Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A World of Ceremony and Ritual

     An amazing aspect of Third Word travel is the variety of rituals and ceremonies one comes across, especially in areas where tribal peoples aggregate. The most dramatic of these we encountered in our travels was the time we stumbled onto a curing ceremony being conducted to help a young child recover from a high fever. We came upon a group of middle aged women assembled in a field somewhere in the most rural section of the state of Orissa in India. We learned that the participants belonged to the Kondh tribal group and that they had come together to magically disburse the child's disease. We secured their tacit permission to watch them at work as well as to take photos. It was as if we were invisible insofar as they were concerned. The sequence of events included the leader of the group (the head medicine doctor of the village) imbibing something which helped her reach an altered stage of consciousness, the slow and painful disembowelment and sacrifice of a pigeon and a chicken, the appearance of the sick child and his mother from the nearby woods, the smearing of the birds' blood and innards on the child after the birds were sated with rice and totally content, the child's father making an appearance with a small bow and arrow to scatter the disease away from his son, the bathing of the boy with bottles of water and the eventual return of the family to the wooded home whence they came. There are more details but you probably would not believe me anyhow. I could hardly believe my own eyes.

     On another trip to India, my favorite destination, we encountered an almost equally incredible event. We visited the Meenakshi Temple in the southern city of Madurai. In the evening, the Brahmans take the symbol of Shiva, the god of destruction, and carry it all the way from one side of the temple to the other to place it within the shrine of his wife, Meenakshi, so that the two gods may bed down for the evening. In the morning, the ceremony is reversed. The shrine is carried in a palanquin by a cadre of Brahmans accompanied by a group of musicians and followed by a few faithful devotees who chant along the way. We had no idea that this went on every single night of the year but we were surely thrilled that we had come across it.

     Throughout the African continent there are countless ceremonies which mark religious or family occasions. In Benin, I attended a couple of voodoo gatherings in villages along our travel paths. I remember one that was especially dramatic. The drum-accompanied dancing was a common background for such events and there was almost always an elder who led the way. In this particular one, an older woman priestess started the dancing after coming out of the village fetish house and drinking some undefined liquid at the same time. It was not long before she floated away in a deep trance and had to be carried back and laid down in the fetish house to recover. The entire village reverberated with the music and the participants included some as young as two years old who entered the dance circle and performed admirably. Some of the little ones on the periphery played with traditional toys that kept them busy including pet birds with a string on one of their legs. The entire scene was surreal. In other such ceremonies we saw men and women drink and dance themselves into another world, drink blood from sacrificed animals and carry a goat's head in their mouth as they circled a fire. The whole region is filled with such happenings.  Voodoo variations exist in the new world also, especially in Brazil where Candomble and other forms are practiced. The ceremonies there are a bit milder but drink, dance and spirit figures are major parts of the religion.

     Special rituals mark developmental moments in the lives of many traditional peoples although these are not always accessible to the tourist. A comprehensive funeral with unlimited guests, animal sacrifices, wooden effigies of the deceased and other such artifacts is common in Indonesia; such ceremonies are especially colorful among the tribes of Central Sulawesi. In the jungles of New Guinea, young men are introduced into the tribe with tattoos resembling alligator scales carved into their back with a long sharpened bone of a flightless bird. Young men in Cote d'Ivoire go to live in the jungle with elders for months to learn about their way of life of their people as do Dogon youth on the escarpments of their tribal areas in Mali. Kathakali dancers spend hours making up their faces before performing on the West coast of India. Longhouse dwellers in Borneo take in their ladders at night so their enemies don't come looking for cannibal subjects. The world is filled with such incredible and fascinating events from end to end. Just exploring the colorful rituals available to visit would make a wonderful and informative trip through the traditional world.

