Deirdre Saoirse Moen

Sounds Like Weird

Vacation vs. Real Experience and Answers vs. Questions

28 May 2014

“I’m an expert on Africa because I took a vacation.” @cynthia_ward’s shorter Bryan Thomas Schmidt on Resnick.

— Nisi Shawl (@NisiShawl) May 28, 2014

(My recollection is that Resnick has been to Africa quite a few times and for fairly long stays for a vacation, but the sentiment is still a valid point.)
I travel all over the place.
I do not confuse that with knowing what it’s actually like to be from those places or being of those peoples.
I don’t travel to feel like I know “all about” something. Yet, I can encapsulate the gist of my experience, while recognizing that experience is from a place of (mostly) privilege.
I travel because it makes me question my assumptions in ways that reading does not. I travel because it makes me think. I travel because going around the world has given me a feel for its size and heft that not traveling did not. It’s about as long a flight from Johannesburg to London as it is from London to San Francisco or Bangkok to Johannesburg. And, for the record, I do not recommend doing them as close together as I did last year on my two-week “Jet Lag World Tour.” (San Francisco – Wellington, NZ – Melbourne, AU – Bangkok, TH – Cape Town, ZA – London – home)
I travel because it raises more questions than it answers.
For me, the single biggest boon to writing is having more questions.
Charles A. Tan wrote about the recent submissions call for stories about Africa.
Would I have felt comfortable submitting to any of the anthologies Tan links to? No. However, I have a feeling I’d have been welcome to submit to the problematic one. Save for, you know, being a feminist and all.
I’ve been to three countries in Africa: Egypt (in 2007), Morocco (in 2011), and South Africa (in 2013). This means that, among white Americans, and especially white American women, I’m probably in the top 1/2 of 1% as far as direct experience with Africa. Maybe even higher up than that.
The problem is that between those three trips, I have a grand total of a week spent on the ground. The first two were two-day cruise stops (with one day spent in one city and one day in another), and the third was part of a 14-day around-the-world trip.
I also haven’t mentioned the cruise stop details before. We were shepherded onto buses, and each bus had an armed guard. The buses traveled together with a police escort. Think about how deep an experience you can have in that context. Even so, the cruise line (NCL) stopped going to Morocco after that because of the complaints about it. I thought it was a fantastic experience and would love to go back. No, it is not Geneva, but I went because it wasn’t Geneva.
For a moment that struck me with wonder: we visited the king’s palace in Rabat, Morocco. As we’re getting off the bus, the call to prayer starts. For smaller mosques, the call to prayer is often a recording. As this particular adhan started, the muezzin’s voice cracked. I don’t know why that moment of realizing it was actually live (not Memorex) sent chills down my spine, but it did.
I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m merely a tourist. I studied Middle Egyptian at Stanford Continuing Studies before I went. I actually wanted to arrive in Egypt understanding something more than what a tour guide would tell me. Unfortunately, arguing with an obnoxious vendor at Giza, I ran out of spoons for visiting the solar barque. Sigh.
In South Africa (Cape Town), I went to visit a friend, one I helped get out of Scientology back in the day. But still I was staying at a hotel. Cape Town has some of the highest disparity between income levels of any place in the world. So, when my iPhone was stolen, I was annoyed, but I couldn’t really feel angry about it.
Maybe it’s my time in Scientology, but I’ve come to mistrust people who seem to have answers, especially if they’re overly comfortable with those answers. And it feels like that call is looking for people with answers.
It bothers me that I’ve probably “interacted with” three cultures enough for that particular submissions call.
Know what I mean?

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