The Human Safari

As children, we often assume different roles while re-enacting grand fantasies. All hail to Cesar, riding atop a palanquin, or to the Astronaut floating above the world looking down at it.  The doctor saving lives, or the war photographer documenting the rawness of the human condition and the horrors of society as it fails. Then, we grow up.  We settle into our role within our socio-cultural strata and send subtle ripples across the fabric of the society that surrounds us.

As tourists, we recapture some of that wonder.  We gain the opportunity to stand in the midst of the Coliseum, to stride casually down the halls of grand empires and to snap photos of exotic peoples, destinations, and in some instances candid moments.  These rich experiences add to the substance of who we are and let us get back in touch with the beautiful sense of exploration which defined our youth. They are, for many, what make travel wondrous, expansive and oh-so addictive.

But, what happens when that sense of exploration leads us to moments and experiences which carry with them a taint of exploitation or dehumanization?  What happens when we suddenly become a modern incarnation of the aloof Roman dictator, well fed, wealthy, and separated by an invisible but nearly impenetrable wall from the people we’re visiting?  It’s something that happens easily, innocently and far more often than we’d like to admit.

The Stirrings of Realization

For me, two instances stand out. The first tickled my awareness with a mild sense of intangible discomfort. The second brought clarity slamming into place combined, strangely, with a sense of helplessness.

Faces of Zambia

The first was during my time in Zambia.  We’d elected to do a Safari with a fantastic company in the South Luangwa region. They invest heavily in protecting the animals, a light footprint on the land, and in the local community.  Yet, as we sat in the back of a large safari Landcruiser rolling along the pockmarked blacktop I looked out at the hundreds of locals that could readily be seen along the side of the road working their yards, walking the road, or going about their business.

Faces of Zambia

Often they’d look up at the four of us, often smiling, and in the case of the children, waving…then bursting into laughter when we’d smile and wave back.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, and not just because of the color of our skin. It was nearly everything about us – from our clothing, to our glasses, camera, and the way we were traveling. Just as often as I waved back, I’d sit, camera raised to my eye, set in sports mode snapping away while watching the landscape race by through my extended zoom lens.  Each shot allowed me to capture a candid photo of daily life. And, if I’m to be honest, each shot was much more comfortable than had I been on the ground, walking from house to house, snapping photos.  Just as fast as I snapped the photo or they looked up, the Landscruiser had spirited me away, erasing any possibility of a confrontation or interaction.

Faces of Zambia

It was only as I sat in that same vehicle the following days, snapping photos in the same fashion of wildlife that I started to register the stark and uncomfortable similarities between the two situations. Somehow, without intending it, I had gone from great explorer on a grand exploration to Dictator atop my palanquin utterly separated and detached from the local people who I was there to meet. True, I was there, but in this instance it would be far more accurate to say I was in actuality just seeing them, not truly meeting them.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – A Canine Adventurer

A Dog Resting Atop Sharkstooth

We’ve been making the pilgrimage to the top of Shark’s Tooth Trail in south western Colorado on a semi-annual basis for as long as I can remember. The hike is a stunning one and starts about halfway up the mountain. The drive to get there is almost as much of an adventure as the hike itself. Winding up and out of Dolores, eventually we split off and leave pavement behind for well maintained gravel. After another few miles we leave the well maintained gravel behind for a 4×4 only rugged, rocky, and pothole (small crater?) filled mountain road that winds up past beaver dams, beautiful high altitude lakes, past giant scree slides and across several small streams.

The hike itself is magical. It wraps its way up the mountain side past old growth trees so large you can’t get you arms around them, past wild strawberry and raspberry plants, then over a series of small snow-melt streams with crystal clear water. The view periodically opens up offering incredible sights of the nearby mountains and creating perfect spots to pause for a breather or light snack. The path also forks past an old abandoned mine and what is left of the old miner’s log cabin. The flowers in Spring and early Summer are always in full bloom and an explosive mixture of colors. Eventually though, both the trees and the flowers give way to odd plants and hardy grasses as you pass above the tree line. From there it’s just another final push before you reach the end of the trail head and the saddle offering a view over the back side of the mountains.

That’s where this photo was shot, as we rested and hid from the wind. One of our Canine hiking companions decided to pause his explorations long enough to join us as we laid back and enjoyed the view at 11,936 feet from the top of Sharkstooth Pass.