Chicken Eating Rice from Boy's Neck
Kondh Curing Ceremony, Orissa, India

Saturday, July 14, 2012

An Experience Worth Working For

     Some things come naturally while others take a much greater degree of investment in time and discipline and energy. Although I have put a lot of work into planning my world travel, that was relatively easy. What was far harder was learning a few languages that I could communicate with in addition to English. Many Americans assume that they can get by speaking English wherever they travel and English probably is closest of all to a universal tongue. But they must evaluate what "get by" means. If you want to know how to find a particular hotel or restaurant, the fact is that sign language and a written card with the name of the place may do the job. If you want to interact at any level deeper with people you meet in foreign lands, it takes a bit more work. The important rewards of studying a language to a level of proficiency are benefits that are difficult to imagine beforehand. I  took four years of Latin in high school. In retrospect, that was a great mistake. Although there is secondary gain from such an undertaking (you know the general belief about how Latin helps one learn Spanish or any of the other Latin based tongues or get into medical school), but the fact is that studying any living tongue directly is a more certain way to learn how to make yourself understood in Paris or Portugal in the 21st century than in Rome two thousand years ago.

     To become really conversant, I found the need to immerse myself in a setting where the language was required for communication. After four years of Spanish in my college days, I found that I could barely understand what was said to me or express myself very coherently until I spent a summer at a boarding house for locals in Mexico City. A friend of mine and I were the only English speakers staying there so there was no question about what the language of the house was. By the time I left Mexico City, about six weeks after I arrived, I could actually follow conversations and even flirt with the women who were staying in the boarding house. That was a special status in language usage, one which produced a level of satisfaction that no amount of in school study even approximated. I was a Spanish speaker (though not yet a fluent one), a bi-lingual. Forget the Latin. I did. (Well, actually, I never even learned it.)

     I enjoyed my Spanish proficiency so much that, several years later in 1957, when I went to work in Germany, I did so with a Berlitz book on German tucked under my arm on the plane. I spent most of the flight trying to learn every word I could. Most importantly there were many, many English speakers in Germany at that time. My greatest impediment to learning that language was the inclination of Germans to respond in English to my broken German. I dealt with that by not answering in English anything that was said to me. Of course, that was a bit inconvenient since my German vocabulary was so limited and my grammar so broken, but it did give me the practice and the corrections I needed. The Germans I spoke with were enthusiastic about my desire to learn their tongue and were more than patient with my mistakes. My German continued to improve enough so that, after two years in the country, I was fluent enough to pass for German in limited conversations. (That did not include two philosophy courses I attempted at a nearby, venerable university which required a level I never reached in that language.) I loved being able to converse fluently in another foreign language. My addiction to language learning continued later in Italy where I taught for a year and learned another language and one I actually loved the sound of. Unlike the guttural sounds one had to endure to speak German, Italian flowed like a song. No wonder it gave birth to so much of the operatic music we listen to today. Learning these languages as well as some Hebrew along the way has resulted in very special and enjoyable experiences. There is something exciting in mastering and using other languages for needed communication.

      Additionally there is a special psychological component to learning even a bit of a language as well as a practical one. Of course, it is convenient and enjoyable to communicate with others in their language, but it is also a respectful thing to do. Not everyone can reproduce the sounds of another language well nor does every traveler have the capacity or motivation to actually study another language to the level of useful proficiency, but we can all make an effort. It is that effort that conveys respect for another culture. Germans practically applauded when I struggled with their language in a serious way as did the Italians. I eventually made an effort to learn a few words of conversation in the local tongue everywhere I went. When I was in a tribal area in New Guinea or rural India and greeted people with their words for hello or thanked them in their native tongue, it brought smiles of appreciation to their faces and immediately bridged some of the natural distance between us. It may not be necessary to take several years of college French or Russian to enhance one's travel. Learning a few key phrases and listening carefully to how people say everyday things so you can learn those expressions is a wonderful way to make new friends. A single "pleased to meet you" can be a big deal.

New Afghan Friends near the Khyber Pass, Pakistan

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No Luggage! So What!

