Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What am I doing here

Most of our lives are spent borrowing truths from other people. In school we trust our teachers to tell us what is true, and we trust that the sources they borrow from are accurate. We trust the papers and the news to let us know what’s happening in the world, and we trust books and articles to give us history and science. Most of what we know about the world, we know imperfectly, because we know it only through someone else. I came to South Africa to find out some truths, first-hand. I came to experience a small part of South Africa, to move outside of the familiar, and to find new people, landscapes, and realities. Specifically, I came to do a project on ecotourism, and the perceptions South Africans have of the industry and its implications for their country. Some experts say that South African people, communities, lands and wildlife can all benefit from carefully structured tourism in protected areas. Others say that those experts are dreaming, and that tourism can only benefit the tourist and the agency. I want to know what South Africans believe, because they are the ones who will be affected, and who will make decisions for the future. This is one thing that I will not find in books or articles, so here I am.

Travel tends to be, more than anything, a search for things that have nothing to do with us. People go to far-off places to learn about unfamiliar cultures and strange people, or to get away from whatever is familiar. Tourists go on vacation to escape their repetitive jobs and lives, and to replace them, for a short time, with something new, exciting, even sublime. And some people decide to spend their lives roaming the globe, never willing to settle into the ordinary. Bruce Chatwin was one of these. This British traveler and writer was constantly traveling to new places, meeting new people, doing anything to escape normality. His book “What am I Doing Here” is a kind of autobiography, presented through a collection of fragments, profiles, stories and travelogues that are essentially miniature biographies and portraits of people he knew or met. As Booklist reviewed, “the heart of this volume rests in Chatwin’s profiles of other people – often brief encounters that, amazingly, sketch entire lives and whole personalities in one sweeping stroke.” It is amazing how much you can learn about a person in five short pages, or in a ten minute conversation.

In my first short week in South Africa, it has been the people I’ve met who have shaped my experiences. They are the ones who are showing me what it means to be South African; what it means to be black, white, or coloured; and what it means for me to be here, as a visitor, as an American, and as an instant member of a family. The overly enthusiastic man at the Telkom store; Mechaellar from church who won't walk a block by herself, and who eagerly filled me in on all the gossip; Janeke, who laughed out loud (for an indecent amount of time) at my attempt to read Afrikaans; the taxi driver who was half-deaf, and missed four turns; the man at the East London Museum who shared his life story to four American students; the tiny girl who stared at me all the way to Duncan Village; Mama Yoyo, who took a picture with my hair draped over her head as though it was her own; Janey who went on and on about her favorite Afrikaans soap opera; her mother, who is a part of the teacher strikes and spoke of them with fire and ferocity; and endless others: These people are real, and they are East London, South Africa.


  1. Wow Katherine, I really like this post. The point of the field study is cultural immersion, and I really like your emphasis on the people you're meeting. Sometimes I forget that life is all about people--we study human history and existence, we work to improve human life, we seek to understand and be understood by others. Your research isn't just an academic achievement but a victory of cross cultural communication. In short, it's about the people you're meeting and the actual lives they live. Do you agree? My best friend just left for four months in Ukraine teaching English, so I've been thinking a lot about cultural immersion. Right now it's scaring me a little. Would you say that your field experience is worth it so far?

  2. Thanks Kristen! I definitely think that people shape almost any experience, especially cross cultural ones. Even as a science major, where I so often focus on the natural world, I have to be constantly aware of human impact and interaction. So far my time in South Africa has been really wonderful, and absolutely worth it. It's a very different culture - though definitely made less foreign by the fact that almost everyone speaks some level of English - but it's not hard to talk to and relate with the people I meet, because we're all just people, with the same sorts of worries, passions and dreams. I definitely think it's an experience that should be had.