The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.

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I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.

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The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

Travel Fears: Squat Toilets and Spray Hoses

Photo by David Berger
Photo by David Berger

I began this series of posts with a piece exploring the topic of race.  In the 2nd I tackled disease, HIV and hypochondria.  In this, the third in the series, I will continue to share the concerns, uncertainties and revelations that led up to and culminated in my visit to Zambia.  I do this in the hope of helping many of you better understand  your own fears, paranoia  and to perhaps answer questions you might otherwise be uncomfortable asking or discussing.  The topics in this series are delicate ones, many of which are considered off-limits or too embarrassing to discuss openly.  As I seek to express, analyze and discuss them, please keep this in mind.   A more in-depth introduction can be found in the first post in this series: Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler. You can see part II of the series here: Travel Fears: Africa – Disease, HIV and Light Hypochondria.

Bathroom Revelations

I was 24 when I learned a shocking fact.  People take two approaches to using toilet paper – some of us fold, while others scrunch. Both work well and have their uses but what really shocked me was that it wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I learned there was another way to wipe my bum. That comes to about 8,760 days spent going about my business without the foggiest clue I had a whole different set of options.  I find this to be a perfect illustration of just how taboo the subject is.   It also strikes me as an interesting example of just how unoriginal we can be when servicing parts of our daily routine. Which, in part, is probably why westerners find the thought of using squat toilets terrifying.

For those unfamiliar, a squat toilet is…well…a hole in the ground. If you’re lucky that hole can be quite fancy with slightly raised foot rests and at times even a sanitary hose for bidet-like cleaning. At the end of the day though, it’s just a hole in the ground. A hole that you have to squat over to use while praying that your aim is good, that you don’t fall over, have your phone slip out of your pocket and into the hole, and that you don’t spray paint your shoes.

Despite traveling in quasi-squat countries for years they terrified me and I managed to avoid them.  I would walk into a restroom, throw open the stall door and then issue a stream of muttered profanity when greeted by a squat toilet’s open maw.  Then, after a nervous and awkward staring contest I’d eventually give up, reverse my route and then commence the tourist’s squat toilet dance.  You know – that dance which resembles that of a small child who needs to use the restroom but refuses, instead walking stiffly around the house, sweating, and shooting daggers at anyone who tries to talk to them in the process.  If you’re observant you’ll find a lot of western tourists doing this same dance in squat toilet countries.  It’s a comically uncomfortable experience and one that can be more than a little embarrassing.

Worse than just the dance though is the behavioral change that goes with it.  While a lot of us are hesitant to admit it, I know more than a few travelers have actually structured their schedules around safe toilet breaks.  That’s a pretty fundamental behavioral factor in a trip not to talk about….right?  As an individual that is lactose intolerant and whose stomach has a fairly resilient but temperamental disposition, I’ll admit that strategic toilet thinking has definitely shaped more than a few day’s itineraries. Which left me nervous…which in turn…well…left me in need of a porcelain perch that much more often.

Squat Toilets

No longer! Zambia finally forced me to confront my fears, take a squat and I’m happy to tell you all I survived…barely.  Fellow travel bloggers LOVE to sing the praises of squat toilets. How they prefer them, how much healthier they are, how comfortable they are, how they’re natural and even how much more sanitary they are.  The wikipedia page for squat toilets is basic, but still manages to read as a public service announcement noting they:

  • Make elimination faster, easier and more complete. This helps prevent “fecal stagnation,” a prime factor in colon cancer, appendicitis and inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Protect the nerves that control the prostate, bladder and uterus from becoming stretched and damaged.
  • Securely seal the ileocecal valve, between the colon and the small intestine. In the conventional sitting position, this valve is unsupported and often leaks during evacuation, contaminating the small intestine.
  • Relax the puborectalis muscle which normally chokes the rectum in order to maintain continence.
  • Use the thighs to support the colon and prevent straining. Chronic straining on the toilet can cause hernias, diverticulosis, and pelvic organ prolapse.
  • A highly effective, non-invasive treatment for hemorrhoids, as shown by published clinical research.
  • For pregnant women, squatting avoids pressure on the uterus when using the toilet. Daily squatting helps prepare one for a more natural delivery.
For those paying attention apparently squat toilets even help pregnant women. So, when I build a house in a few years will I be installing squat toilets?  No. Hell no. I hate squat toilets. They are profoundly uncomfortable, awkward, potentially embarrassingly dirty, and a menace.  Every time I realize I’ll be forced to use one my stomach still gurgles in dread.  BUT, the pro-squat camp are onto something.  They really do help with many of the things mentioned above.  In fact, I’d love to join the pro-squat team, but I’ve realized there are a number of reasons why squat toilets have such a bad reputation among your average western traveler.

