Friday, February 10, 2012

Surveying Human Geography (Part 2)

While trying to think up the right questions for the Indian Children’s Choir survey, I kept going back through my memories of the times I lived abroad and the different emotional stages I went through. Several times during this reminiscing, I found myself thinking through the lens of the cross-cultural psychology class that I took the second time I did Semester at Sea. Like basic economics, or the foundation of any other academic discipline, all cross-cultural psych really did was quantified common sense. It took ideas pretty much everyone knows, gave them fancy names, and drew clear lines of demarcation between the different concepts.

Providing an objective road map through the stages of development that led to true multiculturalism was the goal of the class. I’m not sure if it succeeded, but it did give me some clear categories under which to file the different obnoxious tourist/traveler stereotypes that I have encountered over the years. Stereotypes that I have found myself perpetuating more times than I would like to admit.

(Note: While none of the characters in this post are based on a single person, almost every one of the things they do I either did, witnessed or heard a reliable first-hand account of.)

A cliché that exemplifies many of those in the first stage of multicultural development can be seen in scores of people at the very beginning of their trip; disembarking from the plane and stepping onto the jetway as if they were Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon. It is the stage of shock, where the would-be intrepid traveler is slapped in the face by how exotic and foreign everything and everyone is. In their futile attempts to try and take control of the situation, they only find that they feel more and more displaced and unsure of themselves.


A good example of these pilgrims are the couples in their early thirties- usually high school sweet hearts- who have never before been able to work up the courage to leave their hometown for more than a Labor Day weekend at uncle Earl’s cabin by the lake. But all that has changed now. They are going on their first big adventure.

One look at them and it’s clear that the phrase, “hey, shit happens” isn’t in their working vocabulary. Their brand new head-to-toe, REI traveler-edition, moisture-wicking, rip-proof everything screams that they have scoured the internet’s multitude of travel websites every night after their nine to five jobs for months, devouring every helpful hint and local custom that their greedy little eyes can find. They have read every single piece of travel literature on their chosen country into redundancy. They have planned every minute of their trip, because it is far too important for anything to be left to chance. They are going to find themselves and each other and it’s going to be perfect.

As they stumble, bleary-eyed off the plane, the pockets of their nylon cargo convertible pants/shorts and Northface backpacks bulging with hotel reservation print-outs, dogeared and highlighted guide books, bug spray, anti-diarrhea pills and laminated sheets of essential local phrases like “how much for hand sanitizer?,” they get their first unpleasant surprise; the anti-jet lag diet the nutritionist recommended didn’t work.

However, they try make the best of this unforeseen complication and immediately set about dividing up the important tasks that need to be completed before they can leave the airport. They take the time to reiterate that every assignment will take advantage of each other’s individual strengths but that each task is still part of an greater goal and requires working as a cohesive team.

‘Shanon’ is going to use the skills she has honed over ten years of working at her human resources job. Her mission is to go to the tourist information desk and find out where the hotel is and EXACTLY how much they should pay the taxi driver to take them there.

‘Greg’ will fuse all the skills he learned in his 1.6 years of high school football (a sprained ankle took him down in his prime, right before he would have made backup kick-return), and the 3 years he has spent in mid-level management at ACME Life Insurance Inc., to retrieve their brand new Lowe backpacks (bought at REI’s semi-annual Adventurer sale; they timed it perfectly) from the baggage claim. They will meet at the Starbucks in 15 to regroup and assess.

So far so good. The bags made it, and despite “a really, really beautiful but really, really hard to understaaaannndd” woman at the tourist desk, Shanon has gloriously risen to the occasion and found out, written down, then double and triple checked, exactly what to tell the taxi driver to get him to ferry them to the Tourista Hotel. Greg congratulates her on the poise and grace that he married her for, as he ticks the first two items off one of their many check lists.

After they finish their double soy lattes, they strap up their poorly-fitted backpacks and head for the door that will lead to the taxis and their long-awaited destiny. Then everything falls apart.

As soon as they step out the door they are accosted by dozens of sweaty, dirty taxi drivers, porters and tour guides. Their pupils dilate and they are seized by the primal terror known only to the relatively rich when they are surrounded, for the first time, by poor people that want their money.

As Shanon shrilly screams, over and over again, at no one in particular, the sentence the tourist desk gave her, Greg chivalrously tries to get in his athletic stance and push the mass of horrid poverty away from his screeching wife, but there are just too many of them. He better take charge or this could get ugly.

