Several months ago I found out that I was accepted in a program to teach English for ten months in Indonesia. A colleague of mine had spent two years in the archipelago and was eager to give me his impressions on the country. “Once you find out where you are placed,” he said, “come find me.”
After a few weeks, I received an email which informed me of my placement in a small town in East Java. Doing my due diligence, I paid a visit to my colleague later that day. I quickly surmised that his goal was to sound like Hemingway more than to give me any real advice. “The Javanese are a gentle people, but it is a knife wielding culture,” and, “Indonesia is a beautiful country, but it has a dark past.” Truth be told, I was a bit disappointed by his counsel.
I could say, “the Americans are friendly, but it is a gun wielding culture.” In the interest of absurdity, I could take this argument further and say “the Grand Canyon is beautiful, but slavery.” Simple generalizations may contain some semblance of truth, but you can’t go living in a country for an extended period of time with such naive ideas in your head. I thanked him for the information and headed out of his office.
As a general rule, I’ve found that in order to live and travel anywhere, you must first rid yourself of any and all simplifications. The fewer stereotypes, generalizations, expectations, prejudices, assumptions, and predispositions you carry, the lighter your baggage will be. Disposing of these mental burdens will allow you to maximize your experience. In other words, a clear mind and a willingness to embrace will facilitate your potential for growth and adaptability.
When you travel to far-flung locales, everything changes: the concept of time, the flow of traffic, the value of personal space. The subtle tastes in the food that you can’t define because there’s no word for it in your language. The emphasis on community, and family, and how your prioritize work and relationships. The amount of sugarcane one stacks on a truck before it starts to tip over. The acceptability of slaughtering a goat in public space. The amount of ankle a woman reveals to her peers. The luster of the night sky; the timbre of a woman’s voice. Even the fruits that spring from the earth are, by your own standards, ethereal and alien.
To be thrown into an environment where nothing is familiar and everything is foreign, where all of your comforts and presumptions are put into question; this can surely be an intimidating experience. But you only have one simple choice: to embrace, or to not.
And I don’t mean to merely accept. I mean to embrace. Not only to disconnect from your past lives, put to fully immerse, to dive in, to envelope yourself in the sea of the unknown. If you can’t let go, you will only cling on to the little you know, and your experience will be tainted by a longing for the unattainable.
So here I find myself in a small town in East Java. I know very little. All I know that the only tools at my disposal are the very basics of human interaction as well as a willingness to embrace whatever comes my way.
There are two weapons that the traveler is equipped with: his smile, and his openness. All other tools - the ability to say please in the local language, to navigate cultural idiosyncrasies or to connect with others on a truly deep level - is secondary. But the first tool of the traveler is his kindness and his acceptance that he really doesn’t know as much about the world as he thinks.