Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Global Circus

While travelling through Vietnam with Mrs Donkey over the last two weeks, I found myself reflecting on my personal growth over the past decade, and particularly how my understanding about people and the world has expanded, been challenged, altered and re-developed during that period. It was in Vietnam, ten years ago, that a young, naive, fresh-faced Donkey took his first fearful steps beyond his own cushy borders, into the so-called third world, and where he was first exposed to the attitudes, beliefs, practices and (non-) activities of the backpacker community ... t'was my first exposure to life on The Trail.

I can recall sitting on a boat in Halong Bay, all those years ago, surrounded by crew-cutted, tattooed, muscular British "lads", chain-smoking, guzzling beer and joking loudly about life on The Trail; diving in Phuket, trekking in Karakoram, beach parties in Goa, ganja in Thamel, ping-pong balls in Pat Pong, venereal disease since Bali ... being only two days into my own adventure, I remember feeling uncharacteristically timid beneath their monolithic self-confidence and bravado, and I wondered if I would ever be able to assimilate into multiple cultures and environments the way I imagined these seemingly older, self-sufficient, modern-day adventurers, and their gorgeous, bronzed, semi- (and occasionally) naked, nubile female counterparts had been able to.

Before long, like so many inexperienced travellers before me, I signed-on as an apprentice; I sat at the feet of my betters, and I began my learning by lapping-up all the bawdy tales of life on The Trail. As befitted my role, for hours I listened, bewitched, as I learned of daring escapes from corrupt customs officials, of ways to ensure you don't get ripped-off by vendors and rickshaw drivers, of where to go to buy the cheapest chapattis, of how to smuggle beer into Pakistan, and through all of the lessons, I respected and worshiped my new teachers as one reveres a wise and noble sage.

Before long, I too found myself wearing the voluminous, earth-coloured hemp trousers and brightly striped, cheese cloth shirts of my betters. Before long, I too had neglected my bodily hygiene, and been content with sleeping on mattresses containing a menagerie of microscopic fauna. Mirroring my fellow disciples, I allowed my stinking body to waste away to skeletal proportions, and before long, I too had succeeded in shedding my materialistic ways, and had altered my life so as to live my life exactly as poor people do in villages, all over the world

For example, each day I would sleep late, and rise in the late morning with an almighty, beer-fuelled headache. Wiping the crust from my eyes with my sleeve, I would dress in my unwashed "uniform", and sit down to a large plate of banana pancakes and a papaya milkshake. As I sat, I would look through the Lonely Planet and decide what I was going to see and do that day, and then I would dig into my pocket to discover that if I did any of the things on my list, I would not have enough money left with which to get drunk and stoned that evening, and so instead I would open my travel journal and spend the rest of the day reflecting on the evils of the materialistic west.

Occasionally, were I lucky enough to save a couple of pesos, ringgits, rupees or yuan during an argument with a rickshaw driver on a given day, I would endeavour to head to the market to purchase a souvenir or two in the form of some of the typical objects that the local communities buy and sell every day. I would head out into the sweltering heat, and wander past an endless progression of stalls selling bright pink, orange and red bags, coloured, cotton lampshades spotted with reflective mirror circles, colourful juggling balls and firesticks and rows upon rows of garishly striped shirts and tie-up fisherman's pants. With these exotic, everyday objects and clothes, I would imagine myself in the future, having returned to my friends and family back home, describing to them how poor people decorate their homes, how they amuse themselves around the fire in the evenings, and about the clothes they wear while fishing. I imagined that my collection of exotic accoutrement would help to educate them about life in the third world, just as I had been lucky enough to receive this unique education.

Because, by the end of three months on The Trail, I had moved up the ranks from wide-eyed, adoring apprentice, to experienced, wizened teacher, willing to bestow upon others the terror, anguish and triumphs of my travels. Sure, I would occasionally need to relate an anecdote I'd heard from others, substituting the original protagonist for myself, but when assuming the role of the adored sage, it is important to be able to fulfil people's learning requirements, and besides, I was sure these things would happen to me eventually, as many adventures still lay before me. Because by that time, I had decided upon a life on The Trail. I would forever be a traveller, a nomad; no longer a prisoner to the materialistic, meaningless society from which I had come, but a fully-fledged member of a new, more aware population, one not determined by geographical borders or by race ... I had chosen to belong, forever more, to the Global Community ... at least, I was going to ... just as soon as I could scrape together some more cash.

