Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reading and Travel: A Pairing of Wonderful Activities

       When I was in my twenties, I had the enriching experience of living several years in Europe. I worked there, made friends, participated in all aspects of the culture, learned a couple of languages and immersed myself in the environment. Most of us do not have that opportunity. Such travel is more desirable and growthful than the shorter trips we take where we are mainly observers and rarely have the opportunity to be participants in the activities that go on around us. Living abroad (Peace Corp, foreign placement, study programs, and other such options) is the deepest and most informative kind of travel available because it enables us to become more aware of our own culture by truly experiencing alternative ways of dealing with life tasks and challenges.

   The problem with shorter trips is that it is hard to really get to  know the nature of the cultures where we travel; we tend to find ourselves looking in from the outside. If we do not work in our new locale, we can only watch other folks work. If we do not speak the language well, we do not have easy communication. If we do not stay with families, we do not learn what families do and what they value.

     Since the majority of travellers have to opt for shorter trips, it is important to make these as meaningful and enjoyable as possible. When I decide to go to a particular destination, one of the things I do very early on is seek out books by authors (for the most part, novelists) who write about the place I will be visiting. Good novels are wonderful sources of information about the nature of the societies the story takes place in.
Reading about other locales is a way to learn about the world even if we are not travellers but reading skilled, descriptive novelists also makes for deeper understanding on the voyages we undertake.

       When I was thinking about going to Bahia in Brazil, I came across novels written by Jorge Amado who lived in and wrote about that area. His books were an intriguing introduction to Afro-Caribbean culture, the religion and politics and music that characterize life in that part of the world. When I left for Bahia, I sought out to understand more deeply many aspects of the country that he introduced me to and I felt his writing had enriched my travel extensively. Llosa's War of the End of the World provided additional insight into that region of Brazil. In preparation for a recent trip to Eastern Turkey, I read Orhan Pamuk's Snow which turned out to be a fascinating story set in one of the cities I was to visit. As I travelled through one village after another in West Africa, I found it extremely valuable to have read the novels of Chinua Achebe, the wonderful writer from Nigeria. His characterization of the struggles of West Africa and the nature of life in the villages markedly enhanced my travels. Nagib Mahfouz led me through the streets of Cairo like an invisible guide walking by my side. My trips to India were likewise made more meaningful by an abundance of authors like Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiry and Rohinton Mistry.

     I could go on and on about the relationship between reading knowledgeable authors and traveling to the settings where their stories take place. That combination has helped me to partially cross the bridge between being a superficial visitor and travelling as an insightful observer. In earlier entries to my blog, I suggested a number of ways to make trips richer, more entertaining and more informative. Reading about your destinations is high on my list of recommendations for pre-trip preparation and also for productive activity while you are away. Just as reading before you go makes the travel more promising, reading as you go along makes the books you choose more relevant and enjoyable. It works both ways.

Niger River, Mopti, Mali

Monday, June 13, 2011

Follow Your Own Drummer

     We all carry our personal interests with us when we travel. For independent travelers the Third World provides limitless opportunities to indulge those interests. In an earlier blog, I wrote about my fascination with masks but almost anything can fit into this category. In the world of competitive photography, there is a whole section labelled travel. Almost any photo one takes abroad can fit into this category so if photography is your thing, the possibilities for worthwhile subject matter is endless. But that pretty much goes for just about any aspect of life. What is required is a knowledgeable guide and a traveler who knows what he or she wants to see. Most of us are accustomed to travel within the broad guidelines that travel agencies or "experts" have designed for us. It does not have to be that way. If you are specifically interested in music, you can probably find someone where you are going who can steer you to unadvertised performances. A cellar in Lisbon where aficionados gather to sing the local Fada music or a bar in Dublin that features high quality Irish folk music are available to the visitor if you find your way there. Those stops are unlikely to be written on your itinerary. A village in West Africa where the playing of talking drums or bands of coras will welcome you and provide authentic entertainment and often outstanding dancing. The gamelan groups in Indonesia or marimba players in Guatemala or Zulu singing in South Africa are other examples of musical treats for the traveler. The way to capitalize on these opportunities is to let your guide know what you enjoy most and that you will trade off other potential highlights to go where you want to go.

     You can select almost any focus in the pantheon of human activity to center your travel around. If cooking is your fascination, the opportunities are right under your nose. Again, find a wise guide and make your way into the kitchens of the places you eat or to the hearths of native cooks in their homes. Art is an obvious center of interest for those so inclined. Don't go to the tourist souvenir traps but make sure you do get to the out of the way places where budding artists and sculptors feature their work or to studios where their creativity is activated. Are you interested in cigar making or textiles or jewelry work or mining? Make your wishes clear and follow the expert. Do you desire to see the birds or local animals or insects where you go? You may need a specialist to lead you to such discoveries but such experts are not too difficult to find.

