While I was traveling in Africa last month, I was more acutely aware of how differently individuals can experience the same physical terrain. I found an Ernest Hemingway quote I thought about retweeting, because it summed up my time well: "I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy." On second thought, it seemed like a ridiculous, reductive thing to say about a diverse, complex continent. Perhaps I'm overthinking it, but I've too often not thought, or simply not known, how privileged my experiences of places have been and run my mouth about it.
I was once showing a friend my photos of time at a monastery in the desert outside Santa Fe. You should go! I raved. You'd love it! I insisted. She got quiet. It was clear she wasn't super into it. I kept pushing, trying to convince her. She slowly started telling me about how she had first walked into America, through the beginning of that same desert, and how it was a journey that almost killed her. I didn't know. She left her home country in Central America where she toiled every day in rice fields and still didn't have enough food for her family. She left a child and parents behind. She made it to Mexico only to be almost trafficked, but was mercifully able to get away. She recalled days of walking in the desert, thirsty and scared. I was showing her pictures of the same terrain that brings back trauma, I thought, aghast. Trigger terrain. I go to the desert to disconnect, to feel small under the sky and to hear from God. This dissonance is difficult to even comprehend -- what offers me safety offers my friend hostility and fear. She will never be safe in that desert. She isn't even yet safe in the city she lives in -- vulnerable to those who would manipulate her or a country that would expel her. I can't take for granted that everyone will experience what I experience. What I've seen and where I've been is only that -- a one-time thing, not available to everyone because of their nationality, the color of their skin, their very identity.
Here's another display of my empathetic cultural sensitivity. I spend a lot of time with the refugee community in Austin. One time I was trying to identify, trying to connect, with a teenaged friend who was a refugee in Kuala Lumpur after leaving Burma. I was going on and on about the food and the city, trying to find some common ground, and she quietly said, "Malaysia was like a hell, and I'm never going back there." Oh, so we aren't going to have a bonding moment over the noodles, then? I thought lamely. She told me that her family of six children lived crammed in an apartment and rarely left for fear of being harassed by the Malaysian police. She mentioned something about having to be afraid of getting attacked in elevators that I neither understood nor cared to. She had never eaten at a Malaysian restaurant or gone to the bird park; she lived those years in fear for her life and her family's lives. I have vacationed there multiple times, the only real difference being my passport and my money.
There is deep injustice in this. I can't explain or defend why I can seek spirituality in the desert, hunt down grilled stingray in Kuala Lumpur or travel just about anywhere in the world with my American passport. And I can no longer assume that my experience of the world is transferrable. I can't invite friends to come along, can't connect with them on similar experiences. Some things will never be available to them. In my younger days, I think this prevented me from accepting who I was or where I came from. I rejected my privilege, acted like I could pretend to not have it. I'm just like you! I wanted to claim so badly. But that was an exercise in the ridiculous as well. I'm still white. Still able to travel anywhere. To me, there's no point acting like surface solidarity has a transformative effect on the world around us.
My friends are happy for me, too. That's the heartbreaking thing. They're excited and inquisitive when I go to Burma even if they can't. Their acceptance and celebration of me -- even though I am more privileged than they are, even though I unfairly have access to things that they might never experience -- is the most humbling grace I have been offered. They have taught me how truly undeserving I am, but that they will love me anyway.
Truly, I never knew of a morning I woke up in Africa that I was not happy. But I fear that puts me in the same naive and imperialist company as Hemingway, Theodore Roosevelt and Cecil the lion's killer. My African trip included a lot of "Oh, isn't that quaint! Charming! Adorable!" and then you realize a one room schoolhouse isn't so Little House on the Prairie and more none of these children will ever go to college. It's the danger of a single story. The danger of movies that romanticized colonialism. I will still go to places my friends cannot go. But this time, instead, I try to start with their experiences instead of leading with mine. More questions, less declarations. I am grateful for what I get to experience, but I cannot defend the system that perpetuates my privilege. I'm anxious about trying to remain separate from it, but even that won't help. I think that anxiety leads to me trying to be understood rather than trying to understand. And that's the opposite of why we travel.