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A Traveler’s Guide to Mark Twain

May 3, 2012

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.

-Mark Twain

Faun says:

While backpacking through the English rain I came across this quotation written on a hostel wall. It has prompted a few small thoughts about the nature of travel and how easy it is to forget to engage with new places and people.
I recently had a conversation with a female traveler who I met briefly in Istanbul. We were on our way out of a Turkish bath and this woman was alone, so my friend and I introduced ourselves and chatted a bit. When questioned about what her favourite part of Istanbul was, she said ‘The Blue Mosque- I went during prayer time and got to take pictures, before then I never really knew what went on in mosques’. We asked her what she had thought of the baths, and she responded that she had found it ‘interesting, but she certainly felt less holy’.
I can’t help but think that this woman was carrying her home, her biases, and her comfort zone around with her. To view a centre of religion only as a spectacle for tourists, and to erect walls when new experiences threaten, is to avoid immersion and engagement. It’s building a bubble that allows us to observe all while comfortably breathing familiar air, without feeling anything outside its boundaries.
A second recent experience happened in Oxford. I was walking through the Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, slowly discovering that I disliked the place immensely. It felt like all of the artifacts that had been collected by British colonials and anthropologists (without regard for ownership) had been tossed into dimly lit display cases and stored there. The exhibit was called ‘Masks and Magic’ and they may as well have written ‘look at this weird shit we found’ for all the effort they put into describing objects or the cultures they belonged to respectfully. Usually I love museums, but this one felt like its contents hadn’t been moved or re-evaluated for a hundred years. Reading a review of the museum afterwards, I discovered that the museum has been purposefully left the same as its original design in 1884. As a museum within a museum it makes much more sense, and I regret judging it so quickly.
Even when one knows that the scent of imperialism is purposeful, people’s reactions to the exhibit are interesting to think about. When I was there, towards the very back was a large totem pole from British Columbia. It had been donated by E.B. Tylor, an anthropologist who advocated cultural evolutionism (cultures ‘evolve’ from ‘savagery’ to ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilization,’ etc) though I doubt that he had permission from the society who created and used it. A teenage boy got down in front of the totem pole, made a comical face, and got his parents to take a picture of him pretending to be an ‘Indian’ worshipping. The ethnocentric prejudice that people like E.B. Tylor carried around with them when they traveled are still in full operation today. Huge numbers went all across the globe to try and learn things, and many of them brought back nothing but stolen goods.

The only positive thing to take from experiences like these is the inspiration to try harder, ourselves, to really engage and interact with the world and its people when we travel. Never mistaking our comfort for our safety is essential: otherwise we might as well just sit at home on Google Earth and look at the world through a screen.

Miriam says:

Like Faun, I agree that travel does not necessarily lead to expansion of the mind. As Faun stated, many people bring with them pre-conceptions and biases. I don’t think that there is really any fool proof way to stop people from maintaining unfair prejudices. I do think that there is an intentional way to traveling that makes garnering perspective changing experiences more likely. For me, the way to do this, almost every time, is to travel to places that contain people that you know.
Now for my family, this has been pretty easy. Much of my family lives in Switzerland, and we have friends and relations across Europe. Due to my Dad’s work with indigenous Mexican languages, we were able to visit friends in Mexico. And if I were to travel to Africa, my church is well connected over seas, and if there wasn’t someone I knew directly, a friend of a friend would certainly be available. I recognize that this is certainly not the case for everyone. However, I do urge you to travel in this manner as much as possible.
When I was 11, my family decided to visit some people in Mexico that my dad knew through his work. We all travelled down to the tiny village of Chicontla, in the state of Puebla. My memories of that trip mostly consist of running around the village with the children my age. I learned some Spanish, I ate food that I never had eaten before (pure unadulterated jellied pig fat!); in short, I experienced a culture. If I had gone to visit a resort in Cancun, none of these things would have happened.
I’d like to make it clear that I am not condemning all trips that aren’t people focused. When I visited Peru with a touring choir, there were not very many opportunities available for getting to know Peruvians. I still had a wonderful time seeing the Andes and trying new foods such as cui (guinea pig) and ostrich. And Machu Pichu was of course amazing, although I couldn’t actually climb down among the ruins due to a chest infection.
Apologies, Faun, this is a slightly rambling blog that is really more about me being nostalgic about travel than anything else. All I know is that what I remember the most about the places I’ve travelled is the people I meet, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It hasn’t been about seeing the big sites that everyone must see, it’s been about experiencing a perspective different than my own. For me that is easiest when other people are involved. In Rome, a friend from childhood named Diego showed us a wonderful Jewish bakery. In Basle, Switzerland, we had fun riding the trams with a distant relation named Lotti. And whenever my family does road trips across the US there is always a family friend we simply must stop in and see, which is often my highlight of the trip. Travel, for me, has certainly helped me expand my experiences and perceptions, and I know it will continue for the future. I also know that if I had only visited resorts, and gone to Paris solely to see the Eiffel Tower, and England only to see Big Ben, and so on and so forth, my perceptions would not have been expanded. What are people’s travel experiences? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!!!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. suzanne gross permalink
    May 3, 2012 10:36 pm

    Here is my contribution to this discussion. As a child I often heard about the “iron curtain.” For those of you too young to remember, this was the line delineating western “free” Europe from eastern “communist” Europe. I wasn’t sure what was on the other side of the curtain, but I had this impression it was drab and kind of dead. When I had the opportunity to travel in Czechoslovakia and East Germany as a 10 year old, I found the warmest hospitality I had ever experienced. People shared of their resources and of themselves so freely. So in my case, Mark Twain was right.

    • May 4, 2012 2:05 am

      I find myself wondering if there’s any equivalent to the iron curtain today that we just don’t think about. News travels almost everywhere, but at the same time there are whole areas of the world from which the only news we commonly see consists of a very, very limited picture of a nation, place, or people.

      • suzanne gross permalink
        May 5, 2012 3:48 pm

        I sense that Africa has some of that. It is portrayed as poor, AIDS ridden, malaria ridden, internal strife and violence…. and somehow those images get generalized as representing all of Africa.

        • miriamthewalrus permalink*
          May 7, 2012 2:23 pm

          The same could be said for much of the middle east. Although there is news available if we seek it out, our society portrays everyone in the middle east as fanatical terrorists.

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