Ismail: “Look at all the people in Chefchaouen; they’re all happy, no cars, no problems…”
Me: “Ismail, we were only in the city for two hours. It’s a little too early to judge them. Let’s wait until we get back home and talk to people who’ve never been to Morocco. Then we can be experts and then we can judge them.”
Being a tourist gives a person automatic certification as an ethnographer. By spending extended time in one country in North Africa, anyone can become a Middle East expert.
After all, how many people have ever even heard of Chefchaouen? I could say it’s a desert village with skyscrapers towering over ancient clay houses and the royal mounted guard still carry scimitars and police patrol on camelback, like Canadian mounties police on horseback. I could say it’s in Egypt and many people would still believe me. I may be an ignorant tourist who knows almost nothing about the city, but people back home know even less than I do.
A month ago, a co-worker asked me if I’d ever been to Italy. After replying yes, he asked me if the people there were sex-crazed. Right as I was about to say, “I was really only in Italy for a few days and I didn’t have too many sexy conversations with the locals nor did I see too many people having sex while I was in the buses/restaurants/museums/middle of the street,” I began to say, “Well actually….” With a feeling of proud indignation that I saw a little glimpse of sex in the culture while in Italy combined with everything I knew about sex in Italy from “La Dolce Vita” and part of a PBS documentary, I found myself ready to give a commentary about Italian culture. I now find myself chronicling a country I visited for two weeks on a blog at 3 am. It’s just that easy.
But more importantly, by spending a few days in one city in another country–despite not speaking the language, despite panicking when trying to figure out how to poop in their toilets, having never driven between three cars on a two-lane street since no one uses the painted dotted lines on the street, despite not having any urge to break out into song and riot when the national team wins a World Cup match, despite not even knowing the rules of soccer/cricket/rugby because what percentage of Americans watch soccer/cricket/rugby (yes, there’s also a World Cup of cricket and rugby), despite having never worked a day in a local market/local firm/local school where no one speaks English–a person can come back mentally with dual citizenship.
It’s like that person who goes to London for a week and comes back pronouncing basil as “baaahzil” and going out of his way to squeeze words like “flat” and “mobile” into every sentence possible, glancing around at everyone in the room, practically giggling, hoping that at least one person will comment on his new usage of the word, to which he’ll respond, “Oh, sorry, it just kinda slips out. I’ve gotten so used to saying it since I went to LONDON!”
It seems naive to go to another country and expect to completely blend in with the locals. I don’t think it would be called travel if you did. The flight over might be travel, but other than that it would just be visiting your second home. Isn’t the confusion, the loss of full control, the humility in being the foreigner a part of travel?
Travel can broaden our horizons and teach us things we can implement in our lives when we get back to where ever home is or when we takeoff to where ever the next journey is. But it can also have the exact opposite effect, where it narrows our image of other people into the limited glimpse we took in while abroad. Instead of enlightening us, it can delude us into thinking we know something that we indeed are clueless about.
I fear that arrogance is proudly presenting one’s ignorance as knowledge.