Saturday, July 9, 2011

It's Hard Not to Get Noticed

     Americans and other Western travellers in the Third World have trouble not being noticed. Even if we dress according to local customs, our manners and appearance are generally sure giveaways that we are not from the places we visit. Of course, this fact has consequences in how we are reacted to by the residents of those places. It goes without saying that, in locales where our country is unpopular, we may be avoided or snubbed or leered at at the very least. When I was in Pakistan, even before 9/11, I did not feel especially welcomed by the folks who passed by me. There were no outward signs of hostility evidenced but, except for the children, we were largely ignored by the people we saw along the street or in the buildings we visited. All of the folks I requested to take photos of, however, were quite cooperative and did not mind my doing so. Some groups like the Huli tribe in Papua New Guinea just don't like travellers in their midst. There were other areas of the world where it seemed that tourists in general were not especially welcome but that has been the exception rather than the typical reaction to the presence of Westerners. Responses to us did not usually seem to be related to the economic status of the folks we met as much as to the customs and the political outlook of the people. At the same time, I was always careful not to point my camera at scenes of poverty and have people assume that I was photographing their poorest neighborhoods or other things they may not have been happy to have me record. Red light areas, homes on stilts that were falling down, homeless people on the streets, disabled folks, beggars and the like were sensitive things and, even if I wanted to look at such things and photograph them, I either did so at a distance or very surreptitiously. My travel was not aimed at making people feel worse about themselves.

       But travelers cannot hide. I remember entering the courtyard of a large mosque in Egypt soon after Obama's election. The people were excited by that event and the question that folks there asked me often was whether or not I voted for Obama. When I responded by indicating I was a strong Obama supporter, I received cheers, approbation and even hugs in response. They were very aware of what was going on in the States and saw me as representative of those events whether I wanted to be or not. If we carry a camera or a fanny pack, we also mark ourselves as conspicuous and then we may even be regarded as potential targets, especially for those who have little and for whom our camera may represent a year or more of earnings. I wrote earlier about a robbery setup by a couple of peasant women on a back street in a small town in Bolivia as a clear example of this. There have been several others.

      And then there are the more common positive reactions, some quite heart-warming.  There are places in the world where America is popular and visitors reap the benefits of being associated with the country. People greet the Western traveler in such lands with curiosity and warmth. They want to know about you, they want you to take pictures with them, they even want you to visit their schools or their homes. They are interesting in sharing aspects of their own life to a surprising extent. I remember traveling along the Silk Road in Western China and telling my guide to ask at the homes of a few of the minority groups folks we saw along the way if we could talk with them or visit their houses. The answer was an unqualified yes.  We had worthwhile experiences and saw a lot because of the people we interacted with that day. At markets, folks generally smile at us and regard us with as much curiosity as we do them. There were even instances where we were regarded as special guests. In West Africa, we were often greeted as honored guests and invited to participate in ceremonies of importance to the people. In Indonesia we were asked for our our signatures on several occasions so that the people could collect them. Being famous was new to us but it was nice to sample it for the few moments we were in those places.

     The presence of Westerners in remote parts of the world is often as important to the people who live there as it is to the visitors. Our smiles, our flexibility, our respect for the folks we meet is part of the travel equation. We should be mindful of this. Let people respond to us as they may. We should leave them with the impression that we are there because we want to understand them and because we value them as fellow citizens of the larger world. Spreading good cheer and friendship is not only fun, it is a key ingredient of the traveler's footprint.

Driving Is Not Always Good in Karachi, Pakistan

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