Inevitably when you travel, no matter how far you go or how different the people, your mind looks for parallels between your life and theirs. It’s not narcissistic, I don’t think, nor does it have to be naive. Sure, it can seem that way sometimes, especially when traveling from the first world to the third, because really, what in my life experience can match up with the experience of this man?
He’s a Kachin refugee cooking breakfast in front of the outhouses at the Saint Paul refugee camp in Myitkyina. I live in an apartment where, like many in New York, the toilet and kitchen occupy very clearly defined and well separated spaces. He’s smoking cheap green tobacco—I’ve smoked some lousy leaf in my day, but I’ve also been able to smoke Cohibas with the Cuban Foreign Minister; Marlboros with the greatest photographers on earth; and purple, purple weed with some of the finest and stoniest Californians ever made.
I could go into more differences. Only one of us speaks the Kachin language, and only one of us wears skirts.
But for some reason I woke up this morning, looked in the mirror, and was feeling like this guy looks. The reason? I’m moving.
I would phrase that, “I’m moving, too.” But this guy’s move was really quite different. He was chased out of the hills with his family in front of the advancing Myanmar army. I am moving nine blocks away to a new apartment in the same neighborhood, in part because my kid is allergic to something in our current place, in part to save money. In simpler terms: it’s a whole hell of a lot less coercive than what the Kachin people have been going through.
Yet, here I am, looking at the five dishes and one pot that are left unboxed and which we’ll be cooking and eating with over the next three days or so, and thinking about the refugee camp. Stupid, right?
Maybe not. Not to get to get too far into Lacanian gaze theory, but suffice to say that some theorists think that looking at something, or someone, actually changes whatever or whomever is being looked at. In the context of what we do, I think it means that tourism changes that which is being touristed (nearly over-run Laos would be a hell of an contemporary example of that). Also, it must mean that reporting changes the lives of the reported. So this guy and I, we made eye contact, shared a couple minutes of silence, said a few words unintelligible to the other, and that was all it took. He’s in my camera, but also in my head, and I’m seeing a couple new angles in life through him and his cigar, and his big boiling pot of outhouse grits he’s so at peace with.
And undoubtedly for him and all the other Kachin at the camp, we must have been a presence not soon forgotten. Large, pale, doughy (or, in the intern’s case, violently ill), attached to cameras, with big relentless smiles.
Their war will be over eventually. They will return to their villages, and then have to figure out how to live the rest of their lives, in an area that, as Thant Myint-U points out, is soon to be crowded with jostling superpowers. Maybe something they saw in their strange visitors will stick with them, can offer them some new belief about their own predicament.
A refugee has bigger things to worry about than what lessons they can fashion out of their encounter with bule? Perhaps. But these dudes also have a TON of time on their hands. No crops any more, just a few bricks to fire and baskets to weave; life in the camp is tedium. So I don’t think it’s narcissism to imagine their thoughts turning to young Zach or myself. The real egotist among travelers is the kind that thinks he just comes and watches people like animals in the zoo, that the people he visits don’t see him every bit as much as they are being seen.
This is the reciprocity of change, whether for good or bad. Travel means being changed, and changing others. That’s why I’m trying not to let my sedentary soul be traumatized by this process of moving, of packing everything in boxes, convincing a five-year-old that the next place will also feel like home. I know the good about going to a new apartment: it requires movement, a little transformation, a bit of acceptance, and that’s all I can wish for in 2012. More roads, more kingdoms, more movida.
Happy New Year. Back at you big first thing in 2012.