Saturday, December 5, 2015

On India

After three years of obsession - planning, saving, discussing, looking at maps and reading books, my first, but not last, trip to the mighty subcontinent is coming to a close. As I reflect on my journey, it seems hard to imagine that I have fit this much life, and this many experiences, into such a short amount of time. Since coming here, I have learned:

About the real consequences of volun-tourism 
I have dedicated two whole posts to this, but it’s worth mentioning again because it was perhaps one of the biggest lessons travel has ever taught me. I learned how I react to entirely new situations, how I am able to communicate without speaking the same language. The family I stayed with in the village seemed so happy, and I learned that the cliché of “money poor but life rich” is, in some way, very true.

How to say No
The barrage of demands in India is constant “look my shop” “rickshaw?” “here good price for you” “rickshaw??” “guesthouse?” “Rickshaw?? “photo?” “RICKSHAW???” India is crowded and pushy and saying yes to every single request would leave a person drained and broke within a day. I've learn that it’s okay to be assertive and to stand up for yourself. There is no room in this country for self-entitlement or coddling. As foreigners, we are often treated as ignorant walking ATMs, and respect will only be given if you demand it. More than any other place, India has taught me to be assertive.  

... And when to say yes 
Beyond the barrage of rickshaw drivers and touts, this place also has beautiful, kind, and friendly people. I met a whole crew of young Bangalorians who are artists and musicians and web designers. We took a trip together and bonded over jobs and travel and over-bearing parents. Had I closed myself off to all that is native to India, I would have never met these people, and would have missed out on having another place in the world where I have friends.

You are never alone on the road 
Since leaving the US on the September 1st, I can think of exactly two days where I didn’t meet a new friend, or hang out with a friend I had just made. On two difference occasions, I met people in one city that I had met in another city, or people who I had friends in common with. The world really is quite small, and if you are open and kind, the road is the easiest place to make friends. It is a perpetual first day of college, but like in college, I have met a few people I consider lifetime friends.

Some travelers tricks.. 
Always bring toilet paper
Pack less than you think you will need
Room prices are always negotiable
Taking five deep breathes give you time to process the chaos

And Finally...  
India has taught me that no matter how much you think you know, there is always room in learn something new in this vast, incredible, and beautiful world. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

On Love

This post was supposed to be a happy one, full of intellectual waxing on travel philosophies or experiences. But when I returned to cell service from a two-night stay in the jungle, I learned that the world has, yet again, been filled with hate and violence. My first thoughts were for my college friends living there, who, to my deep gratitude, are all safe. While the attacks in Paris make my heart ache, what I am most ashamed of is the reactions of my own countrymen. I am ashamed of their fear and ignorance, and of the proposals that are eerily similar to the rejection of German refugees in 1939.  

In a small attempt to push back against the hate filling the world, I want to share with you the love I have tasted, heard, and felt from Muslims around the world. I take this as proof that humanity can be kind and good, and that goodness goes beyond our arbitrary divisions.  

I have tasted love...

…while hiking along the Lycine way in Turkey, along a particularly hot and steep road, after no breakfast and very little sleep. About halfway up the hill, a car stopped and gave each of us hiking a piece of bread. The driver continued on his way with a smile and a wave. 

…during Ramadan in Morocco, when I was always invited to i'ftar (the meal that breaks the sunup to sundown fast), even if I wasn't fasting. When the sundown call to prayer sounded, the every citizen of the country shared food with each other, expressing love and gratitude for their ability to eat. 

I have heard love... 

…on an 8-hour train ride from Marrakech to Fez, when a five year old kid helped me practice my Arabic vocabulary cards, and giggled at my accent. the friendship extended to me from an Iranian living in Turkey, who has been exiled from his homeland for speaking out against human rights violations in his country. After surviving nearly six months in prison, he received political asylum. If he returns to Iran, he faces prison or worse.

…on another long train ride, in India, from a 14-year-old girl who asked me about my family, and told me she wants to grow up to be an activist for the poor in her hometown of Kolkata. 

I have felt love... 

…when I got off on the wrong bus stop during a rainstorm in Bangalore, I stopped to ask for directions from a shop owner, who used his phone to call my hostel and gave me a hot cup of tea while I waited. 

…during my last three days in Morocco, I had less than $5 left to my name, and my roommate from Casablanca let me stay with her family. She made sure I had food and shelter when I had none. 

