I’m reading a fantastic book called Thinking Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize Winner, Daniel Kahneman. I can’t get more than 5 pages into it without taking a page of notes and implications. I end up thinking so hard and making so many connections in my head that I’m sometimes exhausted after a brief session of reading then taking notes. Paperback edition highly recommended.
There’s a point made that there is an experiencing self, and a remembering self. That is, “how are things right now,” and “how were things, on the whole?” It reminds me that our minds are essentially comprised of a long history of memories, and a thing slice of experience that feeds that collection. So we should work to preserve and enhance those from the perspective of the future, not our experiences as we live them. We are a moment in the experience, a lifetime in its memory.
This is how I tend to write, as well. To absolutely and faithfully record the facts as I lived them is an illusion. It is always tainted by my perspective at the time and ignores any future realizations. My experience at the time is, by necessity, incomplete. Why bother to record an incomplete story?
Instead, I like to write with the benefit of future perspective, analysis, and insight. This tells the true story, even if the details are not impartially recorded. A shorthand is to write the story as you will remember it, not as you lived it. This also allows for curation and rebelling that’s more humorous, dramatic, compelling, and more human that the experienced self found it to be. That’s what has (hopefully) allowed me to keep an entertaining and informative blog for so many years.
I just finished reading a book called Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. I devoured it with almost the passion of Kerouac writing On the Road, in just a couple of days. In the book I found support for just about every crackpot theory and harebrained idea I’ve had about travel. All the conversations I’ve had in broken English – some of it mine – at 4am in some back street alley in China or random Baltic cafe or even just my neighbor’s basement. It was amazing (not to mention somewhat gratifying and a bit of a relief to know I’m at least not the only kook) to see my words and thoughts in his typewriting. I’m not going to review the whole book, but I at least wanted to recap some of the things that struck me as I read through it.
- Latin American police “corruption” is just a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. Cut out the lawyers, judges, court clerks, paperwork and everything and just pay the cop a nominal fee. Typically travelers will be confronted for doing something like speeding or not having the right documentation. The officer will, in a roundabout way, imply that there’s a small fee that can be paid on the spot which will allow the traveler to continue. And the American traveler will become indignant. You got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to; pay the man. It’s a small price to pay to be back on your way and you can feel good that you helped the local constabulary put food on their table.
- Most of the time the Americans are the most polite travelers. I’ve met more jackasses among the supposedly more civilized Europeans than anyone else. And that doesn’t count the numerous other of the English-speaking countries’ citizens that usually lead the pack in being idiots (I’m looking at you, New Zealand and South Africa). Note that this doesn’t apply to Americans in Tijuana and Cancun. I once watched a friend of mine scream in a hotel that he was the only reason anyone there had a job and he should be treated like a king. This despite the staff politely assigning him another room after he smashed his window and the glass fell into a playground. Even after his tirade they didn’t kick him out, though I was about to.
- Travel is good for the soul and coming home is usually a bigger culture shock. After being somewhere else for a while you really start to see your homeland from an outsider’s eyes. For better or worse.
- Horror stories are better than pleasant ones. There’s nothing quite as funny as hearing the near-slapstick comedy stories of misunderstanding and woe on the road. There’s nothing so compelling as hearing about a harrowing escape while getting shaken down by the Russian mafia. And there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing of a travel angel who saved your bacon each time.
- Things are never as bad or as dangerous as you hear. Yes, there’s corruption and danger and squalor out there in the rest of the world. But there is wherever you’re from, too. You just don’t think of it that way. Some of the happiest and most generous people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the friendliest are in places people tell you are too dangerous. Some of the most honest and helpful are in the places supposedly most corrupt. When someone says “don’t go there” I usually put it on my to-do list.
But there were a couple of topics I rant about that I didn’t see in the book. Though he came close to these topics, the difference is enough that I feel like I have room to expound my ideas without stepping on the author’s toes.
The first crackpot theory I didn’t read about is that the worst words you can learn in a foreign language are “Do you speak English”. If they can, they’ll understand you in English. If they can’t, they won’t. But worse, it more often than not gives them the idea that you probably speak their language passably and so they won’t take the bait. But if you just go up and start talking to them, asking whatever question you had to begin with, they’ll usually reply back well enough or point you to someone who can. It wasn’t trial-and-error of an American lout that taught me that, but by observation of many a fellow traveler – also foreign but never American – who bristle indigently if the English is not good enough or the reply not polite enough. One of the funniest conversations I can say I have witnessed, though it’s only really funny in hindsight, is a Korean yelling at a Russian militia officer in his precinct and implying that it had been his colleagues who had stolen her DSLR along with her travel itinerary across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; each butchering my native tongue more the angrier they got. And neither pausing to apologize for not speaking the other’s language or suggesting such a dumb thing.
