By Michael H Reese
I can see someone being a little tentative to leave the US, or any Westernized country for that matter. A shooting here. A bombing there. Protests once a week. Civil wars. Terrorism. Religious extremism. And the list goes on. That is to say, the only “normal” people to interact with are the ones back home correct?
If we were to believe the drama queens of CNN and Fox News, then it would appear so. But the reality is far from that.
On one hand, yes, the world is not a 100% safe place; risks abound once you venture into international lands. There are people out there who genuinely want to harm you because of your ethnic background, your government’s policies or simply because you look like a naive tourist. But on the other hand, we have all sorts of violent incidents going on back home every day of the week. Therefore, the “there are so many crazy people out there so I am going to stay home” attitude is foolish.
Ignorance is not bliss. It is simply ignorance.
Having been to over 60 countries spanning all seven continents, I can confidently say there are loads of peaceful, giving and friendly people out there — including individuals who thankfully lack preconceived notions about my home country and genuinely want to get to know me (and not my wallet). And this is exactly one of the main reasons I travel; to intimately get to know the people on this planet so I can better understand them and humanity in general. To know their food, their dress, their traditions, their music, their language and, most importantly, their thoughts.
Time Isn’t Always On Your Side
So have I worked in a country to get to know the people better? Or have I done a homestay? Couchsurfed? Generally, these are not bad ways to learn about a culture because you have time on your side. But time is not always on your side, and quite frankly, it is not always necessary. So many times in my travels I have had brief interactions with people that left such long lasting impressions on me and really unlocked the hidden door to their culture.
Case in point: the small city of Bajawa, on the island of Flores, in the country of Indonesia. I had a few days there, but unfortunately I had injured my foot, so no motorcycle driving for yours truly. It was either walk (aka hobble) or be chauffeured around the area. Luckily, when I’d gotten off the local chicken bus the afternoon before I’d grabbed a motorcycle taxi to get to my hotel. The driver, a man named Lorens, seemed competent (well, we didn’t crash at least), soft spoken and “haggle free,” so I decided to give him a call for the day’s journey of exploration.
We talked a little when we drove, but it was when we stopped to see sights that we could really chat. He had a family and worked seven days a week. He was from a traditional native village that we visited. He translated the local dialect I was hearing and told me all about the traditional customs my eyes and ears were processing. In short, he was a diamond in the rough.
At the end of the day we parted ways. He asked if I needed his services for the next day, but I said probably not since my foot was not likely going to heal enough for me to climb a local volcano I had thought about scaling; however, I told him I would tell everyone I knew about his taxi services and wished him a good evening (FYI: if you ever need a driver in Bajawa, I had wikitravel.org list his contact information in the city write-up). Despite haggling being a part of Indonesian culture, I felt bad about bargaining his services down in the morning before we left. Not only was he a genuinely honest and hardworking person, but he had opened his cultural door for me to enter. And for that, I feel so lucky to have experienced.
The Power Of Talk
In short, do you need to live in a country or stay with a local to immerse yourself in a new culture? No. Just talk with everyone who you interact with: drivers, shop owners, fellow passengers on the bus, food vendors. The position you are in as a foreigner is a unique one, especially in areas where Westerners rarely show their faces. It is like you are given a free pass to another world that you never thought existed.
Don’t squander this opportunity as the window is a small one. And you don’t know when it is going to open again.
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