You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello
3 January 2014 § 1 Comment
In Holy Cow, Sarah MacDonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years living in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two white people who seem “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town.
Sarah arrived in India in 1999, just before the turn of the century, and the last BIG Kumbh Mela (which occurs once every 144 years). MacDonald was the quintessential “spiritual tourist”; many chapters of ‘Holy Cow’ narrate her trips to visit gurus Amma in Kerala, and Sai Baba near Bangalore (modern buddhas, both with millions of followers); a venture to the Pakistan border to get the low-down on the Sikh faith, and to wash away her bad karma at Kumbh Mela on the Ganges River. On a trip to Dharamsala, MacDonald was audience to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and left the town a couple of days later having adopted both Buddhism and Jewish faith. Perhaps the most enlightening side-trip was a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which served as the gateway to a softer narrative tone in the book, and noted her increased compassion for even sleazy Indian men who stare at her relentlessly wherever she goes.
That was all nigh 14 years ago – years before I started traveling, and a few years after Leo DiCaprio in The Beach (a film adaptation of Alex Garland’s bestseller) was accused of revealing certain traveler secrets to the masses. Inspired American kids newly introduced to the concept of ‘gap year’ headed off for Koh Phangnan, Costa Rica, and an armful of other destinations the 90’s “ruined” by ever-cheaper plane tickets, an influx of international travel magazines hitting the market, and other privileged white kids needing to go find themselves (disclosure: the author is also of a Caucasian, male, middle-class, US-American-with-identity-issues heritage).
It could be said that narratives like MacDonald’s ‘Holy Cow’ and Garland’s ‘The Beach’ paved a path riddled with backpackers and dreadlocks from Western Civilization to the exotic world. By the time I was born in the mid-80’s, Thailand and Bali and South America were already popular backpacker routes. I cannot speak to what Costa Rica was like before I lived there in 2011; it was probably cheaper, a little more “third-world” (a label many ticos cling to, despite the saturation of universities in the capital, abundance of IT jobs, and a bursting tourism industry), and certainly less gringo.
I write this from Pokhara, Nepal, on my first journey to the Eastern Hemisphere, though not my first time in a darker-skinned country where most light-skinned people donning The North Face and Arc’Terex (when a t-shirt would do fine), seem oblivious to, or deliberately avoid, other white people. Travelers. Tourists. People whom, at home, they might connect with because Travel, for us, is an essential ingredient to Life. The very act of exploring other cultures can open the heart and mind in ways life without a passport cannot.
So, we (my wife, who definitely has a passport) are in Pokhara, a primary tourist town of Nepal, at the base of famed Mount Annapurna, and base camp to some of the best trekking routes in the world (at least, the old guys said it used to be that way). There are other travelers here. Germans, Indians, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Argentinians, French, English, Chinese. The list goes on. That doesn’t need to be said, but evidence suggests otherwise. We tend to not acknowledge each other while walking about the town. I am as guilty as any. I narrow my focus in search of “authentic cultural experiences,” in search of a long-lost place to which I am the first explorer. Maybe colonialism is genetic, and I carry the virus.
We have things in common, we white people. Not as much as the average Nepali might assume, but Pokhara is not where one goes to avoid other tourists. So be kind. Say hello. Maybe pick up some garbage from the lakeshore. If you’re really intent on straying from the backpacker/trekker route, it’s not difficult. Pick a random town on a map of rural Nepal, and take the local bus. Eat dal bhat, stop complaining about the daily power cuts, and learn useful phrases in the dialects. You’ll still stand out (some of us are “too tall for Nepal,” as our friend Josh says), and locals will probably still charge Westerner prices, but maybe they’ll cut a deal for a friend.
My wife decided to call on Ghandi’s wise cliché of being the change she wished to see. We walked along the shore trail, and she said hello to every westerner we passed. Virtually all of them replied with a smile and hello. Some with ‘Namaste.’ It doesn’t take much, I think, to change the world, no matter who you are, what color, or where you stand. Maybe that’s naïve.