     Collecting is another activity which requires the traveler's asserting herself. First of all one needs to know what items are specialties of the place you are visiting and then find out where to go to indulge your interests. I remember being in the market in Chichicastenango in Guatemala and viewing the hundreds of masks on sale that had been made for the tourist trade in that popular market. They were not at all tempting. It was only after I had engaged a few folks in the market that I was able to get directions to a small store off to the side of the area which featured a much more interesting collection of authentic, older masks. If the specialty of the area is dolls or puppets or glass blowing, you can usually find a factory or workshop where such things are made. There you will see the process and you will have greater choice to augment your collection.

     I was an educator for many years and have an abiding curiosity about how kids are taught, how teachers are trained, and what the school environment is like. On trips to the Third World, I have discovered that, not only have I been able to visit schools, I have learned a lot, been very well received and delighted classes with an unexpected opportunity to talk with me and learn about life in the States. Such stops continually enriched my travel. As I wrote about in an earlier blog, it is important to make the trip your own. (You can't do that if you are travelling on a bus with thirty or so other people.) Do the necessary research beforehand, engage people to help you who really know the area you will be traveling in, and make sure your guide knows that you are not the general public for whom itineraries are pre-designed but a specific individual with particular interests who wants a trip that fits him as a person. You won't be sorry.

Pashtun Tribesman, Gilgit, Pakistan

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It Can Get Scary at Times

     Flash floods, broken down cars, insect conventions, robbers of all kinds, and a few other distractions can be part of the Third World experience. These kinds of happenings make such travel both adventurous and dangerous at times. One should not minimize the dangers of independent travel in certain parts of the world. The only question is whether the risks are worth the anxieties. As one who comes down on the side of risk, I still marvel at a few scary events that came along on my journeys around the globe. There were at least two that were clearly life threatening but which I lived through and which became conversation at cocktail parties and items of interest in my book. At the times they occurred, I would have been quite happy to avoid them, yet they have been among my most colorful and interesting stories ever since.

      Quite a few years ago in the Province of Xinjiang in far western China, we were driving over dry, harsh hills toward the capitol of the area after many weeks of touring. We were coming from a town known as one of the most arid places in the world when we encountered a sudden storm that rapidly filled the ancient river bed which ran alongside the temporary, dirt road on which we traveled. It was not very long before the desert scenery was enveloped by dark clouds, heavy rain and the rising river. At one point, the river reached the roadside right in front of us and we faced a choice- either try to drive through a large, growing stream to reach higher ground, or sit there and pray that the rain would stop in the next few moments and we would not go floating down the river as did some other people as well as lots of trees and other flotsam. We decided to forge ahead and the motor stalled right in the ditch before us. We were trapped as the water began to engulf our car.  Fortunately, the driver of a van just ahead of us saw what was happening, got out of his vehicle and tossed a rope to our driver who had made his way to the front of the car. The driver tied it onto the bumper and the van pulled us up to higher ground where we were safe. We lived through the worst moments but were stranded with little food or drink along with dozens of Chinese cars and trucks as the road collapsed before us and behind us. As luck would have it, road workers got through to us two Americans and we were rescued and taken through the desert on a back road to a small city. We felt bad leaving our new Chinese companions stuck where they were but all of our pre-made arrangements required that we do so.    

      The only event that came close to that one was our experience in a van returning us from a rainy visit to Tikal in Guatemala to our hotel in Belize. We left late from the Mayan site and were driving slowly on a muddy and desolate road toward the border. All was fine until we saw a man in the middle of the road. He was wearing a red bandanna and pointing an AK-47 right at the driver telling him to pull over. The driver was clearly very frightened and told us all (we were seven tourists) to do whatever the bandits said and give them whatever they wanted.  The van came to a sudden stop; two men in similar guise came on board carrying machetes and guns which they pointed at each passenger in turn demanding all the valuables we carried. We were glad we had learned not to carry anything of value in our Third World travels, so we had little to lose besides our lives. They moved quickly, took whatever they could and all three quickly disappeared into the jungle alongside the road. It was clear that they did not want to spend any more time in that spot than necessary, and neither did we. No one got hurt and only one passenger had made the mistake of wearing things she valued.

      There were other similar titillating scenarios from an attempted robbery on a back street in a small town in Bolivia to a broken propeller on our houseboat on a river leading into the jungle of Borneo, from attempted pickpocketing in a couple of cities to encounters with folks who were decidedly unfriendly and threatening. These events were all part of taking chances in order to experience the Third World and learn about how others live on our planet. Were they worth it? I am not a mountain climber nor do I plumb the depths of our oceans by diving deep below. So the happenings I describe were about as close as I am likely to get to the adventures of people who seek thrills that way. But I did not pursue such experiences; they just occurred as I journeyed to discover the riches of Third World travel. And that is part of such exploration. You bet it was worth it. I would not trade a single one of those scary episodes for a week at the beach. What would I talk about at cocktail parties?

Onlookers, Pushkar Camel Fair, India