Squat Toilet Strategy

Every time I use a squat toilet I feel like I’m participating in a timed military drill.  Get in. Get down.  Rescue the prisoners. Get up. Get out.  Why?  Well, let’s just say it really sucks when your knees start to burn, the muscles in the arches of your feet start to cramp, you’re dehydrated, and you’re still trying to take care of business.  All while trapped in a tiny thatched mud hut in the middle of nowhere aiming for a small square cut into the cement floor. No rope to support yourself, oddly stained brick walls you don’t dare touch just out of reach, and nothing to prop yourself up on.  Oh, did I mention the giant spiders staring down at you from the roof?  Yes. Giant spiders. Meanwhile praying you’re not accidentally and embarrassingly re-decorating your paints or shoes in the process. All of which makes resting lazily on a porcelain standing toilet look REALLY good.

What I’ve realized is that a primary source for many of the issues we have with squat toilets stems from basic cultural body dynamics.  In places like Zambia, Dubai or India you’ll regularly see people casually relaxing in a squatting position.  For many it’s a comfortable alternative to sitting cross legged or in a chair. Even more important though, they’ve been squatting in this position since they were kids AND when they do it, they do it flat footed.

As you’ll note in the photo above I definitely can’t squat flat footed and if you’re having a lot of issues with squat toilets, you probably can’t either.  My tendons are too tight and i’m not flexible enough.  This is partially due to my height, but it is largely just because I’ve never needed to. When I squat I’m squatting on the balls of my feet. The rest of my foot is completely off the ground.  As a result I’m far less stable and far more prone to cramping than a more flexible or flat footed squatter. In turn this means that my body weight isn’t as well settled which puts added strain on my already weak knees causing increased discomfort.  I’ve tried to squat flat footed, but have a lot of work to do if I’m ever going to manage it.  I think in my particular case it is especially bad because of the muscles I’ve developed during 9 years as a salsa dancer….a dance which is danced predominantly on the balls of one’s feet.

If you’re nervous about squat toilets my advice to you is to experiment and to see if you can squat flat footed.  If you can’t and you have a few weeks left before your trip starts, begin stretches and exercises designed to improve your ability to squat flat footed.  You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor. Even if you can squat flat footed, consider pausing to squat for 3 minutes straight 3x a day in the lead up to your trip.  It’ll be good for your thighs, and help refresh the muscles you’ll need!

To reduce risk of splatter damage it’s advisable you take a wide squat base. This should improve balance and more importantly keep you cleaner. If wearing pants or shorts keep them above the knee when squatting, just mind what’s in your pockets. The temptation is to lean forward and rest your body on your legs, but you’ll be far better off if you can keep your spine straight as this should help reduce…shall we call them, “explosive projectiles” … or you can take a slightly different approach like my buddy Mark over at Migrationology who just takes his pants off completely.

Cleanup

This is still the part of the process I’m less than comfortable with. The toilets in Dubai had fancy hoses and nozzles. The more traditional or basic versions around the world often just provide a small bucket with water or a water tap.  Unfortunately, it’s as straight forward as you’re afraid it is.  Take the water, in whatever form it comes, and rinse yourself.  If water alone is insufficient use your left (not right) hand to help clean yourself, and then use the water to wash your fingers further.

But, that means you’ll be squatting there with a wet bum, right?  Yep. Unfortunately it seems that’s not a concern. No pat dry necessary (allowed?). Just shake off as much water as you can, and then pull your pants up and go about your business.

