Posts Tagged ‘privilege’

In Chittagong, we decided to do things a little differently and take a bit of a leap of faith. As we are leaving the Buddhist temple in the city, a young man approaches us and introduces himself as Sanjoy, a student who rents a small room in the temple complex as he pursues his studies in English Literature. His home is in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a Buddhist and tribal area where we want to visit. He says he works as an occasional tour guide for the region.

Although we usually are hesitant to use guides, there is an immediate positive connection with Sanjoy; his sincerity is palpable when he says he felt close to us as we were sitting in the meditation hall. We have lunch and plan with him, he helps us get permits, and a few days later we are on our way to his stunning, hilly home town of Banderban. (more…)


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On our long bus trip to Shillong, Meghalaya, I watched a group of four or five children comfortably squatting around the backside of a goat, curiously studying its butt. The goat had some sort of enormous growth hanging from its belly and it was profusely bleeding from its anus.

What does it mean to watch another’s suffering? What would it mean to look away? “I feel like I don’t have good defenses. I feel really exposed to all these raw impressions.” I wrote in an email to my Mom about this disturbing scene, only one of many, observed for a few moments out of the bus window. (more…)

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The photos in this post were taken on our last day in DC. Caleb and I wanted to spend our last day doing what we loved doing during almost three years of living in DC. We took a long walk of exploration. We steered into Northeast, behind the farmer’s market close to Gallaudet University, and there along the train tracks we committed home invasion: freshly washed clothes lying on a wall in the sun, a bag of groceries, a cooking station. I remember thinking: In what ways could this person’s life possibly be anything like mine? What do we share?

Traveling in India feels like a constant act of home invasion. Vulnerable aspects of peoples’ lives are laid bare. I am witness to intimacies that should be reserved for lovers and families, not strangers like myself. It feels both wrong and sacred. Discretion is an unaffordable luxury for most. Unlike the person whose home we observed by the traintracks in DC, there is not much I can do to protect the privacy of people in many places in India that we visit.

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We backpackers look like dirty clowns (pictures added for previous post!), with washed-out, faded multicolor jumpsuit-like outfits, excessive jewelry, pendants, and leather accessories. None of these items would be worn at home, but we keep buying. All of it looks hippie, but with a strange, vague Asian twist. Wearing a combination of clothing that is neither “Western” nor local sort of suggests that we’re free from it all, blissfully living in an imaginary world where we don’t have to care about what other people think. This is really fun, but even this is a great privilege.

Backpackers want to spend less money than other backpackers, but love to go shopping. We like competing over who has had the most unusual and authentic, locally immersed, experiences. We usually unsuccessfully strive for a non-commercial connection with locals and love telling stories of the unexpected and close calls. Backpackers don’t really like other backpackers in theory (perhaps of fear that conversing too much would make painfully apparent that our trip is not as unique or unusual as we wish it was?), but are drawn to each other in any concrete and practical situation: for advice, for company, for commiseration, for sharing the wonders and joys of travel.

But in all its limitations and silly fantasies, it is a beautiful expedition: it is seeking the good life (…so much easier to love all of humanity when you can’t understand what people are saying!), a quest for adventure, an attempted escape from getting stuck in routine, a search for unfamiliar and uncharted lands, maybe even like fulfilling a childhood fantasy of joining the circus.

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What Backpackers Like

-Billowy pants and shirts in muted colors. This is in stark contrast to India’s preference for bright, vibrant color in all of their textiles. Are the muted, dusty colors a manifestation of the backpacker’s desire not to look rich?

– Frizzy, wild hair. In one sense, it’s just not the backpackers fault. It’s so dusty that anyone’s hair will billow up, dry up, and stiffen into a strawy mess. Dreads are popular of course, and that colored string wrapped around a single strand of hair with a bell at the end of it. Remember those? I think I had something like that in 5th grade.

– Little shawls, intended to cover up scandalous tank tops.

– Linen shoulder bags

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Beach bums

After almost three weeks of travel, we might have fallen into a rut. There were some patterns emerging. In Puri, a backpacker beach town, for example, this was basically what our day was like:

– wake up around 8 am
– have a really long leisurely breakfast, reading the newspaper and playing cards
– walk on the beach (but you can’t swim – no bikinis in sight)
– return to our little room for a while and read
– stroll along the backpacker road and view a few Kashmiri trinket shops
– have some lunch, also very relaxed
– go to the internet cafe for up to 4 hours
– go back to the room, hang around a bit
– go to dinner in one of the relaxed garden restaurants playing Bob Marley and catering exclusively to back packers (delicious fresh fish)
– go to bed around 10 or 11
During our three day stay in Puri, we didn’t venture a mere 500 meters from the white backpacker area.

Hmm. Sounds like a great and relaxing vacation, but what are we doing here? Why are we traveling? We both felt a little ambivalent and regretful of our own behavior. This place had basically been created for people like me: it placed no demands on me and catered to my every, particular Western need (cornflakes, toilet paper, faded baggy clothing…. Caleb has been fantasizing about creating another blog: “What backpackers like”).

I try to cut us some slack, by arguing that we have been traveling at a very fast pace and that traveling is exhausting. (So, now my great privilege is exhausting me??) I’ve started thinking about what a sustainable traveling life looks like. Is there a way to engage with our surroundings in a way that is sustainable for me, so that I don’t burn out, but continue to feel energized?

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From Koraput, hilltop seat of our brief visit to stardom, we descend to Balugaon, a fishing village that is on our map (definitely not in our book) because it is a stop on the express train to the state capital.

Lake Chilika in early morning.

On arrival, the town is a strange place for us. We get off the train at 6:30 am to find that the tea served at the roadside stalls, our lifeline and default activity when in need of regrouping, tastes funny. It is hard to express the sense of betrayal when this discovery comes to light, but eliminating the main outlet for caffeine and comfort has a distinct effect on morale. The main road seems to be on a major trucking route; noisy and dangerous traffic constantly terrorizes our humble passage on foot. (more…)

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