This Isn’t a Circus

The day had been long and it wasn’t even over but even God took some time to rest right? Well we’re not on the level of gods but even cohorts hard at work have the right to a good lunch. So in come the bowls, on to the floor we go hands ready. This is how it’s done here, we eat like our families have shown us. “When in Rome do as the Romans do”.

Still not all visitors to a country leave old habits behind so easily. A group of French tourists had been enjoying their own meal when we took part in ours. It wasn’t hard to see just how much of their attention we caught. They chit chattered and stared, and we ate without a heed for their remarks.

Then there was a flash. No I don’t mean this metaphorically or to add thrill to a story. I mean there was a literal flash of light that came from the French table. I remember thinking “Did someone really bring their camera to dinner?”

“Hey! This isn’t a circus here!” I heard in stern French.

Assane, the Petite Cote team leader had noticed the actual photo being taken by a French man in cargo shorts and a far too bright orange shirt. He continued to speak on, rightfully so, that it is far more respectable to ask the permission of young people before rudely taking their photo.

The man was sarcastic and most likely ended up keeping the picture but the little event got me thinking.

How often do we snap people’s pictures without asking on foreign voyages? How many times have people in Senegal like those in my host family been in that position? Their image captured as if they are solely there for display. It even brought me back to an article called “Slumdog Tourism” by Kennedy Odede we actually read for our first training seminar. And just like the writer in this article I felt myself become protective and defensive. That was when I truly felt I understood what the article had meant and was able to draw my own conclusions.

We saw those French tourists again on our hike up the mountain the next day. The women wearing culturally inappropriate shorts, the men gawking with cameras in hand. I looked at them and began to think. I thought of how they could take as many photos as they wanted but they would never actually see the full “picture”. They would never know how to greet people in anything but their own language of French. They would never sit and have a meal as part of the family, and know the context behind why the mother will try to toss your favorite parts into your section. They would never interact with the students and experience the actual lengths they go to get to school on time. They would never know the actual matter or context of any difficulties they think they see. Nor would they ever know of or believe in the great comforts and joys a family can take in the lengthy process behind making traditional tea and drinking it together. They wouldn’t dream to think rich comfortable homes with cable, wifi, and pressurized water showers exist out of their hotels. They will only ever believe that the true comforts of Senegal lie in their hotel rooms suited to their needs and the ticket in their pocket for a flight back to their own home.

I looked at these people and saw what I never wanted to be in my future travels.

Ignorant and disconnected tourists.

My mother in the States always wanted to keep in touch with her friends who moved away to or came from other parts of the world. She’d always be glad and joke with them “Well now I have a place to stay if I ever want to visit!”. And since they are actual friends she was always truly welcomed.

I never really questioned it, I thought that was how everyone did it. Now I see that it isn’t the matter of going to visit somewhere only because you have a known connection there but because if you do then you get to experience your time there the way an actual native resident would. If you go around to a new place and take pictures. You get to take these pictures of things you know and understand, with people you know and connect with. You get to be a part of the picture and take part in the grand act. Because if this is all some big circus then isn’t it more exciting to step into the ring and be a performer with the others? Isn’t it better to live it all out and have those memories?

I don’t know about you but that to me, sounds a lot better than being in the outer ring the whole show and walking away with a still frame printed on a paper that you can’t even explain.

My point in all this dear reader is simply to tell you to not be the ignorant tourist. The next time you travel try to be a part of the world you visit and see how much more you’ll appreciate your time there.