If, like me, you find the concept of touching a hose/handle/cup/nozzle that everyone else has touched…shall we say…suspect? Then you can plan ahead and take a pre-filled plastic coke bottle in with you for use as your own private water source. The locals will likely see this as “less clean” but we’ll agree to disagree.  If your trip is shorter, you can also pack in your own wet-wipes or toilet paper. Just be mindful when disposing of the paper, as many toilets can’t handle it. If you’re not able to shower on a daily basis or expect to have food-related complications I highly recommend you have wet-wipes on hand.  They’ll make a huge comfort difference and do wonders for your mood.

It’s also interesting to note that use of water/toilet paper seems to vary from country to country.  Not all squat toilets lack toilet paper. In Zambia, there was rarely water available and always toilet paper to be found.  In Dubai, however, a mixture was often present.

Final Thoughts and Tips

You’re not always going to be able to avoid squat toilets.  However, you will be able to avoid them far more often than you think. When trying to seek out a traditional western seated toilet make sure to keep a close eye out for handicapped bathroom stalls.  Even in bathrooms that were almost exclusively squat toilets, the handicapped stall was typically a traditional western toilet.  Other bathrooms (such as the old wing of the Dubai Airport) alternated between squat and sitting toilets every other stall.

Unfortunately, you’ll find that many of the toilet seats in squat-centric countries are cracked, missing or damaged.  This is because toilet anxieties go both ways – an oddly re-assuring fact.  Traditional squatters don’t like and are at times unsure how to use our seated toilets. So, many will actually squat while perched on top of the toilet seat.  This ends up damaging the seat or breaking it free altogether.

If using rural squat toilets it can be immensely useful to take a brick, or stick in with you.  The brick to help brace yourself if you’re having stability issues, and the stick to help balance yourself.

I hope this post helps alleviate some of your fears, answer some of your questions, and better prepares you for your next face-to-face encounter with squat toilets.

If you’ve got an added piece of advice feel free to chime in!

Travel Fears: Africa – Disease, HIV and Light Hypochondria

Luapula Province, Zambia

I began this series of posts with a piece exploring the topic of race.  In this, the 2nd in the series, I will continue to share the concerns, uncertainties and revelations that led up to and culminated in my visit to Zambia.  I do this in the hope of helping many of you better understand  your own fears, paranoia  and to perhaps answer questions you might otherwise be uncomfortable asking or discussing.  The topics in this series are delicate ones, many of which are considered off-limits or too embarrassing to discuss openly.  As I seek to express, analyze and discuss them, please keep this in mind.   A more in-depth introduction can be found in the first post in this series: Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler.

I don’t write about romance on the road much because…well…contrary to the stereotypes about hostel, backpacking, and study abroad life it’s not something I pursue actively while traveling and/or when it does occur, it’s not something I feel inclined to write about. One factor that shapes my more reserved approach to travel romance is what, for the sake of this post, I’ll call low-level hypochondria. This is a bit of a disservice to true hypochondriacs and their personal challenges as I’m not truly a hypochondriac but  better conveys the nature of some of the unfounded fears addressed in this post.  I have an overly developed fear/paranoia when it comes to STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and TDs (transmitted diseases).  To the point that, despite being very empirical by nature and knowing the effectiveness rate of things like condoms they still do very little to alleviate my fears.  Fears which can be strong enough to alter my behavior or prevent me from enjoying opportunities.  For example,  I know how safe condoms and common sense are, but at the end of the day that knowledge is insufficient peace of mind and protection to allow me to pursue passing travel romances as opportunities arise.  From chlamydia to herpes to HIV/AIDs I have a deep seated fear, not just of exposure through sex, but of any form of exposure what-so-ever even if the risk is .0001%.  Add to that the TDs such as Cholera, Typhoid, Dysentery etc. and, well, there was a lot to worry about.

So, I – perhaps like many of you – was unsure what to make of Africa. In Europe and the US the media tends to focus on three topics when discussing sub-Saharan Africa.   Starvation, war, and HIV/AIDs. In Zambia, where multiple concurrent partners are a regular occurrence even among couples and a mixture of doctrine, urban myths, and lack of education are huge issues, HIV/AIDs infection levels are a massive concern. As I prepared for my three week trip, you can imagine some of the thoughts racing through my head … I was, about to go into the heart of the HIV/AIDS epidemic where the average life expectancy at birth is a mere 52 years up from ~38 a few years ago (vs 78 in the US) and the HIV infection rate in 2009 was 14%.  Down from 21% in 2001 and ranking it as the country with the 6th highest level of HIV/AIDs infection in the world. Every day more than 200 people are infected in Zambia alone.  Keeping in mind that these are the statistics for HIV/AIDs and not other STDs should highlight that there was absolutely zero-chance of me partaking in any, and I do mean any, type of romantic encounter during my visit. But, that didn’t mean I wasn’t extremely nervous about the HIV/AIDs issue when planning my trip – after all, you can catch certain types of STDs and TDs (HIV included) without sexual contact, right? Which brings me to the central focus of this post.

