Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Discomfort of Travel

Sindhuri Nandhakumar

Even though it's only our third day at the village, every day here seems to be filled with numerous highlights, vastly different to the mundane routine of: "library --> fall asleep in library--> wake up and try not to fall asleep while in library" that was the norm in our lives just three weeks ago. The biggest highlight of the day for me (and I imagine for a lot of the others on the trip too) was the hike to a lake that is called Lake Mugasera which is six kilometers away. What made it even more special is that we have an amazing view of the lake from our guesthouse, nestled between a couple of Rwanda's many hills, making the anticipation over the past few days even greater.

We walked out of the guesthouse with Narcis (I hope I'm doing justice to his name) who is the security guard at Agahozo Shalom and also our tour guide for the day. We walked to Rubona, the closest village (which is also where we ran to yesterday during Muchaka Muchaka) and then turned onto a dirt path. Our experience on the way to the lake and back was vastly different to what we have experienced on a daily basis in the village thus far. Children living in the huts on the way to the lake would come out and stare at us and wave, and say things like "How are you?" "Good day" and "Howdy," and would shake our hands, and a group of more than ten of them followed us all the way to the lake (which took us a good two hours to get to). Some of them tugged at our belongings, like water bottles and others just followed us silently.vThe discomfort I felt during the walk to the lake has been the most intense that I have felt in a really long time. As a Sri Lankan, brown skinned girl, I had never before been in a situation like this. While I have experienced many occasions where I felt very conscious of my relative skin color, this experience was so different. In Sri Lanka, I was the one who gaped at tourists who stuck out from a mile away; I was the gaper, never the 'gapee.'

While all the dynamics of our interactions with other people has been predetermined to some extent (like a student teacher relationship, or a sibling relationship), the 'obviousness' of that was striking today. We as a group spoke very little Kinyarwanda that would have initiated a meaningful conversation with these kids, and they spoke very little English. We were a spectacle on both sides, and our interaction was conditioned by centuries of history and the present and the future we envision and expect, and to make that interaction more than a "stare and be stared at" experience seemed extremely hard.

While most of us have romantic notions of travel, and want to 'belong' in a a new culture and immerse ourselves in a new experience, the sheer difficulty of that becomes apparent in situations such as these. It becomes obvious how important our physical self is in forming these crucial first impressions, even if that impression is not very representative of us. At Thorns and Roses tonight, this was a recurring theme. At the youth village, we interact with the kids and are beginning to form very meaningful relationships with some of them, and there is a lot of dignity in our relationship. We talk at breakfast if we feel chatty, if not, we respect each other's need for a quieter conversation. That was very absent during the hike, and a tough question that has arisen out of this for me is how do you change that, and how do you learn to not leave a footprint the size of Big Foot when you travel to faraway lands expecting a life changing experience.

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