Monday, January 17, 2011

A Better Understanding

In my adolescence and early teens (ages 11-13), I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Europe as well as to South America with my family. During those travels, I started to form the opinion that as a young adult, I would focus on traveling to third world countries, where the culture and environments were vastly different from the American culture that I grew up in. The modern, westernized culture of Europe and other nations in which European/Western culture have come to dominate were of little interest to me, as I viewed them as being too similar to our own culture to “waste” my money and time traveling there. I felt that I could learn much more, take in more culture, understand more about the different people and places of the world if I was to travel to undeveloped areas, wilderness areas, and interact with primitive and/or native peoples who were so different from my fellow Americans.

Throughout high school, these ideas were reinforced by my increased reading of world news and politics, my changing system of values, as well as visits to the Dominican Republic and Mexico. In these Latin American countries, I interacted with locals as well as European and Australian exchange students. I felt that I could understand and get along with the Europeans and Australians so easily, that this reinforced my ideas of their cultures being too similar to be of interest. This in combination with the fact that I was learning to speak Spanish, staying in humble homes of local people, and participating in local culture on a much deeper level, only strengthened my beliefs about cultural learning and the great differences which these less developed nations had with the USA.

I turned 13 during a 2-week vacation to Ecuador with my family. We went river rafting on the head waters of the Amazon for 6 days, then toured around some of the smaller, more historical towns, climbed into the crater of a volcano, and saw some of the nations historical sights. Since that trip, I dreamt of returning to the tropical rain forest for a long time. I now see that river rafting trip as a jumping off point for most of the international travel that I have done in my adult life.

The places that I have chosen to travel as an adult have been Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Costa Rica and Belize, plus additional visits to both the Dominican Republic and Mexico with my family. Tropical rain forest abounds. In most places, people live simply, sometimes with no electricity, no running water, very few possessions. And their world is changing fast. Western, industrialized culture is marketed to them at an ever growing rate. More are moving from a self-sustaining lifestyle into cities, making money, earning debt, buying more manufactured food and goods, working their way into the same mess that Americans are in now.

In the last few months, I have had occasion to travel once again to countries which have embraced western culture for at least several hundred years. Because of the woman I am in love with, I have spent significant time in Germany, and now Australia, and I am learning much about the cultures which I used to think were so similar to my own. The subtle differences between these cultures and that of America, in many ways, are more educational that the drastic differences that I experienced in Asia and Central America. It is easier to see similarities between my own life and the lives of people here, which also makes is easier to compare differences. Because much of our lives are similar, there is a strong basis upon which to build knowledge about qualities that are cultural, vs. qualities that are human. Because so many factors of our lives are similar, many of these can be eliminated from big-picture comparisons, and this allows more room to focus on the small differences, and why they exist. It is very interesting.

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