In the US where perhaps 1 in 300 people is HIV positive there’s not a lot of exposure to HIV or information.  HIV positive folks don’t advertise their illness, are well medicated, and generally invisible, productive, normal members of the population. A big difference from Zambia where even young children are dying of HIV/AIDs on a regular basis.  In the states there are HIV awareness campaigns and I’ve read numerous articles discussing the nearly non-existent risk of infection through casual social contact.  I know that HIV/AIDs cannot be spread outside of the exchange of sexual fluids, breast milk, or blood being passed between both bodies through fresh/bleeding cuts.  So, as I prepared to take my trip I knew at an intellectual level that short of a sexual encounter or blood transfusion I had absolutely nothing to fear. I planned to avoid any type of sexual contact and had no plans of ending up needing a blood transfusion. I had nothing to worry about.  Yet, at an emotional and irrational level I was still worried.  Knowing that 1 in 7 people was HIV positive … how would I react when expected to shake hands, share silverware, cook together or interact with young children with their myriad of scrapes and cuts knowing that many were likely HIV positive.

Zambian Children - Luapula

These fears are hard to quantify because they’re not the result of general ignorance.  I know that my level of risk from commonly shared surfaces, utensils, food, and social contact is effectively non-existent.  I also have read extensively in school and elsewhere about how brutal and isolating the impact of these types of unfounded fears are on people with diseases like HIV.  So, let me say it again.  I know and knew that these fears were bullshit … but that didn’t matter. It did little to overpower and abolish the mental image of having to shake a construction or farm worker’s cut, callused, and scabbed hand while unsure if they were HIV positive.  Or the thought of an HIV-infected child with the bloody cuts, scabs and snot covered cheeks that go with childhood reaching out and wanting to engage in the simple dignities of human touch. How would I respond?  Would I shun them?  Would I hold myself apart?  Would I embrace them?  Or when the time came, was this all mental gymnastics and would everything be the same?

So, as the wheels of our aircraft touched down at Lusaka International airport I felt a small knot in my stomach.  This was the moment I had been dreading.  Where I would come face to face with my uncertainty.  I shouldn’t have worried.  As I reflect on my behavior during my three-week visit, I know that I was slightly more controlled and reserved than I would have been in the US.  But only slightly.  When I washed my hands, it was out of general hygienic concerns, not out of a fear of HIV, STDs or TD infection.  I shook hands, interacted with kids, hugged the amazing people I met, ate nshima prepared lovingly by local’s hands, and interacted with the Zambians I met with the sincerity and dignity they deserve.  There were moments where I would catch myself hesitating, but these moments were slight and few and far between.  Oh, and yes – many of these individuals were HIV positive.

If, like me, you find yourself preparing for a trip to Africa and worrying over the HIV/AIDs and disease issue I hope this post A) lets you know that you’re not alone  B) that there’s nothing to truly worry about and C) that once on the ground it shouldn’t negatively impact your experience or be an issue.

 

Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler

Faces of Zambia

This is a hard and somewhat scary post to write. In part because the ideas and realizations I want to share are difficult to communicate and convey and in part because if I fail to convey them properly I’ll come across as a complete asshole.  Still, I think it’s worth it because I think the realizations, fears, and issues that this post addresses are very real ones that many of you may also secretly share and be curious about.

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

There’s a reason that this quote, or at least cropped versions of it can be found plastered across guide books, blogs, and articles dedicated to travel.  It embodies the beauty of travel. It also conveys some of the power of travel.