Greg: “Baby! Baby, this man says he can take us to the hotel. I looked into his eyes and I believe him.”
Shanon: “Wait, wait! Don’t trust him! Make sure you decide on a price before you get in his taxi!”
Greg: “He says he can do it for $15! That's so much cheaper than back home! Shanon, lets go.”
Shanon: “Greg! Greg! Did you even read the guide book or listen to what I just told you?! That’s way too much! He’s trying to screw us because he thinks you're an idiot! Let me handle this, I deal with people for a living.”
Greg: “I really feel like you are undermining and not valuing me right now…”

Eventually they will find a taxi and get to the hotel, but not for the price Shanon wanted. One may see them again throughout the next 7-10 days, taking thousands of photos of every single thing they see, and faking being happy in front of monuments that they know more about than each other. All this as they count the minutes until they can get back on the plane and get the hell out of this godforsaken country.

I’d like to say this is never me, but you know what I was wearing when I got off the plane in Calcutta five months ago? REI traveler pants I got at the annual sale (35% off!) and a nylon safari button-up shirt (though the shirt was second hand). It’s getting better, and sophomore year of high school I made it onto FIRST string kick return, but there is still a little Greg in me every time I arrive in a developing country.


If one can do better than Greg and Shanon and make it past this first stage, and over the first bout of homesickness, then they have emerged into the second stage and are one step closer to multiculturalism. In this second stage a superficial understanding of the new place is reached, and the traveler is amazed to find that all the differences he thought he saw are only skin deep. That we are all really just people and fundamentally the same.

Enter the dumb-ass frat boys. ‘Slugger’ (alias: Slug), ‘Boom’ and ‘Cock’ have just pulled into the Amsterdam central train station. It is 9:20am on the eighth day of their first Euro trip. They are upset. They have been sober for over 5 hours because the rest of their lame railway car didn’t know how to party. The conductor made matters worse by confiscated their handle of Vodka, which effectively prevented them from showing those pretentious Continentals that American’s don’t need international approval to do whatever the hell they want.

As their three pairs of nearly identical boating shoes step onto the arrivals platform, they decide that it would be best to move on from this ‘super-downer’ experience. Best to ensure that Amsterdam rises to its rightful place as the highlight of their trip and joins the rest of their alcohol and drug dimmed memories of Europe. So, with Cock in the lead, they make haste to the nearest bar. Luckily, this being Europe, they don’t have far to go.

Once inside, there is a good-natured scuffle between them as they try to decide who will have the privilege of using their daddy’s credit card to treat the others to the first round. Slugger wins through a devastating combo of cock-knocking Cock and dead-legging Boom.

Ten minutes and six shots later the bartender, who has been generously tipped several times, tells them what cool guys they are, and that guys as cool as them should take magic mushrooms and go to the Van Gogh Museum. Unfortunately, they completely miss the disdain dripping from his voice. “Wow.” Boom muses, “That’s a fuckin’ great idea bro! Hey, you guys like trippin’ too, huh? See, I told you Slug, their just like us over here bro!” After two more shots and a chorus of “Fuck the French! Lambda forever!” they are off. They follow their new friend’s directions to a coffee shop and procure their produce.

Their psilocybin trip is both great and terrible. Slug spends his time in the museum contemplating how many more sluts he still has to sleep with before his dad will love him. Boom sits in a bathroom stall and cries because he has realized the undeniable truth; that if the Easter Bunny were real than Santa couldn’t be. Cock does end up looking at the paintings, but all the while is greatly burdened with the question of why Keystone Ice, even though it’s in an aluminum can, tastes vaguely like plastic.

Eventually they are kicked out. Apparently screaming “My father never loved me!” and “I will kill Easter!” in one of the great museums of the world is frowned upon in this supposedly cosmopolitan city. This leads to a group sob fest at being misunderstood and marooned in this strange land. However, upon deciding that this experience can only make them stronger and that they will be best friends forever, their jubilation is restored. They decide that the best way to manage their come-down is to get drunk.

They return to the bar with the helpful bartender. Unfortunately, he is no longer working, but it’s nighttime now and the bar is filled with lots of fun looking people. Spending several hundred more Euros buying shots for the bar on daddy’s card warms up the place to these newcomers.

As the night progresses they become close with a shadowy, foreign looking gentlemen of uncertain origin, who informs them that no one has really been to Amsterdam until they have been to the red-light district. They agree with his statement. Buzz, their fraternity’s Eminent Archon, had drunkenly told them the same thing at their going away party, as the four of them relieved themselves out of one of their frat house’s fourth story windows.

The shadowy man offers his services as their guide and seals the deal by assuring them that he knows some girls around there that love Americans and like to party. “You were fuckin’ right Boom! These guys are just like us! They like to trip AND party with sluts!” Home really is wherever the heart is.

On the walk to the red-light district, Cock realizes that the terrorists will win if he doesn’t jump into the canals. He informs the others of his epiphany. Boom and Slug are not as sure, but after the bonding their triumvirate has been through today they are willing to support their friend’s conclusion.