One of the sweetest people I know

…in a village in the high atlas of Morocco, where I befriended the young daughter of our hosts, exchanging languages and stories and games. 

Friends in the High Atlas of Morocco

And I shouldn't have to say this but... 

Every single person in those stories is Muslim, by choice or tradition. It shouldn't matter, and I find it worth mentioning only to point out that those hate-filled posts on Facebook, those protests at mosques, and that causal racism that, intended or not, is a slur against every person in this story. For every member of an extremist group, there are millions of people wanting to help. There are people losing their lives in the hands of extremists, a fact we choose to ignore in the west.

While I don't think any of these stories will change the hate and fear in human hearts, but I choose to share these and choose to contribute stories of love, not hate.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Voluntourism

Editors Note: The last post I wrote was my personal experience as a tourist-volunteer (aka "voluntourist"). While I know my experience is decidedly not universal, the topic is far too big to be covered in one post. Beyond my personal experience, here is a more general discussion of volunteering abroad.

“We need to help the poor people in [insert developing country here]!” is a refrain in our media and our culture. It is the mission of church groups, NGOs, and private citizens. With even the most rudimentary of an education, we are informed of our privilege in the west. We are shown photos of starving (always brown, but that's another topic) children and huts made of mud without electricity. People feel some need to help abroad, especially in places like India, where poverty, both total and abject, is shocking and openly displayed.

While this is not to disparage those who wish to do good in the world, the issues go beyond simply being poor and in need of rescue. They include access to healthcare, sanitation issues, education, and gender issues. Poverty is far more complex and deeply rooted than an outsider can realize, and some practices are so deeply engrained in a culture that even to the locals cannot understand them.

It is the fact that: there are some things we will never understand, that becomes the problem with short-term stints volunteering abroad. In one to four weeks, we are supposed to, without speaking the language, practicing the religion, or being citizens of a country, are supposed to come in a “save” people from their conditions? We think we know all the answers, that someone from the west can come and fix a community. But to say that we, who have been born into our privileges, have all the answers is at best naive and at worst downright harmful.

One of my hosts in the village poses with her 6 month old son.

Yes, there are ways to help – as a doctor, an English teacher, or a tradesperson, there are skills we in the west can contribute to a foreign society. But when our “program fees” go to line the pocket of other westerners, we are not contributing to a community. When we take on jobs (think construction work or ditch-digging) that are not in our skillset, and could probably be finished twice as quickly using local labor, we are not helping.  Instead, we are take a tour into someone else’s life and using a self-righteousness as a band-aid for our privilege-induced guilt. We are showing that our profile picture will never be the same –never mind the impact we have on that place.

Working in development is not a lark, or a way to show how ‘selfless’ we are. As a long-term career it is difficult, frustrating, a draining. As a short-term stint, it is often just a way to validate a stay, and go home satisfied with yourself for ‘doing something.’  

But without the understanding that the needs of a community are complex, diverse, and sometimes nearly impossible to meet, the key ingredient to successful and sustainable development is absent.

My challenge those well meaning vagabonders so award of their (our) privilege, is to keep the guilt in check, and ask hard questions about the impact you have in a community you intend to “serve.” A few to start:  

·      How will my time make an impact?
·      Is what I'm doing what a community needs? How do I know that? 
·      If I’m paying for this experience, where is that money going?
·      How is my stay impacting the local people (am I a drain on their resources)?
·      How will I be supported during this experience (translators, guides, fellow volunteers)?
·      Who are the major funders of this organization? What are their interests? 
·      What skills do I have that are truly beneficial to this community? 

These and many more should the foundation of any attempt to “help” in a developing country. As we move through the world, we should be mindful of our impact, aware of our surroundings, and leave our self-righteousness at home.  
Kids from a Rajistani village hug a baby buffalo

Thursday, November 5, 2015

On Immersion - My ten-day stint of voluntourism

The concept, from the cozy confines of my tree-house in Turkey, seemed simple. Arrive in India, receive help from a local to get settled, move to a rural village, spend a couple of weeks teaching  recycling to cute school kids. Simple, right? Wrong. This experience is still something I am trying to process, and has led to an entire other post about voluntourism.

As I found out, sometimes things are not as simple as they seem. While the organization I worked with, Silver Earth India, had the best intentions, the groundwork had simply not been done. The first issue was that I was expected to teach at school that was not in session 5 of the 10 days I was scheduled to be there, something I didn’t find out until the 4 days into my stay. While I understand that India has “more festivals than days of the year” I felt this should have been discussed with me when I arrived, not the day before school let out. 

