Friday, February 02, 2007

To Trust or not to Trust, a Traveler's Question - A follow-up to The Great Mustard Ruse

When one travels for a great length of time, alone, one finds that it is a physical and mental impossibility not to place deep trust in complete strangers. In other words, the lone wanderer often has no choice but to rely on and have faith in people totally unknown. Learning to take strangers at their word and to have confidence that their intentions are in one's best interest, independent in some cases of their appearance or dress (and assumptions made thereon), flies in the face of indoctrination that began, at least in the course of my own education, in kindergarten, when I was 5 years old. That of course was the most-likely standardized "don't-accept-the-cookie-from-the-smiling-man-in-the-large-unmarked-Ford-van-with-the-open-sliding-door" lesson. Thus it began for my cohort in our very first year of schooling, a message that would be repeated in various forms countless times throughout the subsequent 8 years of education. If such drilling of children's minds occurs on a wide scale throughout the US, this practice might incidentally serve to explain in part the apparently rampant mentality of fear that seems to persist in the minds of many people in that country, in my country. This mentality of fear is explored to some degree in the movie Bowling for Columbine, and though Michael Moore approaches the concept in something of an over-dramatic and self-alienating manner, I think there is some truth in the points he makes.

It is natural to assume that inexperienced travelers from the US will bring their fear and mistrust of strangers with them when they leave home - if they leave home at all - and make for far-away lands, but this extra baggage strains the mind worse than any heavy backpack can break the back or crush the body. Living on the road in a state of fear produces an exhausting stress that one feels grinding down on the spirit, pulverizing the will to move and see new things and meet new people. My own well established mistrust - at least eight years of virtually unrecognized unconscious skepticism of others - was unraveled and undone in one month in Canada, probably the only country in the world where such a feat can be accomplished in such a short period of time. My interactions with the people of that nation replaced my lack of trust and lack of hope for humanity with the first seeds of a boundless faith in people and a conviction that humans as a whole are at heart marked by a certain goodness. My encounter with Stephi Graf's cousin in the Winnipeg train station on the very first day of my journey (I think I wrote about this on my website) exemplifies the mentality of openness and goodwill that is not a surprising or unusual human trait in Canada, as it appears to be in the US, but is rather the norm, an aspect of humanness commonplace and taken for granted there. After having my impressions of my fellow humans broken down and reshaped in Manitoba and Newfoundland, I left Canada with an outlook on the world that I had never possessed before: one of hope for Mankind (pardon the political incorrectness). Some of you who read these words will not understand or think I exaggerate or over-dramatize, but the fresh peace and happiness of mind that inevitably follow the discovery of new hope cannot be denied. Mr. John A Atchley III will appreciate that he introduced me to Couchsurfing ( at exactly this moment in my journey.

Despite, one, a burgeoning trust in strangers; two, a rising conviction that there are enough like-minded, good people in the world to seriously affect change; and, three, a blooming realization that allowing one's path to be partially shaped by apparently random interactions with foreigners is in fact the only way to mentally survive the experience of long-distance, long-term migration; despite all these things I found when I arrived in Africa and traveled through developing countries where the language was to me unknown and incomprehensible, that I still had much to learn in terms of my outlook on the world and its human inhabitants. I encountered fellow travelers - at cafes, in the desert, on trains - from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada who bore with absolute certitude the belief that people are good and a bone-deep sense of everything-will-be-all-right. After passing through Morocco, Senegal, and South Africa, I came to find this stance, this outlook, was held universally with a strength that can only be described as enviable by all travelers from the aforementioned first-world countries, without exception. It is either a testament to the truth behind the convictions of the traveling Aussies, Kiwis, and Canucks, or to my own deaf, dumb, and blind luck, that my refusal to relinquish or compromise my new-found faith in strangers didn't have drastic consequences for the first eight months of my journey, through Canada, Europe, Africa, and southern South America. Minor setbacks were not uncommon: the instant sourness shattering a relationship, for example, when an apparently friendly, helpful person who, claiming at first he wants nothing from you but is simply going in the same direction as you and would be glad to point out what you are looking for, suddenly begins after some time to demand money and gifts for his services and trouble, and grows angry when you turn your back on him and walk away.

But no, it wasn't until eight months had passed of traveling alone, burdened down the entire time with items of great monetary value that make me even more of a target than the simple fact of my skin color, that I suffered any real material loss, that I was legitimately robbed and taken advantage of. As I mentioned briefly in The Great Mustard Ruse, the loss of gear is not important. Being robbed and replacing the items - wading through muddy bogs of bureaucracy filled with paperwork snags and the rank rotting stink of long lines - is an annoying and in my case humiliating and humorous series of events, certainly, but one that was actually expected to take place much earlier in the course of my journey. Far worse is the potential undermining of eight months of mental, spiritual, and philosophical dedication to a simple but previously unconsidered and unimagined principle: that the majority of people in the world are kind, caring, individuals, often with an interest in their fellow human beings and in the world around them. I don't want to mislead people into thinking that I live in a fairy-tale land, that I go skipping through the bad neighborhoods of Johannesburg or Paris or Guayaquil with my camera and binoculars dangling from my neck, $100 dollar bills spilling from my pockets, and gold watches jangling on my wrists. I am not naive to the presence of advantageous human predators of all forms, those people (actually true capitalists in the purest sense of the word) who recognize an influx in their region of visitors from wealthier areas as an opportunity to potentially increase the standard of their own living conditions; and I have made a constant effort to learn increased discretion and awareness on the streets, to minimizing my status as a target as much as possible.

