Tuesday, October 6

Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss: Backpackers Vs. Expats

“Tell me more – I want your life!” I said to Kim, an Australian cyclist that travels the world on her mountain bike. She responded, “That’s funny, because I’m trying to find ways to have your life…”

I met this woman during tea break of our Bangla classes. There are many foreigners coming in and out of the centre: here for a few weeks or a few years. Kim only plans to stay in Dhaka until the end of the week, then is biking to eastern Bangladesh, Sylhet, then back west into and throughout India. Like the Brit, Marc, she had all these beautiful things to say about Bangladesh, being here once before for a few weeks. She described biking through the endlessly flat and green scenery; through tiny towns not knowing the name where men on their motorbikes will ride up beside her and offer to buy her some tea in the next town where she is surrounded by villagers all excited by her presence.

She described previous trips, through Southeast Asia into South Asia , flying over to Africa where she said it was too dangerous to bike. I asked her what she considered dangerous – “after all, you are a white woman on a bike.” She responded that her gender doesn’t have a negative effect on her experience, but that people are so surprised by her then feel a need to take care of her. She said, “the best thing here is that 99 out of 100 people smile back at you, so I smile at everyone. I don’t want to be one of those travelers that walks around sunglasses on ignoring the people.”

I told her how refreshing it was to hear her perspective, sharing how I’ve stop smiling my experience here is that it invites negative attention more often than not. And I think here’s the key: I’m living here. A different perspective exists between traveling abroad and living abroad, between backpackers and expats.

My experience as a woman has been more negative than hers because the reality is that it is not easy being a woman in Bangladesh. The root of the positivity and negativity is in the art of moving. My negative experiences occur on the buses and trains – while she is biking around. Sitting still on a bus makes you more vulnerable, while biking summons an image of strength, and you move too fast and often for reality to sink in.

I wish to see the world, and this country, the way I used to, the way she is now: with broad optimistic smiles. When everything is new and exciting, you’re open and no need for the armor myself and other expats wear. The armor worn from the monotony and reality may protect us but weighs us down. It’s easy to find the good where you are offered tea due to your constant newness as you ride by; rather than attempting to become a local, understanding real life and studying topics like violence against women.

But, while clichés like “rolling stone gathers no moss” hold true – as does, “the grass is always greener on the other side.” While I was envious of her ceaselessly stimulating travels and positive outlook, she was jealous of my life of puncturing a culture to fully understand as well as deeply exchange with its people. How could I understand the emotions of trafficked victims if I wasn’t consistently digging deep? As my friend Sayaka said about a slum she works at: “I’ll see other white people coming into the slum with NGOs, taking pictures, playing with kids – then never come back. And locals notice – they remember names and ask for people who visited once months ago, but are now back in their country. They leave an impact but it’s so superficial.”

So there’s the argument – what is more important to you: nonstop traveling with a big pack brightly viewing the beautiful new diversity, but maybe on a more superficial level? Or living in a local apartment drudging through the ups and downs of reality, but grasping a deep and well-rounded understanding?

Both are valuable and important, but maybe the best is to drudge through reality of the latter with the bright, open smile of the former. To add one more cliché: is the glass half empty, or half full?

For the sake of my sanity with 9 more months left in Dhaka, I will look at it in this light: the difference between eating the skin of an apple, or munching on through right down to the very core – what’s more nutritious? I just need to enjoy each bite, even if I find a worm..

1 comment:

  1. Your's is the toughest. One can never truly understand a culture unless one envelopes it. Good or bad you need to experience everything, not just pass through it. :) Mummyoxoxoxox