And for that I needed to go back home to the capitalist heartland. Through my newly heightened awareness, I struggled miserably to work each day through bumper-to-bumper traffic in my ridiculously huge, fuel guzzler, and I suffered through day after day of meaningless boredom in order to line my pockets with enough money to allow me to once again experience the consciousness expansion of The Trail.

In the end, getting back on The Trail took me a good few years, side-tracked as I was by the arrival of the Xbox, the Holden HSV Commodore, numerous football seasons, nights at the pub, beachside holidays etc. But through this time, I was careful to cultivate the worldly understanding that I had acquired on The Trail, and to remain pure to the ideals of living simply, and denouncing materialism in favour of the simple, village life. I also continued to place upon a pedestal those great and intelligent individuals on The Trail (amongst which I now included myself), who knew all there was to know about getting from A to B, about crossing illegal borders, about catching planes, boats, cars, busses, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles etc, and most importantly, about how to live just like the communities in third world countries. I admired these people (and therefore myself) for all of these things, and especially for their ability to blend-in - almost disappear - in the counties they visited. I was itching to get back on The Trail.

But things don't always turn out as you'd expect. Rather than donning the hemp and allowing my hair to get all greasy and matted, I was given an opportunity to go to a very different part of the world to work. Here I was surprised to find available in one, dusty corner of the market in that very distant, and culturally different country, the same brightly coloured shirts and oversized pants that I'd worn on The Trail. I also found, beneath the dust, sparkly, mirrored lampshades, juggling balls and garish bags. I was a bit perplexed to find these objects in my new home, however I knew that travel was all about discovery and solving mysteries, so I purchased a pair of incense-reeking, ochre-coloured hemp pants, and accepted my first dinner invitation to a colleague's home.

Here I was surprised to find kerosene lanterns, and nary a spangled lampshade in sight. My host's family, all dressed-up in pressed trousers and shirts, sat around watching TV, and appeared somewhat annoyed when I produced juggling balls from a fold in my ridiculous trousers and began hopping on one leg.

Lying in my bed later and reflecting upon that excruciating evening, I found it difficult to marry what I had seen and experienced in my colleague's home with what I thought I knew about how people lived in the third world. Years later, I found myself living in another, what I then knew to be called "developing" country, and sure enough, in the market, I found stalls selling the now familiar pants, balls, lampshades and bags, and yet I never once saw anyone from that community wearing such clothes, or decorating their homes with these objects.

Years after that, I found myself back in the country where my eyes had first been opened to the ways of the world, all those years before, and the penny finally dropped. Here I discovered that the local community, far from wearing the baggy pants and striped shirts that I had worn, actually despise these clothes, and the people who wear them. I came to understand that banana pancakes and papaya milkshakes are served-up for breakfast in only one street in the entire city - that street of course being where all the backpackers stay. And most interestingly of all, I discovered that fishermen wear shorts or sarongs while working, and pressed, pleated trousers at home, and that anyone who wears bright coloured clothes and juggles balls on one leg is thought of as having escaped from the circus.

Donkey never pretended to assume that he was all that bright, and it has taken him a long time to come to realise that the Global Community, those young (and occasionally, not-so-young) men and women who you'll find on The Trail, far from adopting the practices and behaviours of the communities in the countries in which they find themselves, are viewed by their reluctant hosts as alien freaks, more a product of a circus sideshow than a participating member of their community. It has taken me a long time to realise that these ridiculously dressed, stinking, filthy, pompous, obnoxious, privileged and self-obsessed animals, while they form a community of sorts, should more accurately be described as belonging to the travelling, Global Circus.

Over the next few weeks, I intend to celebrate my return to DonkeyBlog by introducing you to some of the characters I have met on The Trail, and exposing these for the circus sideshow freaks that they are. The carnies have arrived at DonkeyBlog, and the big top is being arrested. Welcome to the Global Circus.

Yep, because people always walk around the village looking like this. Pic: http://www.rawganique.com