Friday, August 26, 2011

Organizing Your Third World Trip

     I am frequently asked about how I put together one of my month or so long journeys to unfamiliar places. The first, and perhaps the most essential step, is deciding what area to travel to. There are so many interesting places in the world and so few opportunities to visit them that one needs to prioritize possible destinations to make sure the most important ones are the ones we travel to. The choice will reflect the interests of the traveler, the weather at the destination, money, and the pollitical situation at the very least. Once a site has been chosen, I begin a good bit of research. The internet travel sites, guide books, novels and other sources of information help me to select specific places that appear to be interesting. After that step, I generally put together a rough itinerary that includes my desired number of days in a particular site.
Very few guidebooks or internet sites can tell you just how many hours it takes to get from Mopti to Timbuctoo or Cuernavaca to Guadalajara so the next step is to approximate the time for your itinerary and to create a mock itinerary which will be used to send out.

      After I have my mock itinerary, I put it into an email together with a paragraph or two about me, my travel and my interests. I go onto the Net to look for agentss who live and work in the area I want to visit or, occasionally, agents in the States who specialize in the specific country I intend to visit. I explain to them that the itinerary is an approximation and I tell them how much I hope to spend and what kind of traveler I am. I request the agent look over this email carefully and respond to me with any suggestions or information they have. Out of about ten such emails I am likely to get about three back that indicate the agent understands what I am looking for and could provide the guidance and help I seek. The others do not seem to get it and so I have winnowed the field. Using whatever suggestions I have received at this point, I refine the itinerary to make it more realistic and I prepare the next step.

      It is time for the next email. In that message, I send the modified itinerary, give an indication of what hotels seem appropriate, request prices, and ask for additional suggestions. At this point, I let each of three or so agents know that I have made this request to several others and that I will choose the one among them who seems to be the most knowledgable and helpful and whose pricing seems most advantageous. It is important to let each of the correspondents at this point know that you may not select them to arrange the trip. An agent works hard to get timetables, make temporary reservations and find out detailed information to put a trip together. If they don't want to do that because they are not the only ones being asked to do so, they should have that choice. Like any business person they should have the information necessary to decide if they want to do the job.

     The final step is to select the agent I want to work with and which services I want from them. I may just have them take care of internal transportation and a guide, or perhaps make a few hotel reservations or arrange for a self-drive car. Depending on the available facilities, how crowded the season is and the language challenges, I have the agent set up whatever I may not be able to do. Voila! The trip is set and I am off and running. That preparation usually does the trick.

Goat Boat, Niger River, Mali

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strange Burials in the Third World

     There are seemingly infinite ways to honor ancestors; traveling in the Third World enables the tourist to observe a wide variety of funerary rites and even to occasionally participate in them. I am always amazed at how diverse man's accommodation can be to life's circumstances and to varied cultural beliefs about the nature of the world. Burials are an excellent example of such adaptations. I remember when my first encounter with exotic differences in this custom took place. I was in a Zoroastrian Temple in Mumbai, India. A guide pointed out a tower near the temple and explained that the Zoroastrian burial custom was to lay the corpse of the deceased person out in the open at the top of the tower in order that it be consumed by elements of nature.  We learned that the practitioners of this faith believe that the body becomes impure once the person has died and must not be permitted to contaminate the earth so they expose the body to the sun and to the birds of prey to be returned to nature. As one travels through the less known parts of the world, similarities between customs and beliefs in different and seemingly unrelated places turn up surprisingly. It was many years later on the island of Bali that we encountered an almost identical custom among the early settlers of that island. The Bali Agha, the oldest cultural group there, do virtually the same thing except that the bodies are laid out on the ground and covered with light cloths in order that they be reabsorbed into the earth from which they came. We were able to visit the Bali Agha cemetery in one of the small communities where they live but access was denied to the Zoroastrian Towers. Of course, the rest of the Balinese also observe burial practices which are colorful and interesting and distinctive, filled with dance and music, so those are exceptional as well. One has several choices on that little island alone.

     I have written earlier about the amazing funeral customs of some of the other peoples of Indonesia. The Toraja who live in the central part of the island of Sulawesi conduct perhaps the most elaborate of these ceremonies. If a person is important and/or especially wealthy, at death he or she is placed in a casket and buried in the ground much as one does in most of the world. The family saves its money for a clearly more important subsequent event, however, to which all of the townspeople and the deceased's family and friends and acquaintances are invited. The grand ritual occurs some year or two later. The ceremony may involve hundreds or more visitors from other islands and from neighboring towns who are provided  for in tents, served all kinds of food, and for whom many animals are sacrificed, etc. The expenses incurred by such grand ventures have bankrupted some families and these events are strongly discouraged by the authorities. They go on nonetheless.

     In Tana Toraja (the land of the heavenly kings) where these elaborate ceremonies are held, this event includes the placing of a carved wooden effigy of the deceased on the side of a cave in a lovely rice field covered valley to stand alongside equivalent dignitaries. These effigies are tended by the living relatives of the deceased including a regular changing of the dress on the effigy. The corpses are then interred in the caves behind each of these figures. Walking through that valley is quite a sight. In other places in Indonesia, the grand ceremony is followed by placing the coffin into a finely constructed miniature home that is a replica of those the people live in. Thus, the ancestors of the people have equal comfort in their afterlife. I have had the good fortune to be an honored guest at each kind of ceremony just because I was there to attend. My presence apparently lent additional gravity and importance to the event so I was welcomed with open arms.