     One aspect of Third World travel that I have mentioned before is serendipity, the willingness and even joyful acceptance of new and surprising events which happen to the traveler. The requirement to be flexible in the face of the unknown is an an absolute necessity if the voyage is to be successful. One of the great hazards on any trip is the failure of luggage to arrive at the same place as its owner. Although this is a great inconvenience wherever the traveler may be, it is especially aggravating when it happens in a place where access to substitute clothing and trip items is limited. At the same time, even a happening such as this can be a memorable and actually productive event if it is dealt with in good spirit. A good example of making lemonade out of lemon was a recent trip my wife and I took from Cairo to Nairobi.

      We flew out of Cairo on an Air Ethiopia flight that was trouble from the very beginning. We spent hours in the transit area of the airport because we were on our way from Tel Aviv to Nairobi. The hot, poorly maintained section of the building  was uninviting and uncomfortable and all the announcements were in Arabic which we spoke not a single word of. Fortunately, we met a young man who spoke English as well as Arabic so we were able to discern the various rationales announced to account for the stops and starts we made from transit to the plane itself (and of course back again.)  It must have been 100 degrees on the tarmac and the excuse for why we did not get underway included an airport strike in Khartoum (our only stop along the way), mechanical problems, and a decision about whether or not the Khartoum bound passengers were supposed to board. After all the uncertainty, we experienced a one hour stay on the plane with no air conditioning, and a decision that we would be heading directly to Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia and passing over Khartoum, we finally boarded for the flight.

      That was another adventure still. The young man who translated for us in the transit area came on board only a few minutes after us. While I was happy to see that he was making his flight, he was supposed to be on his way to Khartoum. The problem was that we were told the plane was not stopping in Khartoum. Oh, well, another change or, perhaps, a misunderstanding. When we finally took off now headed for the Sudan instead of Ethiopia, we were all quite exhausted. My wife fell asleep immediately. I probably would have also had I not noticed that there was a crack in the window right next to our seat. That did keep me up a while and I knew we would not be landing for repair. We  stopped in Khartoum, discharged the passengers who were getting off there and headed for Addis. It was there we discovered that we were changing planes there for the rest of our flight to Nairobi. My wife was very worried that our luggage would not get onto the second plane. We gazed intently out of our window from the new plane trying to discern whether or not the luggage actually transferred but could not tell for certain. I was almost certain I saw it being loaded onto our new flight. My wife was fairly sure it did not make the transfer. She was right.

     The empty, helpless feeling we experienced as the luggage pile disappeared from under our nose in Nairobi is rather indescribable. Ours never showed up. We were scheduled to go by van to Tanzania in just a couple of hours. No problem! After an hour or so of negotiations, Air Ethiopia presented us with about $20.00
 each to buy clothing to wear for the two and a half week duration of our trip. We were surely not used to shopping in East Africa but we did find a place with incredibly inexpensive and frail clothing so we were able to garner a few pairs of shoddy underclothes and socks and a couple of other indispensable items for the upcoming safaris. With those additions we knew we would hardly be the fanciest ones in our group but at least we did have something to change into after each evening's wash. We learned along the way that Tanzania and Kenya did not have friendly relations at that time, so we did not recover our luggage until we returned later to Nairobi. Off to Tanzania we went. We just made the bus.

      This was to be a true learning experience. First of all, we discovered that we only needed about $20.00 worth of clothing each for the next couple of weeks and that it was quite liberating to be carrying nothing with us. We learned also that we were the objects of the other people in the group's sympathy and generosity. They managed to assemble a modest assortment of t-shirts, shorts, and paraphernalia to round out the required items. We made new friends, carried less with us than anyone else on the safari and never sent luggage through again. We travel light and fancy free now. And we do generally have more clothing than the people we visit on our trips.

We Usually Have More Clothes Than
The People We Visit. Damazulu, South Africa