Monday, June 22, 2009

You don't belong here

In the past year, I have been lucky enough to read a few books and see a few movies that really affected me.

As Canadians, we are so accustomed to the rule of law, that reading about or watching a story in which the rule of law doesn't necessarily factor in the equation is quite unsettling. One of the best aspects of traveling is getting to acquaint yourself with cultures that differ from your own. But how far from your comfort zone can you drift? The restrictions are not always external to yourself.

The Places in Between - Rory Stewart - Afghanistan
Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson - Pakistan
Sahara Unveiled - William Langewiesche - Northern Africa
The Kite Runner - Khaled-Hosseini - Afghanistan (book/movie)
Slumdog Millionaire - Mumbai, India (movie)
I have been lucky enough to travel in Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa and parts of the Caribbean. But in each case, I was always covered by a larger rule-of-law. I could put myself in stupid or dangerous situations, but in the back of my mind, I could always assume that the some sort of legal standard would apply, should I get myself in a real fix.

What has been fascinating about the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sahara books is the concept of tribal law. Your safety is basically only as good as your connections. In Afghanistan, Rory Stewart successfully walked across the country after the fall of the Taliban. No central government (is there one now?), his letters of introduction good for about 2-3 days walk tops. He spoke a few of the languages (Dari and Urdu, but not Pashto). Like walking a minefield.

In Pakistan, Greg Mortenson has been building small schools in tiny villages. He learned very early on that he had to almost become a 'local' (and learn the language) in order to be able to help these people. Connections are everything. You can't fly in a helicopter, build a school and take off. The building would be razed within a week.

In Northern Africa, William Langewiesche spent months in buses and various forms of local transport, trying to get to places that few foreigners ever visit. Country and tribal borders took days to negotiate.

Every time I see images of Afghanistan, I want to go there and wander about. That is so naive. One can wander about Europe. I am about to embark on a trip that will allow me to wander about New Zealand. I even hope to get to South Africa, Botswana and Egypt. In Botswana, I'll have a friend with local connections and I might get outside the basic tourist zones. Realistically, I don't have the travel savvy or 'lets be buddies' personality to wander my way across a country in which there is not a strong central form of government.

Many of us are armchairs travelers. The reality of traveling in foreign countries can be damn uncomfortable. What struck me about the books above is how each person describes situations that they are in, and many of them would make a body physically uncomfortable, but it's the inherent or implied danger that is getting written about. The physical discomfort is a given. Extreme heat, lack of water, inconsistent food, bad health. Standard fare if you want to travel in these areas.

I am heading out on a nice, extended trip and expect to be uncomfortable at any given time and perhaps for long periods of time. Am I willing to be more uncomfortable than that? Never really thought about that until I read these books. So naive.

My desire to visit a place like Afghanistan has not diminished. What has changed is the rose-colored glasses. I now see it as a place that I don't have the skill-set or mindframe to be even to contemplate a visit. That may change. My mind is open.

1 comment:

Delta Dave said...

Looking forward to your visit - the sooner the better. Keep on keeping on!