The second harebrained idea left unaddressed by the book is that I can never respect an American abroad who pretend to be Canadian. I don’t begrudge the Canadians at all, I’ve had great times with many of them. Nor do I resent Americans who are sometimes ashamed of their “home and native land.” No, it’s that these people tend to simply want to hide in the citizenship of the Great White North because they find it tiring to stand up to Eurotrash bullies whose only view of Americans has come through sitcoms and stereotypes. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to simply swim downstream because it’s easier? Why not go hang out at the Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and complain about the fascist capitalist pigs while downing another granola bar you pretend wasn’t made by a billion dollar conglomerate, sourced by organic corporate farming (not that I’m against corporations or corporate food – I happen to enjoy quite a lot of it – I’m just against the hypocrisy of the delusional pseudo-hippies who are exactly the kind who follow the Lonely Planet guides’ every recommendation and consider themselves better than those on a package tour even though the effect is the same…but I’m off topic). One of the biggest rewards of traveling is experiencing different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of life. And a part of the responsibility attached to that is to be a good ambassador of your homeland. I absolutely revel in helping a fellow traveler see my country through my eyes, and they usually come away from the experience with an increased respect for Americans and the country. Several of these folks had been sworn enemies of Americans and their bible-thumping, two-Bush-electing, Big-Mac-eating (a German in Australia once asked how Americans could survive with only one McDonald’s around, and it being on the other side of the city), science-hating, racist (I’ve never met so many racists living in the South all my life as I have in my limited travels through Europe and Asia) dimwitted Ugly American ways.
There’s a follow-up book called To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism that just arrived and I’m getting ready to dig into it.
I had great fun in Nicaragua. Despite all the hard work and heat, it was quite an experience. The people there were great – friendly and polite. And at the end of the day you felt like you’d accomplished something tangible to help real people.
And working that closely with people you normally see in a much different capacity was also great. I learned a lot about my coworkers and we definitely formed bonds that will last a long time. We learned that we can trust one another to pull just as hard during just as trying circumstances. I wouldn’t hesitate to lean on one of those folks in the future and would hope they’d feel alright leaning on me if they need it.
Some notes that haven’t found themselves elsewhere in my descriptions:
- There are geckos all over the walls. At night they hang out by the lights and catch moths.
- In Nicaragua the ‘S’ is silent and the ‘C’ is pronounced like they do in Barcelona – that is, with a “TH” sound.
- The long-timers here say that you don’t get sore after a hard day’s work because you don’t ever get cooled down like you do in the US. Sure enough, after I got back and hit the cool weather I got sore. Funny, that.
- Most of the folks didn’t speak much, if any English. But I got much more confident speaking Spanish with them and wasn’t ever really stuck for communication.
Well, back to the real world….
Relationships are everything. Without a relationship with those around you, a place is just a place; with a friend, it’s an experience. But know when it’s time to cut ties – maybe you don’t share the same philosophy or you’re just starting to get sick of each other. Don’t prolong it, move on and look back with a smile. Better to take a step back and maintain the relationship than to try and force something and end up destroying it. In business it’s the same way. You develop trust and share ideas which can add value to both of you.
You get a lot more out of everything with context. Without context, the scenery all looks the same. But if you know something about where you are, it can create or change the meaning. For example, in Athens I watched the sun rise over the Acropolis from a rocky outcropping. It was made much more meaningful by knowing that I was standing in the place where the Athenian Council used to meet on such matters as deciding the fate of Socrates. If you understand the context in relation to clients, you will then understand the culture, the problems, what will work and what won’t.
Recognize when it’s time to move on from a place. It’s perfectly alright to stay a while in one place. It’s perfectly alright to move on quickly. If you’re someplace that fits your style well, stay a bit longer than you planned. Every place has some reason to stay on longer – people, scenery, nighlife, solitude, etc. But if you find yourself not getting anything out of your time, leave early.
Know your goals; know your purpose. If you haven’t set out what you intend to do, you can’t possibly succeed at it. If you’re pursuing a goal that is undefined, you’re just wasting time and money going from place to place. Once you’ve established what you’re trying to do, your path becomes pretty clearly defined. But if you don’t have a goal yet, it’s alright to meander around as long as you know where you stand. Eventually you’ll find something that makes sense and meandering can lead you to it.
Don’t waste too much time planning, get out and start doing. Plans will always change so worrying over the smallest details before getting there is largely going to be wasting time. Most things can be figured out when you’ve arrived. Once you get to a place, don’t force reality to conform to your plans – this will always be a disaster. Any plans you do make should be able to adapt to changes.
Look around. Don’t miss out on something great because it’s not in the guidebook. Events are often more important than scenery, and events can change on a moment’s notice. Don’t miss out on an opportunity because you weren’t looking around.
Don’t be afraid to go alone. Sometimes you’ll find out you’re not alone and that many others have gone along the same path. Sometimes you’ll find something great that most people haven’t. But you’ll get more out of it if you have to discover things for yourself and learn your own lessons.