Posted by: Anna | February 4, 2011

Disaster following us – Egypt and Moscow

You may have noticed that Egypt is in crisis right now, and before that, you may remember the bombing in the international terminal of the Moscow airport. I want to first commend our parents for not panicking that these two frightening and serious incidents have happened not just overseas, but literally in places we have been. It is strange to us to see the news covering the incidents, especially Egypt, as we have had more opportunity to see the news about that. The protests are taking place in a square we were in, on our way to the Egyptian Museum.

It is easy to be caught up in the superficial traveler world – seeing the sights, believing the best about each place you visit. The “head in the sand” approach. We spend our nights in a sort of bubble, staying in backpackers, meeting mostly other travelers, not locals. We spend our days visiting famous sights, or experiencing things unique to the place we are – not living the local life. It is really another kind of bubble, customized for the traveler’s needs. Honestly, we are never that far (except for Kalahari) from bottled water, electricity, English, and other conveniences. The blackouts that plague much of Africa do not affect us overmuch, as many of the places we stay have generators. The political tension that resides in many of the places we visit is not obvious to us unless we look, as political tension does not feature well on a tourism brochure. The racial divides that have characterize this part of Africa during the 20th century are not too obvious most of the time. Countries make an effort to shield travelers from the ugly and often harsh realities that mar the postcard views.

With that in mind, sometimes I wonder if we should be seeking more authentic experiences in order to better understand the countries we visit beyond the guidebook sights. And sometimes we do not have to seek those experiences – they burst onto the scene in the news and we cannot avoid them, like in Egypt now, or in Israel, where tension is so widespread it has nowhere to hide. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad we visited the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum without battling protestors and gunfire. At the same time, I regret that I have not taken the time to better understand the issues in each place we have visited.

I am surprised that the violence has broken out so stridently, as our experience in Egypt was so peaceful (other than the omnipresent hawkers and me being angry at them!). As a traveler with only a few days or weeks in a place, I do not get a grasp of the currents of public thought, of the most important issues facing a place, or of the true character of the people themselves. Our travel is broad rather than deep, giving us a taste of each place, but not an entire meal. Sitting here in Southern Africa now, I wonder what undercurrents do I miss here? What will I see in India, and what will remain veiled to me? What does it say about me that I can miss so much, and live so much in my traveler bubble? Can that be avoided, or do I remain an outsider by my very existence as an outsider? Do I have a moral obligation to try to understand the places I visit more completely, as a citizen of the world, as a human being – to try to understand the suffering and injustice that affects so many people?

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Responses

  1. Anna
    A lot of questions. First enjoy the experience you two are getting.
    Now, if you push to know more, it might be taken as intrusion on that culture. Many cultures or the citizens of those cultures will always try to not air their laundry. Kind of like families in the US, where no one wants everyone know what happens in their family.
    So I don’t think you intentionally missing the internal structure of the cultures you are visiting, I think that the locals you meet don’t want to air their laundry.
    when I was in Africa, I used to go with one of the people we were working with, and have a beer at the local (help’s) bar. That is were I found out more about how things work. Otherwise I was like you guys and seen what was shown to me.

    I think you two are awesome and what you are experiencing is incredible.
    Enjoy and be safe.

    Michael

  2. I am not sure in a few days or even a few weeks you can truly live or experience the life a local does. Even if you were there for a year you would be viewing their issues and challenges through your American eyes and your own cultural experiences. In my opinion no two Americans even see or experience America the same way. I don’t believe you can ever truly walk in another man’s shoes. So even if can understand the political and social experiences better by interacting with more locals, each person’s experiences are so different.

    I think you are experiencing more of the local challenges than you think. You are interacting with people from all over the globe. You are staying in more modest lodgings, eating street food, going to local restaurants, using local means of transportation and seeing local sites. Yes, you are tourist but you are open minded and curious tourists. Yes, you are Americans but you are not chauvinistic ones. One thing that you have learned I think is that there are good and bad people everywhere, and more good than bad.

    You’ve jumped in and there’s nothing wrong with that. The experience you are having is pretty significant even if you are a tourist. Just like you have always you have always accepted that you are a nerd, just accept you are a tourist but perhaps the better kind.


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