surround us to make our lives safer and our health more secure. We do not advise timid friends to follow in our path but we attribute much of our travel satisfaction to the confidence we have gained in surmounting such challenges just like the millions of people do every day who live in such places. We have learned that conquering obstacles is good practice for the daily demands of life and helps to keep our usual challenges in proper perspective.

Valle de la Luna, Bolivia

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Surrounded by the Third World

     One more byproduct of travel in the Third World is the incredibly low price the shopper pays for intricate, artistic and representative artifacts in areas where workers are horribly underpaid and most appreciative of any cash they can get for their creations. That is an unfortunate and painful situation for the craftsman who commands so little reimbursement for his or her time and labor and talent. In some places, workers join in cooperatives and can get a fairer price for their goods but such arrangements are relatively rare. Whenever we shop, we seek out cooperatives for our purchases. Even then, the cost of interesting items is extremely low compared to the industrialized West. Bargaining over prices in the markets of the Third World is also fun so long as the traveler remembers that money means more to the sellers there than it does to the visitors.

     Yet we all want to bring home with us memorabilia of our travels, items which help us recall regularly some experience in another culture or which contribute to an interest we have developed along the way. Our own home is almost entirely decorated with artifacts we have bought abroad. Our walls feature batiks from Africa and Indonesia, weavings from Laos and Bolivia and Mexico, and, most of all, a fascinating collection of masks from just about every place where they are made. We have metalwork from tribal villages in India and from the skilled artisans of Western Africa, carvings from Ecuador, China and the Philippines, embroidered pillow cases from Thailand and Vietnam and India and old pieces from the Silk Road decorating our shelves and mantels. Each one of these items reminds us of the place it comes from and often we recall the experience of purchasing it or the craftsman we met who created it. These artifacts are constant catalysts for conversations and recollections that we enjoy immensely. You can see what I mean at

      Perhaps the most significant aspect of this shopping is how inexpensive it is for us dollar or euro carriers. Western currencies are valued in the Third World so the exchange rates tend to be very favorable. Aside from a lovely rug we bought in a store in Pakistan, our most expensive item is a wood and paper mache elephant from Kashmir painted in gold with a rat's tail brush. That finely crafted and unusual item cost us $150.00. These rewarding and attractive items have not added much to our travel costs. Our home is our travels. I can sit in a chair in my living room and look around me revisiting the world I have traipsed through. The Philadelphia Inquirer, our local newspaper, found the decorations in our home so intriguing that they just featured our house in the home section. It was probably the least expensive place I have ever seen written up in that feature. Much more importantly, however, is the joy we have in looking around the house as we move through it and seeing one reminder after another of the wonderful adventures we have been fortunate enough to include in our lives. Do not neglect this aspect of Third World travel.

Aidkah Mosque, Kashgar, China