It is instead simply that I have come to feel that the these predators - in particular the small percentage of which that actually seek illegitimate and illegal means to gain access to that the wealth of foreign visitors - are far outweighed by individuals who, once actively and sincerely engaged in conversation and cultural exchange, reveal many more common interests and similarities to me than I ever would have thought possible; and who subsequently open doors to me that I could never have conceived of existing. In constantly traveling from region to region, country to country, first to third to first world and through everything in-between, one discovers that not only time but also place, movement, momentous experience, and all aspects of the human experience begin to rush and rage and flow like a river that is swollen by snow-melt and rain-fall in the spring and crashes along like a juggernaut. Attempts to control this river single-handedly, to organize and plan its course, to do anything in some cases but enjoy (or try to survive) its insane currents, to ignore a stranger's simple suggestion and kind voice and try to bend the bed-rock of the river itself with constant strength of will and mind, all this began to threaten my very sanity. Today in Cuenca, Ecuador, I know that the only way I have come as far as I have without suffering a complete breakdown of mind, body, and spirit is through trusting, listening to, following, and believing complete strangers, often despite intuition and preconceived notions that are, of course, mostly inaccurate and wildly false. One of countless examples: in Cape Town only several days before driving to Johannesburg and flying to South America, I still had not organized my project for that continent - where I would go, who I would seek, how I would travel. Still focused on my project in South Africa, I called the university and discussed my work with a professor of conservation biology. He suggested I visit an associate of his at a field station north of the city along the west coast of South Africa. I had been looking forward to seeing what a weekend in Cape Town was like, but on a whim on a Friday morning I left the city and drove to Vredenburg. Andy Winder, a friend of the professor's, owns a hostel near the field station and although there were no free beds, their daughter had just moved to the city to live with her boyfriend, so they let me sleep in her room for the weekend at no charge. I conducted work for my project on Friday and Saturday, planning to return to Cape Town on Sunday morning. Andy and his wife, however, convinced me stay on Sunday and attend their West Coast Bird Club luncheon, a standard brai. In the course of drinking and eating with the west coast birders, I met a woman whose son had recently married an Argentinean and just happened to be living in Ushuaia, which was incidentally and most likely the next destination in my journey, and what I hoped would be my disembarkation site for Antarctica. To make matters more unbelievable, the son's Argentinean wife worked for a tourist company associated with trips to the Antarctic peninsula. This stage of my travels manifested itself like many other stages have done: I had very little part in carving my path, but instead found it like a separate living organism taking perfect shape before me, a shape I could have never designed independent of how much time in advance I had begun planning.

I was conned yesterday by a man who by all rights should have been trust-worthy, whose appearance played off of my first-world upbringing and my still partially unchanged value system. Like the car-thieves and con-artists in South Africa who dress in perfect replicas of police uniforms, the smartly-dressed businessman who first alerted me to the mustard on my legs and led me, knowingly, I'm convinced, to the bear-trap, has probably learned that people from the first-world will be more eager to follow someone they can perceive as official and safe than someone wearing more common street clothes. If he had so soundly defeated my own street-smarts, intelligent rationality, keen awareness, and first-world notions at the outset of my journey, before I gained conviction that his kind were a minority opposed by individuals who desire the opposite and seek instead a strengthening of human contact and interactions, then my mistrust, fear, and skepticism might not have broken down as quickly as they did. I feel, however, that this process of reshaping values and perceptions is unavoidable when traveling alone. For some it might require more time on the road, for other's less, but I do not think that the world will permit a nomad dedicated to that world to pass through seas of people without seeing a common thread, a mutual humanness, a shared-ness of hopes, loves, hatreds, fears, strengths, desires, pains, dreams, and pleasures. I found myself at dusk on the same day of The Great Mustard Ruse walking back to my hostal with the sun on my face, tired from filling out forms and being bounced from one office to another all across the city and completely oblivious to the fact that I was on the same block of the same street where I had been robbed earlier in the day. Awareness dawned as I passed the same kiosk where I had been mustard-ized and found myself suddenly arrested by the voice of the shop clerk who had sold me needle and thread calling me over to his counter. This time his eyes and the lines on his face assured me more than his words that he had had nothing to do with the earlier con, and after chatting for a time about what had happened, comparing the events of the morning from our two different angles and perspectives, he gravely took my hand, locked his eyes on mine, and implored me to be more careful and take care of myself. As I walked away, I felt even more strongly than before that everything really was going to be all right.

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