As a veteran traveler a lot of my prejudices and biases were eroded away a long time ago.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that focused heavily on education while striving to teach a message of respect, inclusion and evaluation based on individual merits – not race or ethnic origin.  Still, as I prepared for sub-Saharan Africa – a continent I had never before stepped foot upon or, to be candid, had a strong desire to visit – I was nervous and forced to admit privately, if not publicly, that I was unsure what to expect.  I had a number of what I knew to be childish  fears about simple things…dealing with my lactose intolerance, accepting local’s hospitality, squat toilets, a light case of hypochondria and underneath it all a decent chunk of racially oriented anxiety.  Because I think these are very real concerns that may resonate with many of you I’m going to do a series of posts i’m titling “Travel Fears: Africa” which will tackle each of these experiences individually.  To kick things off, let’s start with the most touchy of the various topics – race.

But, before I do, I want to clarify a quick point.  In this post I refer to Africans in a general sense. This is done because from an American and Western perspective Africa is often lumped together and treated as a homogeneous entity.  I fully realize that Africa is incredibly diverse, and that it is truly massive with vastly different cultural groups populating each nation.  For this post I’m talking about Sub-Saharan Africa and more specifically my experiences in Zambia.  However, because I think that similarly powerful experiences and realizations can be had across the majority of Africa’s sub-Saharan countries and because you, as my readers, are more likely to visit other countries such as Kenya, Nairobi, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania etc. I don’t want to limit this post explicitly to Zambia and Botswana so please forgive the gross generalization.

Faces of Zambia

Racial Concerns

It will probably come as no surprise to most of you that the majority of Zambia’s population is black – while I didn’t find much in the way of concrete data it looks like about 5% of the population is non-black while the remaining 95% come from traditional black African ethnic groups. A stark contrast to many of the areas I’ve lived in. Of these areas large parts of both Arizona and Denmark are not exactly known for their staggering multiculturalism. Exposed to travel at an early age and very scientifically minded I don’t consider myself as holding a racial bias.  Instead I understand “race” as a social category, differently understood in different contexts. I know the science behind pigmentation, the evolution of our species and how it shaped our outward appearance. Also, at a certain level I just don’t give a damn what someone’s racial background is though I am always fascinated by their cultural background – a key difference.  Still, our appearance does play a role in how we are perceived by others.  Attractiveness, height, hair color and ethnicity are all often easily identifiable visual markers that can sway us as we make snap judgments and seek to socially assign people to different groups and categories based on our own cultural assumptions.  To this end race is still a factor that shapes our interactions and our lives.  Not just between Black and White, but White and Asian, Indian and Black, etc.  Where it becomes especially interesting from a sociological and travel perspective is when we have members of a majority group in one region re-locate into a minority position in another. This has happened for friends who have moved from Arizona to Japan, or India, and it definitely occurred for me when visiting Africa.

Hopefully you’ve got friends from a different ethnic background than you and at some point you’ve also had an honest conversation with them about the cultural dynamics of your local community. While these conversations may discuss more visible issues like racism they can also cover other topics like differences in familial or cultural expectations,  regional cultural norms, etc.  Personally, I’ve always found these conversations informative and enlightening. Given that the majority of my travel has been confined to North America, Europe, Central America and South America this trip to Africa was my first opportunity to really dive head-long into being an easily identified/absolute minority somewhere. Frankly that made it a pretty scary.  Especially in light of the stories I’ve heard from other travelers, volunteers and expats.  After all, for all the racial issues the United States has between whites and blacks, Zambia has many similar challenges…only in reverse.  I had heard from friends that I’d be targeted by beggars and for bribes from corrupt officials alike, that there would be an added assumption that because I was white I’d have money, and that there were some legitimate safety concerns that I’d need to take into account strictly because of my skin color.

Beyond that though, and perhaps even more disturbing on a personal level, was the realization that while I did not hold a racial bias I did draw a cultural distinction which fell generally along racial lines. Phrased slightly differently, while I didn’t have a racial bias against minorities in situations where I was a member of the majority, the thought of being a minority among what still registered internally as a very different racial majority made me somewhat uncomfortable. I think this can be traced in large part back to an inherent racial bias which is still ingrained in American culture with ties back to segregation and the slave era. This semi-emotional response flew in the face of what I know at a cognitive level – that people are people, cultures are cultures, and that physical differences in skin tone don’t have anything to do with anything of importance.  Yet I found myself annoyed with myself and wondering if I wasn’t just falling victim to that age old pat yourself on the back racism that says, “I’ve got black friends…obviously I can’t be racist”.  The end result was that as I prepared to leave I found myself wondering just how many of the racial myths and biases that I thought I had overcome, I had…well….never completely internalized?