     When I visited a small community of Sun Worshippers on the island of New Guinea, I saw another curious version of dealing with dead ancestors. There, on a series of shelves right in the middle of the tiny village, stood skulls of ancestors covering several generations. They had been decorated in the same fashion as the residents of the village do for themselves when they paint their faces to participate in joyful ceremonies. So the skulls are representations of those who lived earlier in the village. Many people in the Third World regard deceased relatives as the living dead, spirits that protect them from on high in the afterlife or guide them in their daily activities. They take care of these spirits out of respect but also out of fear that they could be harmed by them. 

     On the banks of the holy Ganges River in Varanasi, India, one sees many examples of the much more common crematory ceremonies for the dead. But the Hindus start early on these sacred shores. They bring their dying relatives to the riverside, construct pyres or use the ones that stand there and tend their loved ones as one might do in a hospice. After death occurs, the body is placed on the pyre and cremated with the appropriate ceremonial prayers and rituals. This is something many tourists are familiar with. Less well known is something I came across in Ghana in Western Africa. I was introduced to a common variation of burial that exists there- coffins are often carved to represent something of the person's life or the aspirations of the deceased. I have seen airplanes, bibles, books, race cars and other such items created by local carvers for the deceased to spend their eternity in. While I have surely not seen the full range of ceremonies that man has created to honor the dead, I consider myself fortunate to have experienced such a wide range of burial practices in my journeys. Such customs make travel in the Third World captivating, especially because they are so accessible to visitors who are interested in them. Not only can one observe what happens but often the visitor is deemed to underscore and augment the import of the ceremony. Doing well by doing good, I guess.

Boy in Market, Kashgar, China

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Do We Do In Response to Poverty?

     I was lecturing at a library the other day about the Third World and a woman who had been adventurous enough and curious enough to have visited India, my favorite destination, stated that it was dirty there and she was quite discomforted by the poverty. She did not enjoy her visit because of that. At least she had first hand experience because she chose to go there in the first place. Almost all the other folks who attend my lectures use those visceral aversions as reasons not to go. Are there great pockets of poverty in India and Cambodia and Yemen and Africa and many other places? Of course there are. First of all about a third of the world's people earn less than $2.00 a day. That is poverty. At that level most people can barely afford to eat or build themselves decent shelter or clothe themselves for protection against harsh weather. They are constantly in danger from epidemics or turbulent weather or other environmental events they cannot protect themselves against. They surely have little choice about where to live and very few have access to decent education. In some places poor people are more apparent than in others. In India, because of the dense population, poverty is especially visible.

      Yet few of us actually live very far from folks who are poor, who simply scrape by day to day if they are lucky. We usually protect ourselves from confrontation with that phenomenon by zipping past such areas in our car without stopping or by circumventing the "dirty" or "dangerous" streets by riding on expressways to our destination. Poverty is something that we read about but rarely are thrust into the middle of. Not so for the traveler. In areas of Cairo or Mexico City or Mumbai, we are more likely to be walking through neighborhoods where folks live outside or are clearly in need so we have to acknowledge the existence of aspects of life and society we can avoid at home if we are so inclined. As a matter of fact, travel is an opportunity if it is viewed as such. We can more safely and more genuinely interact with folks who are poor than is the case when we are at home. Travel provides a chance to sensitize ourselves to the existence of such life and to ponder the downside of society and its implications for us and others who do not have to endure such hardships. One of my earliest travel experiences and a true epiphany was taking a young woman to her home in the slums of Acapulco and seeing the conditions under which she lived from day to day-the unavailability of clean water, the sewage floating alongside unpaved roads, hungry babies crying under fragile tents. I knew that, from then on, I would work to help such people in any way I could.

     So that is another possible reaction. Maybe we could label it the Mother Teresa Conversion.  Each time I travel to places like rural Burma or some small African village, I become more and more aware of the hardships that some people have to endure just to go on living. We read about AIDS here but there are places where as much as a third or nearly half of the residents are infected; we are conscious of the existence of hunger even in America but distended bellies and skeletal figures abound in parts of the Third World reminding us how common and how painful hunger is; we see multititudes of children and adults living on the streets of overgrown cities in underdeveloped areas and cannot avoid those scenes intruding into our consciousness. These are people just like us, born in a less fortunate place, heirs to less opportunity, subjected to the whims of their weather or economy or cultures and trapped in their circumstances. Such images and experiences have impelled me to reevaluate what I consider important and what I take for granted. Such scenes can make us more human and help us to grow ethically if we allow them to do so. Visiting poverty can be an opportunity but only if the visitor takes as much interest in it as he or she does in the beautiful buildings or colorful costumes or captivating ceremonies one comes across all over the world. More knowledge and greater intimacy with all aspects of human life can have a greater effect on us than the easier aspects of world travel could ever afford. I don't like poverty either, at home or away. That's why I make an effort to diminish it in any way I can. Visits to India help increase my resolve.

                                                         Beggar, Mumbai, India