Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Through the Door Marked E

     There is something about being in the kind of place we call exotic that is like no other experience I can imagine. The word is generally used to describe things which are foreign or strange and that certainly fits many of the places you can visit in the Third World. Exotic denotes cultural settings where folks still live in traditional ways, dress in traditional clothes (although that is changing rapidly), eat unusual foods, and, most of all, demonstrate different values than we are accustomed to in the West. I have written about exotic burial customs, about forms of hospitality quite different than we are used to, about religious practices totally foreign from ours, about safety and security concerns quite unlike those in Western societies, and other such basic differences. Of course, unusual languages alone contribute to a sense of otherness in certain places. On the Island of New Guinea one could experience almost 800 of those dialects alone. All of these and more examples of diversity add up to exoticness. When we walk through the door marked E instead of the one with the V for vacation or the S for safety or the one with the H for home and comfort, we venture into another world, a parallel experience where the unexpected is common and the unknown lies just beyond the next turn in the road. There is something so exciting and stimulating on the other side of door E that only the timid and disinterested are likely to pass it by.

     Once one passes into the Exotic, the newness and the unfamiliarity of what surrounds us calls for us to experiment with new behaviors. That place demands that we increase our alertness and our spontaneity and our energy to cope with the novel demands that are placed upon us. Why do some of us try that door. Partly because we find differences refreshing and exciting. Many tourists already have lives filled with adventure but even those persons can occasionally use more stimulation, can achieve a higher level of challenge and self-exploration. When we are in isolated places among folks who do not know us, who are less inclined to take care of us, we need more from ourselves at every turn. That enables us to test ourselves in more ways and to discover more about who we are.

     What does one do climbing a jungle path and meeting half-clothed, angry looking men with weapons along the way? How does one summon the moxie to cross a crevice or a creek with only a frail looking rope bridge or log in the road? How does one deal with a desperate child tugging at your sleeve seeking a coin or a candy? What is the coping mechanism for dropping into a hotel and finding there is no hot water available or the lights are so dim that reading is impossible though the day has ended and the time for bed is hours away? How does a traveler find the right route with no language clues or discernible directional signs or proceed with an empty gas tank to a place whose distance is unknown? How do you manage in an airport when you don't speak the language and you don't have your luggage? What do you do when your very life is in danger from armed robbers or hostile natives? I have had to manage all of those circumstances and I have survived to write about them, to tell their narratives to my friends and family and to feel the accomplishment that comes with success in the face of challenge brought on by being in the unusual and sometimes intimidating world of exotica. Thanks to plugging through such difficulties, I have become a bit more courageous and a less worried person. Those changes in my makeup have helped me to navigate more than a few situations I have encountered even on the near side of the doors, events in my normal, daily life.  I am much more inclined now to take the door marked E, not because I know what the other side holds for me, but rather because I know what skills I will be taking through that door.

Facing off with the Komodo Dragon

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