As Cock’s gagging, shaven head, followed directly by the soaked collar and mother of pearl buttons of one of his 13 Lacoste shirts (ya, “fuck the French,” huh?), erupts from the surface of the canal he is greeted with thunderous applause from his three friends on the bank above. His frat brothers begin chanting “U.S.A!!! U.S.A!!!” at the top of their lungs, celebrating this victory of freedom over tyranny, as they help Cock back onto the road.

“Man, you guys are crazy. I like you.” Their new, shadowy friend purrs. “You know bro, fuckin’, George Washington was right, people really are, like, just people, fuckin’, you know bro?” Boom slurs as he throws a muscle-bound arm over the Shadow’s purple velvet jacket. By the time they see the nubile forms of young, eastern European women gyrating seductively behind the glass panes of the red-light district, all the days woes are forgotten. They love Europe.

Though I have never stooped quite this low, many of my international nocturnal escapades, particularly on both Semester at Sea trips, came dangerously close to some of the antics of Slug, Boom and Cock.


If one can get past this advanced level of cultural awareness, then they are ready to plunge into the third stage. In this stage feelings of human unity are eclipsed by a new awareness of the vast superiority of everything about this new country. The truth and profundity of the place is overwhelming. It is easy for one to mistakenly identify this as a deep spiritual connection that will forever keep them tied to this new and holy land.

A good example of the people stuck in this phase are the holier-than-thou, newly-Vegan hippies that can be seen littering the streets of all of the most unashamedly touristy cities across India. And not just India; no third-world country with even the remotest cultural links to Buddhism or Hinduism is spared from these seekers.

These wayward souls, who both wander and are lost, have already been in-country “for like 2 whole weeks, but it might as well have been forever, you know? And maybe it has been… Wow…” They won’t shut up about how deep every experience they have had is, from using a squatty toilet to not bathing for 2 weeks (hint: locals bathe rarely because they are poor and there is no clean water, not because they don’t want to) to the god-like respect they get from local shop owners for being so unbelievably culturally sensitive in picking up the custom of bargaining but unknowingly still pay five times the local price. They compete to pay $50 a hour for a ‘yogi’ to teach them meditation, in a country where the median income is $3 a day.

And no matter if they completely fail at there attempts to gain enlightenment, because that is it’s own form of revelry; the realization that things are just out of there hands and that, when the Gia earth spirit (or Shiva, or whoever their deity is that week) ordains it, they will see what they must see.

Despite the incredible and truly one of a kind experience that every single one of them has had of their chakras blooming beautifully with the new and powerful release of their chi flow, an event which was unleashed by the seemingly ordinary act of a temple beggar putting a dot of Sandalwood paste on their forehead for $5, as well as the life-changing liberation of their Kundalini energy, which has granted them a transcendental and extra-dimensional perspective, one which might have also enabled them to communicate with whales and dolphins. Despite all that, and their total conviction of their own superiority, they still desperately need validation and outside approval of their new gifts from every passing Westerner that is not rude or smart enough to ignore them and move on.

While I hope I have now finally moved on, this is the stage that I have probably spent the most time stuck in. It has been far too common for me take the personal growth I have gained through travel and project it, as a false and shallow sense of superiority, on others. But I’m not yet sure to what degree I have escaped this trap; the only reason I’m not going to an ashram ‘to find myself’ while in India is that my visa is about to expire.


The final stage in becoming multicultural is attained when one realizes that different cultures are not better or worse than one another, just different.


The road doesn’t stop here though. Once the traveler realizes this then there is the long, hard road of consciously deciding and discovering where he fits in with all these different systems of beliefs and traditions. Which ones he really believe in and values rather than which ones he simply grew up with. If one can achieve and actualize this, and I certainly haven’t, then that traveler
has truly found their center and a level of confidence that few ever reach.

It’s hard to describe what those who do reach this level of awareness look like. There are not very many of them and those that do exist are not easy to find. They don’t hang out in places were other travelers go. They don’t need pictures of themselves in front of famous places to show off to their friends. They don’t need monasteries or bars, museums or posh hotels. And when one can catch a glimpse of these wise souls, one probably won’t even realize or appreciate what they are looking at. Because at first this person doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. It’s only after watching them or talking with them for a few minutes that one starts to notice how much more aware than everyone else they are of themselves and everything around them. They don’t usually talk much, preferring instead to listen, but when they do speak every syllable is worth paying attention to.

From what I have seen from the very few of these individuals I have met, what makes them leave home is not usually a set goal or destination. Their goal is meeting new, real people. Their goal is learning about and bettering themselves and the world around them through new experiences, whatever those might be. They don’t superimpose some over-thought-out meaning on the encounters that they have. They just accept them, take them as they are, then consciously decide how they will respond. They are detached, but at the same time intensely aware of every experience and emotion they have. And though Greg, Shanon, Cock, Boom, Slug and the narcissistic hippies don’t realize it yet, that is what being human really is, that is what’s really deep.

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