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To what extent are introspection and engagement compatible when you travel?

IF YOU ARE A WOMAN, and are looking for a mentor for your next African journalistic masterpiece, Michaela Wrong is taking applications. I have massive respect for the author of In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz and Our turn to eat. As far as the work of learning and writing about possibly the most misrepresented continent (some folk still reckon it’s a country) on earth goes, Wrong is one of the best writers in the field.

So when she compares, anecdotally, the attitudes of male and female western journalists in Africa, I can’t help but pause and reflect on it. Wrong makes the case that guys traveling through the Congo and other countries to entertain their literary ambitions tend to put themselves and their experiences first, and the country second. If anything, they have too much confidence in themselves, and it is crippling. In contrast, Wrong argues that:

Africa is full of female reporters who tramp through Darfur’s refugee camps and grit their teeth during Mogadishu firefights. Yet not one of these indomitable females has ever called me for the Quick Guide to Successful African Book Writing. I think I know the reason. It’s the same one that ensured I tried my hand at being an author only after 16 years of journalism. Women probably see an Africa book as featuring Africa first, their own exploits second. They fear they know too little, have nothing original to say. Even in this neo-feminist era, they have a sneaking suspicion they are not worthy.

Now the debate on whether or not guys travel and write like GI-Joe, while tempting, is not really the most interesting point in this reflection. What is, is the tension in traveling between self and place. Between, in Wrong’s view, ‘Africa’ and the exploits of the folk traveling in it.

I’d like to think that traveling is a learning experience – but what exactly is it that we hope to learn in setting foot outside our front doors?

If we intend to gain insights into ourselves and grow as people, can that not verge onto the kind of narcissistic self reflection that prevents you really engaging with your surroundings? God knows I’ve read enough blogs about finding yourself on a Thai or Indian adventure to begin believing that the more travelers engage in that project, the less they seem to pay attention to the world they are actually traveling in.

If we are traveling to pay attention to the fine detail of place, and to learn history, culture and all that is external to ourselves, where does that leave self-reflection and personal learning? After all, for every Thai and Indian spiritual quest, I’ve read just as many perfunctory lists of what to eat and ‘how to do X like a local’ that have had about as much self reflection as a meeting of the KKK.

Thing is – does that oscillation between place and self necessarily need to be so black and white? It’s surely possible to make some happy marriage in the middle, yet I wonder where it lies.

Whether to sit quietly at the end of the day journalling or to go out and see and do and learn more. Whether to strike up a lengthy conversation with your seatmate on that hours-long journey, or to sit in contemplation watching people and lost in thought?

Place and self is not just some abstract intellectual fantasy, it seems to exist in the nuance of a thousand choices of action. How do you decide where your focus lies?