Faces of Zambia

What Zambia and Botswana Taught Me

Fast forward a week into my visit.  I found myself in a tiny village in the north western part of northern Zambia sitting on the stoop of my brother’s hut.  My parents and I were very likely the third, fourth, and fifth white people many of the local village kids had ever seen.  My brother and another nearby Peace Corps volunteer being the other two. We were unusual. We were different. We were a curiosity and we were definitely a minority. The kids would stand for as long as an hour at the end of the path to my brother’s hut just watching us as we went about our daily business. It was an odd experience and hence forth I’ll forever have an added bit of sympathy for celebrities facing off with the paparazzi.  Later, when joining his counterparts for a meal or conversation the local kids would pause their football games to stand nervously watching us.  Eventually, if we approached them they’d shyly introduce themselves unsure just what to make of us.  With the older kids and adults the invisible wall was different, more thickly disguised, but still present.

Now that I’ve returned to Denmark and had the time to digest my experience, I’ve come to realize that one of the best parts of the trip was the time I spent as an absolute minority. Not because I liked it, or I particularly cared for the differences in how I was treated, but rather because it gave me the opportunity to truly be immersed and exposed to almost entirely black communities. As I reflect on my relationships with friends many of whom are a mixture of both blacks and African Americans, I’ve come to realize that my relationships with these individuals are wonderful relationships but have done little to break down my own personal version of the African school children’s exotic uncertainty.  Until Africa I had never had the chance to be truly immersed in a fully functional black community that showcased individuals of all trades, social classes, and ages.  My interactions before the trip had largely fallen within the extreme’s: Most of them were either with blacks who were well educated, motivated, driven individuals like myself, and who were usually around my age or regrettable interactions with individuals who had a penchant for relying upon their physicality to get what they wanted, not base levels of education or personal drive.

That type of contrast makes it almost impossible to truly understand and relate to a group – no matter what type of group it is.  It also polarizes the nature of our interactions.  It is interesting then and to our own detriment that we often pretend that this isn’t the case.  Which isn’t to assume that everyone reading this is a white American from a heavily Caucasian community – I know you all are not. But, hopefully you’ll be able to draw parallels with your own experiences and communities.

What I found so powerful about my time in Zambia and Botswana was that it allowed me to truly immerse myself in a way that was lethal to those stereotypes.  It exposed me to wonderful people of all ages, professions, backgrounds, and ideologies in a way that fully rounded out my previously limited experiences with black people.  The sheer contrast was a key part of this experience, and helped differentiate it from my time spent in Belize which while populated by a large black population lacked the extreme contrast and immersion that made my time in Zambia so meaningful. I’m not sure if this was because I spent more time confined to the tourist trail, general expectations, a combination of the two, or some other factor but it does seem to have been a drastically different experience.  So, while I don’t think that I entered Africa with a pronounced case of, as Twain put it, “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” I know that by the time I left Africa what ghosts of these traits I may have still possessed had been brought out into the open and largely banished. It simultaneously opened up a new area of exploration – one that focuses on Euro-American-African relations, history, and the issues of race and culture that go with it.

My goal in sharing these musings and observations with you is to help encourage you to be honest with yourself, to be honest about your motivations, about your preconceptions and what they mean for you as you go to organize and plan a potential trip.  Keep in mind that while these experiences and realizations reflect my personal insights as I explored Zambia you may find similar ones as you venture into different cultural regions.  It is also worth noting that in many ways the essence of these same realizations may hold true in reverse for Zambians making their first trip to the United States or Europe.  Regardless, I hope you’ll embrace the challenge, welcome it, and push yourself to connect with the local people.  To reach out to them.  To understand them. To learn from them and eventually to allow whatever deeply buried prejudice, bigotry, or well intentioned ignorance you may harbor to be burned away by the experience.

My time in Africa not only offered rich experiences and improved my internal person, but it left me better prepared to be a better brother to my fellow human.

Have you had a similar experience?  I hope you’ll consider sharing it in a comment below.