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

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