My second day at the village school

And then there was the “job” itself. My task was supposed to teach and model trash disposal in a community that not only did not even have a local dump, let alone trash bins or garbage pickup. Furthermore, the community of approximately 100 families did not have running water or toilets, and many of the women (and I suspect men as well) were illiterate. So yes, recycling can be done, the use of plastic can be minimized, but in the grand scheme of things – shouldn’t toilets and education come first? It was hard to feel like teaching people to use a dumpster was the best use of my time, when many of the women there couldn’t read or write. The priorities were felt entirely wrong. 

Women of the village escorted me literally everywhere.

In addition to the trouble with the job itself, I was left by the program manager without a single person on site who spoke English, leaving me unable to communicate with my host family in any meaningful way. My living situation was in a shared room without toilets or running water. When I was not teaching, I was shuffled from one neighbors house to another like a zoo animal. While people were kind, I was as alien as well.. an alien. My desire to use toilet paper was a resounding scandal among the women (they clean with water and their left hand), and defecation was done in the open with no less than 2 other women around at all times. Showers were taken outside, topless but wearing a skirt (turns out, this can work, although the all-women audience made me self-conscious). People were far more interested in my travel pillow and my contact lenses than my teaching skills, and without the ability to communicate in words, I was left feeling dumb, helpless, and very much alone most of the time. 

Due to all of these things, I left the experience within a week. I did leave the village knowing a few words of Hindi (“I want to sleep” and “my stomach is not good” and “thank you for the food”), the kindness of the people who hosted me, and a HUGE and very real lesson about voluntourism (read more in the next entry). I learned that full and true immersion into a place where you don't speak the language is terrifying, mentally exhausting, and incredibly challenging. To overcome these challenges requires support, time, and ideally a community of others who are able to mentor you throughout the process. One cannot simply be thrown into a village and expect to “make people change.” 

My host-sister dried buffalo dung on the roof to make fuel for the fire

I don't disparage the ideals of the organization (trash is a huge problem in India), but I wish the program was set up to be more intentional, and that the impossibility of teaching without verbal communication could have been effectively addressed. I wish I had asked more questions before I arrived, and I know now what a serious undertaking something like this is. I ended up with my first ten days in India resulting in a good story, memories of kindness in an alien land, and intense, new-found gratitude for the simple and familiar comforts of things like pooping with privacy.   


Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Becoming More or Less American

In my six weeks abroad I have become a little less, and a little more, American. My use of American slang has diminished, and instead I say things like “muesli” instead of granola and “torch” instead of flashlight. I ask others if they went to “uni,” but still refer to my last four years of education as college. I’ve even absorbed a bit of slang (see “Knackered” and “can’t be fucked” for two of my favorites). My voice is a bit quieter; my jokes have become a bit less frequent (this due to both translation issues and often a simple lack of people who know my humor). The eccentricities that come with my nationality are toned down, even though my national identity is often asked before my name is – which is sometimes not asked for at all. If a conversation goes deeper, and I asked about US politics, I am the first to disown Donald Trump, US gun laws, the American carbon footprint, and express my frustration at racism and gender issues in our country. I am have become more outspoken about the issues in my own country, even as I adapt into a more global identity and attempt to challenge the stereotype of an American abroad. 

Washington, DC, USA
But, paradoxically, in so, so many ways, I have become more Montanan. I have a developed a certain personal, entirely apolitical, pride in my homeland, and in my specific identity as a resident of the American West. As a way to differentiate myself, to feel special, to cling to an identity that is not that of “American” (with all the positive and negative implications), I push my identity as a Montanan before nearly everything else, even my name. When asked about my home (and sometimes without being asked) I tell stories of cowboys and cattle drives and the Wild West. The story of my parents ranch, my first ever earned income (shooting rabbits that were made into jackalopes), and the population density of Montana are often the first, and sometimes only, things people know about me. I’m not above sharing unsolicited pictures of pig races and mountains and horses and my little brother in a cowboy hat. I am Dee, from Montana.

Montana is for camping!
I have learned that removing myself from familiar surroundings and familiar people has forced me to create my own identity. I an entirely in control of which facts I choose to share, of who I choose to present myself as in this world. My homeland and my travels, both past and current, are irreversibility intertwined, but which threads I choose from the tapestry of my experiences are mine and mine alone. While traveling, I have created my identity as Dee, a barely-American, but very Montanan, solo vagabonder. And this identity helps me love myself, my background, and the world a little bit more.

