Saturday, September 3, 2011

Getting Down With the People Who Live There

     If there were one word of advice I would give to fellow travelers it would be participate. Opportunities for being part of what is going on around you are omnipresent in the Third World. People in developing countries tend to be less protective of their personal practices and less inclined to secrecy than we are used to in the West. That gives us choices to be observers- to stand around and watch what goes on- or to get involved with the events that take place when we are in some exotic place. I remember many times I have faced the option to get involved or to stand apart. A few examples of this choice which have greatly affected the quality of my travel come vividly to mind.

      In the city of Vientiane, Laos, my wife and I rented a moped one afternoon so we could spend the next day touring the interesting, small villages surrounding the capital. When we awoke in the morning, it was raining hard and that plan seemed to be gone with the wind. I suggested we take the moped back and make the most of the day getting around by cab. My wife looked out onto the street and saw the multitude of moped riders slicing through the nasty weather and she suggested we do as the Romans do. We borrowed a large umbrella, hopped on the moped and drove around all day. Bev was sitting behind me holding the umbrella over both of us which at least gave us the feeling of being protected from the rain, just as many of our road mates were doing. We visited the towns and the temples and did not miss a step. It was sure more enjoyable than the cab I was thinking of renting. We had as much fun that day as on any of our many travel moments. People we saw appreciated our willingness to get out and about in the manner they were accustomed to. We got lots of smiles. It is a good thing the residents provided an example for us of how to see Vientiane.

       Another moped event also occurred in Southeast Asia, namely in the city of Da Nang on the coast of Vietnam. We had an open day in front of us and we decided to go to Hoi An which we had left off of our itinerary even though we knew it was a tempting town to visit. We again rented a moped for the day. Of course we wound up getting lost. The signs were all in Vietnamese, the roads were all in disrepair, and we were the only English speakers we encountered until well into our ride. Finally, about an hour into our misdirected journey, another moped driver saw our confusion and we were able to communicate to him our intended destination. He indicated that we were on the wrong road and instructed us to follow him. He put us on the right path eventually and we did wind up having a great day touring the old Chinese settlements in Hoi An. That afternoon we left later than we might have otherwise to return to Danang. We did make it into the city but that too was quite an adventure. I learned that mopeds did not generally include lights, especially on the back of the bikes. We came into Da Nang in the dark alongside a crowd of mopeds and bicycles, all of which were invisible until one was right on them. After finding ourselves inches from the next driver, we decided not to ride any more mopeds in the dark.

     I wrote in an earlier blog about how a visitor is viewed as an important guest at  many ceremonies in the Third World. I remember several days when our joining the festivities wound up being fun and rewarding to us and the other participants. In West Africa, we attended an event which featured stilt dancers. At one point it was explained to us that the dancers were so nimble that they could bend over and pick up something off the ground. I walked out to the middle of the ring, put a few francs on the ground and returned to my seat. The dancer who was performing went over to the money and deftly bent over on his long stilts to successfully pick it up. He then turned and bowed to me and the whole audience cheered. They had apparently enjoyed not only his skills but my willingness to take the ceremony seriously and to make a contribution to it.

     There are innumerable such memories that occur to me as I reflect on this aspect of travel but I will limit myself to just one more example of participation. On our first trip to India, we were in the lobby of our hotel and we noticed activity outside on the street. We were informed that the activities of the delightful holiday called Holi were taking place and that folks were painting one another with colored powder, yelling and totally enjoying themselves. We were advised to stay in the hotel because "it could be dangerous in the street." My wife and I immediately went back to our room, put on the oldest, most beat clothing we had brought with us and headed for the festivities. Other folks followed our example. We bought several packets of colored powder from one of the many vendors and joined the celebration. By the time we returned to the hotel, we were covered with colors which never completely washed out of our clothing. My wife endured a few breast rubs that morning but that was the extent of the danger we faced. The people who engaged us truly enjoyed our being out there participating in their holiday.  They could not have enjoyed that any more than we did. Diving in to the activities that present themselves along the way may be the best way to enrich your travel experiences.

My wife, Bev, dancing in Cote D'Ivoire

1 comment:

Travel Tips for Asia said...

I love the moped/umbrella relationship in SE Asia. Just make sure to find a transparent umbrella so you can hold it in front of your face :)