Love this photo?  Make sure to check out previous week’s Friday Feature Photos!

The Friday Traveller’s Photo Feature – Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Hello friends, I’m excited to announce a new weekly photo feature I’m starting.  One of the things I enjoy the most about traveling is the opportunity to capture amazing moments and destinations which I can then share with friends and readers.  It’s easy for travel photographs to get overlooked and buried deep in the albums associated with where they were taken.  To help highlight some of my favorite photos from over the years, I’m going to dig down into my travel photo galleries/album archives and post a favorite shot to feature every Friday as part of my new Friday Traveller’s Photo Feature.  These are shots I’ve taken over the years on my Canon G11, Canon G6, and Canon G2 during my hostel and backpacking themed trips across the world.

This weeks photograph is one of my absolute favorites from Plitvice Lakes in central Croatia.  These lakes and stunning waterfalls are located in the heart of one of Europe’s finest UNESCO World Heritage sites.   I snapped this photo the day before the year’s first snow.  While the park can be overcrowded in the summers, I visited it in late October and found it nearly deserted. It was truly magical wandering along the rustic raised wooden boardwalks surrounded by large schools of fish, stunning blue water and captivating waterfalls.  The fall yellows, golds, and reds added to the natural greens you’ll typically see in photos from Plitvice.

Etiquette Be Damned. Stop Asking, “Do you speak X language?” It’s Rude and Pointless.

Copenhagen Cafe Dogs

In a previous post Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations I discussed my evolving relationship with Danish.  One of the things I didn’t discuss was the surprising advice I received from Danish friends regarding one of the cornerstones of a traveler’s phrase book; the oft used opening inquiry, “Do you speak X language?”.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably perfected the art of opening every conversation with a friendly hello, and then the language intro.  Sometimes it is delivered in English and other times in whatever the local language is. While necessary in some areas, I view it as an essential common courtesy as well. After all, it’s bad enough that I don’t speak the native language in whatever country I’m in, to then assume that they should speak my language without asking smacks of arrogance and inter-cultural intolerance. Unless, that is, you are in Denmark.

While well intentioned, Danish proficiency in English is so high and their use of it so common, that to ask a Dane – especially those under 40 – if they speak English when voicing an inquiry, is to insult them.  Don’t get me wrong, they appreciate the sentiment and I doubt you’d ever find a Dane that would respond to the question harshly.  However, the inquiry is generally received here in Denmark much the same way it might be if you asked the same question, “Do you speak English?” on the streets of New York. Which is to say, you’d get a strange look, followed by a patronizing smile or a quizzical eyebrow and a hearty “Of course!”.

Weigh in, what is your experience? Have you found other regions or countries that are similar to Denmark?  If so, which?  Please share your experiences in a comment below.

Of further interest for me is the question it raises.  Who is the language inquiry really for? Is it an identifier which benefits the asker by helping compensate for their embarrassment about not knowing the language while notifying the individual being asked of their preferred language?  Is it a form of social contract where the asker is requesting permissions to proceed in a set language?  Or, is something else going on?

I have begun to suspect that in reality the inquiry, while well intentioned, is actually an obstacle to effective communication.  For the sake of this discussion let’s use English as the default language. If I ask an individual if they speak English, I’m really asking a procedural question which is actually very poorly constructed.  If they speak minimal to decent English, they’re inclined to be shy and respond with a modest “no” or “a little”. If they speak good to above average English, they may respond with a yes or still hedge their bets and understate their ability. If they speak above average to excellent English then the question mirrors the insensitivity highlighted with the Danes.  Of course, if they don’t speak any English at all, they’ll offer a completely blank look, understand the sentiment of your question and respond in their native language.

Ultimately, my hunch is that skipping the question all together will give you access to the same information without putting the individual you’re asking on the spot.  If they understand, then they can try and respond to the level of their competency.  If not, then they won’t be able to at which point it will be immediately clear allowing you to graciously thank them for their time and apologize for not speaking their language.  I don’t believe this is indicative of cultural insensitivity, as long as you’re not assuming they should speak English.  Only that it is a possibility, and they might be willing to do so.   Rather, I’ve begun to think that it is in fact more a matter of effective communication.

It is time to cross the question, “Do you speak English” from our travel books, advice columns and procedural etiquette.  Weigh in – where do you stand on the issue?