Monday, September 28, 2015

On Privilege

This post was inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In essence, the paper is a list of privileges she, as a white woman, receives. Privilege is defined here as unearned advantages that one receives simply by being a part of in the society in which one lives. 

The concept of privilege is based on the idea that we are not simply autonomous, entirely independent beings living in a vacuum. Instead, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are participants in our society, both at home and abroad. We exist in a world where the rules are already made, and even if those rules are not explicitly written, they are often executed in such a way that gives one group an advantage or another.

Below is a brief list of the privileges I experience as a white, American, college-educated traveler. 

I can book a flight using a major credit card, and do not need to operate on a cash-only budget. Banks in a few countries do not issue credit cards at all, and spending money abroad is on a cash-only basis for citizens of these countries.

English is my first language, and nearly anywhere in the world, if something is translated from the countries official language, it will likely be translated into English.  If I wish to volunteer or work abroad as an English teach, my native proficiency is in high demand.

My passport allows me to go more places without a visa than nearly any other passport in the world (besides passports from Sweden, Finland, or the UK). I do not need to spend money on a visa or organize my itinerary around a visa, to visit 172 countries.

While traveling alone as a women is still seen as unusual in other parts of the world, it is culturally acceptable in my home country

I can return to my home country at any time and, within a reasonable amount of time, expect to find employment.

Even if I return home with no money at all, I can return to a social structure that will support me.  

I am a traveler. Not a refugee. I am not fleeing a war, terrorism, or an oppressive government. I have an autonomy and freedom that was not earned, that was given to me by birth. That is my privilege as a traveler.     

To roam across the world as a traveler is, in my eyes, the greatest privilege. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On Planning

So, you’ve used a budgeting system to save up for your dream trip. Now, how do you plan it? Where will you go and what will you do?

From what I’ve seen and done myself, there seem to be two approaches to planning an international trip: 1) plan everything down to the last detail or 2) plan absolutely nothing, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, and figure it out each day.

Most travelers will fall somewhere in the middle of these two approaches, and in general solo travelers are much more spontaneous than groups. Each approach has it’s own pros and cons, but in general I have noticed a few rules (guidelines, really) for planning a trip that have created successful vagabonding experiences for both myself and others. 

1) Make a list of things you want to do - then be willing to let go of half of those things.
            If you want to go to Paris to see the Eiffel tower, by all means put that on the list. But if you have one day in Paris and you want to (without a tour guide shuttling you around) see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc De Triomphe, Notre Dame, the Opera de Paris, Montparnasse Tower, Moulin Rouge, eat crepes, take a boat ride down the river, and go to a wine tasting all before noon, be prepared for at least one of those things to not happen. Set realistic goals regarding what you could reasonably do in a day, and take time to look at where each of these things are located and how you can get there. 

2) Know that planning takes time.
            I have and continue to do most of my planning while on the road, since in my trip is fairly long, and in my experience the best opportunities are recommended by other travelers. However, know that you will spend time sitting on the wifi in your hostel looking up bus schedules and flight options when you could be out on the town having adventures.

3) Don’t forget about food, water, and local currency.
            This goes back to a mantra of sorts – any time I’ve been miserable on the road, I have been decidedly lacking in one or more of those things. You can’t fully appreciate the beauty of the place you’re in if your stomach is growling or you forgot to get enough money to catch the bus back to the place you’re sleeping. Look at your plan for the day and make sure those key things are included in it. 

4) Give yourself transit time
            Especially when your plan requires you to catch busses, planes, or trains (or several of each), know that they may not arrive in time, you may not find the right spot on your first try, and in places outside of the US and Europe, the online schedule might not be accurate. Also, when going to a new place, it's often an all-day affair to arrive, go though customs, get your bag, find public transit, find the place you're staying, and check in. Plus you'll need to find food, water, and local currency (see above).

5) Listen to others
            Even if you have the most iron clad itinerary, down to the restaurants you want to eat at, be open to the opinions of other travelers and locals. Through other travelers I have found the best hostels, the best food, and the most interesting things to do. This goes double for the people who actually live in these places.

Ultimately, when planning your trip, remember to relax, have fun, and take it easy. You will never be able to do everything you want to always - that's part of the beauty. It’s not a race to check every box in the guidebook. Your only task is to enjoy yourself and learn about the place you’re in. So when things don’t go as planned, stay zen, vagabonders.