Friday, 23 October 2015

The Amazing Race 27, Episode 5

Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)

This leg of The Amazing Race 27 in Zimbabwe was decided not by a sprint but by a slow and careful walk by the racers, each of whom had to carry a basket of fruit on their head along the path to the finish line.

Alongside the racers’ pratfalls with their headloads, a parade of local women hired as extras by the TV producers filed gracefully and steadily past with similar loads.

The racers’ difficulty in performing this task, compared with its ease for the local women for whose entire lives it has been the normal way of carrying things, was a reminder that people we think of as “primitive” may have skills that are just as complex and hard-to-learn, although different, from those that are defined as basic, essential, natural, or easy in our culture. This is a fundamental lesson of ethnography, although I haven’t tracked down to whom to attribute it. (If you have suggested citations or sources, please leave them in the comments.)

It’s also a reminder that there’s more than one way to skin a cat — or to carry a load. In some cultures it’s normal to carry things by motor vehicle, in others by bicycle (or cargo tricycle), in others by wheelbarrow or other wheeled handcart, in others in containers or bundles suspended from each end of a carrying pole across the shoulders, in others in a backpack (or, especially for carrying infants, a front pack) with shoulder straps, and in others as a headload. Anyone who has travelled in India has probably seen lines of women in saris and sandals (or barefoot) carrying baskets of dirt, cement, and bricks on their heads at excavation and construction sites.

There are universal “laws” of science, but technology and the design of tools are culturally diverse phenomena. One of the reason to travel in places with different technological cultures is to open your mind to different ways of doing things you thought could only be done in one way, and of solving practical problems that you thought had only one solution.

The racers’ struggle to carry loads on their heads is an example of a more general travel problem: What do you do when the local method of doing some everyday task requires skills you haven’t learned, because you are using to doing it another way and/or with different tools?

In a place where everyone eats with chopsticks, and there are few forks, what do you do if you don’t know how to eat with chopsticks? Do you learn to use chopsticks? Carry your own personal fork? Eat only in those exceptional restaurants or other places where forks are provided (which might be few and far between, overpriced, and serve the least interesting meals)?

What if the only type of toilet you have ever used is a sit-up “throne”, but you find yourself in a place where most toilets are squatters? Or vice versa? Do you only stay in lodgings that have installed “European” or “Western” toilets with seats? Or do you learn to squat?

Some of the techniques and skills of daily life for local people may be obvious. Other tasks may require more work and/or more or different skills than in your homeland, but in non-obvious ways. Behind the scenes, for example, water in a village or even a sizable town in Africa may have had to be carried from a well, stream, or pool a mile or several miles away in plastic jugs hung across the back of a donkey. Cooked food or hot water for washing at a trekking lodge in Nepal may depend on a constant procession of porters carrying cans of kerosene from the nearest jeepable road.

I once met a man who had been raised in the USA, but was deported as a young adult, with no warning, to a country where most of the people are subsistence farmers.

This man had been born abroad, but his mother married a US citizen and moved with him to the US when he was a small child. His step-father adopted him, and he got a green card as a permanent US resident eligible to work in the US. But he never bothered to get US citizenship, or realized that it would ever matter.

He’d grown up in the USA, he thought of himself as American, and he had papers that entitled him to live and work in the USA. Like most native-born US citizens, he’d never thought of going anywhere outside the US. What did he need with US citizenship or a US passport?

Like more than a million people in the USA each year, he was arrested for a minor nonviolent violation of US drug prohibition laws. He was convicted, and did his time, without realizing or being told that as a convict without US citizenship he had become ineligible to remain in the USA.

When he walked out of prison at the end of his sentence, expecting to go free, he had no idea that he would be met at the gates by immigration agents who would immediately put him back in a different pair of handcuffs and take him to a deportation flight to the country of his citizenship. This is what happens to “excludable aliens” in the USA: Go to the Third (or Fourth) World. Go directly to the Third World. Do not pass home. Do not collect any money to tide you over while you establish yourself there.

He was a citizen, for what little that was worth, of the country where he had been born, where he now found himself, and where he would likely have to spend the rest of his life. But truly he was a stranger in a strange land. It wasn’t just that he knew none of the local languages in the place to which he had been deported, had only distant and unfamiliar family ties, and had no local friends. He also lacked the most basic survival skills and job qualifications in a pastoral and subsistence-farming economy. He didn’t know how to plant, or plow, or weed, or harvest crops, or care for livestock, or prepare food, or make anything with local materials and techniques. He was an adult, but he wasn’t even qualified to do the work usually done by children, such as herding goats. Fluency and literacy in English weren’t worth anything to any potential employer in his new village.

Unlike this man, I was just visiting. But what if you suddenly found that you couldn’t come home? What skills would you need to live in a part of the world where they do things with different tools and techniques? How would you learn those skills, and how would you cope without them until you did? How long would that take? Travel provides an opportunity and an impetus to think about these questions and put yourself in other people’s shoes, sandals, or flip-flops.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 23 October 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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