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Photo by shannonkringen

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?

Travel Illusion


About The Author

Richard Stupart

Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.

  • Bholdsworth7

    Can’t you have both? I believe the introspection occurs because most westerners define themselves from external sources – my job, my house, my money, my girlfriend/spouse, my clothes, etc. Traveling can strip away all of that, especially in Africa as you have no context or frame of reference to your surroundings. All that is left is self and it’s natural to recognize the falseness of those external validations. Then, you have to get out of your comfort zone to engage in the local experience to try and tap the spirit and vitality of the culture. Long term travel helps in that search as you get past the typical, site seeing experiences (which are usually very cool) and start to experience the people. 
    I also believe a traveler only touches the surface of those experiences. Yet they still can be very rich as you begin to connect with others and realize we are alike. 

  • KarinMarijke

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for this post. You point out an interesting issue.

    When I started travelling, it was initially a lot about myself. Confrontations with myself about how I wanted / should travel, relate to the countries I was visiting, etc. Starting my journey in Iran and Pakistan (as a woman) wasn’t exactly an easy way of getting a feel for travelling or establishing how I personally felt about the places I was visiting. Being a woman in those countries certainly brought out a number of (inner) conflicts and quite a share of self reflections.

    However, over time, as I grew into being a traveller, that need for self reflection diminished., That, indeed, created space for more (deeper) interaction with where I was, and with who. I find this reflects my stories. The first part of my journey was about me, now it’s more about others and our interaction.

    The self reflection is still there, it is part of who I am. The difference is that I no longer feel the need to share those reflections with others. They are part of me. In my travel I relate to people as I do at home, with curiosity and a drive to learn from them, which in return helps me grow.

    So yes, I guess you could say that I have found that happy marriage in the middle, even though I wasn’t aware of it so much until I read your post. So thank you.

  • jenna

    i hadn’t thought about it like that before, but i do think that there has to be a middle ground somewhere!

  • Miranda Ward

    Enjoyed this piece and the questions it raises. 

    This morning I read an essay by Sonya Chung at The Millions - ”when a writer evokes place,” she writes, “she evokes an entire way of being, seeing, navigating existence” ( a way, all travel or place-based writing is about something quite universal: the experience of interacting with place (living in a place, visiting a place, loving a place, associating a place with some meaning or memory) rather than the experience of interacting with a specific place (Africa, India, your hometown). I wonder about the difference between women allegedly “featuring Africa first, their exploits second” and men featuring their exploits first, Africa second: in a sense the continent itself is irrelevant in both cases, in a sense it’s really just about a difference in “navigating existence”.

  • melissa

    Love the feeling of curiosity and openness that permeates your writing.  Big questions… if we are able to gently ease the swing of the pendulum from place to self, we can find that spot of stillness where we are experiencing ourselves in the place with full awareness. 

    Yogis call it dhyana, the state of consciousness where we essentially become one with the object of meditation.  The rishis say we cannot reach it with effort or force, we can only prepare the body/mind for dhyana to happen on it’s own time.

    Maybe the same goes for finding the middle ground marriage of place and self?

  • Scott Hartman

    I like this. Personally, I never go (OK, maybe on my first trip) to learn anything, because I know I will; it is, for me, a given. About ‘the place’ – certainly, and myself, without question. I “do my homework” about everyplace I’ve been – it deepens the experience for me; but I seldom do “homework” on myself – that comes when I’m there, and more than that, when I get back home… only then do I really see how this experience has worked itself into me. As with anonymous below, I need to (overtly) share less… how the trip was is how I am.

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