I don’t remember his name, so I call him “Eni”. What struck me about Eni was his endearing blend of naïveté and innocence about the world. Eni is a 20 something year old student at a local college and our guide during our visit to American Samoa in the South Pacific. Without any inhibition or pride, Eni sang to us many native songs of his country in a clear and beautiful voice. He told us about the ways of his people and introduced us to traditional foods and dances. Eventually, Eni asked some questions of us. They revealed his inexperience with our modern western world. His greatest wish was to, one day, see the glitter and glamour of Los Angeles. Eni’s sincere and non-pretentious way of interacting with us was disarming.
Another encounter, that showed similar degrees of naïveté but much less innocence, occurred when we visited Oman, a very traditional Islamic nation. Our guide Nizar told us a “joke” that is commonly shared among Omani men: “Omani women leave their homes three times during their lives, first when they are born, second when they get married and third on their way to the grave.” The very fact that this “joke” was shared with us indicates a certain degree of awareness, but Nizar’s naïveté lies in the lack of understanding that this display of male domination in his society is offensive to those of us who respect women and fight for equality.
Conscious travel can act like a mirror. Cultural and individual encounters like the above reflect back to us who we are and what we stand for. It also raises important questions about cultural awareness and tolerance.
Many trips, some more so than others, bring on strong emotions in me. It appears that my German upbringing and Canadian conditioning have impressed me with attitudes and beliefs that conflict with many in the world. What I see during my travels tugs on my heart-strings in many ways. From the anger I feel when seeing religious laws being used to restrict women’s rights in Oman to the sadness I feel when witnessing abusive behaviour towards animals in Thailand, keeping my mouth shut isn’t always easy. Reminding myself, however that I am just a guest in this country and that much of the behaviour I witness is based on cultural conditioning, education and understanding, I choose to bite my tongue.
At what point do I raise my voice in protest and object to what I see or hear? What behaviours and actions are “excusable” or less offensive because they are rooted in tradition and cultural norms rather than based on the evils of greed and power? Do I have to tread particularly lightly as a Canadian as not to re-enforce the commonly held belief that we as Westerners love to interfere in the affairs of other nations and cultures? Dare I make it easy on myself and become an “un-conscious” traveller next time I visit other countries?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I know what I am hoping for: that Eni stays in American Samoa and continues to sing his island’s traditional songs with the same humility and non-pretentiousness, while Zahir travels to Los Angeles and gets an earful from North-American women about gender equality and personal freedom.
I can have my own private fantasies, can’t I?