Rabindranath Tagore, Bangladesh’s Nobel Prize winning poet also known for his theoretical writing and travelogues, wrote in 1922: “It is not always a profound interest in man that carries travelers nowadays to distant lands. More often it is the facility for rapid movement. For lack of time and for the sake of convenience we generalize and crush our human facts into the packages within the steel trunks that hold our travelers’ reports.”
Thanks to the travel enabled by the SOM Foundation fellowship I now see the world in a brand-new light. It is difficult to try and describe how my original intentions were fulfilled during my travel since they were exceedingly fulfilled in more ways than I could have imagined before departure. While I tried to better understand man’s relationship to water in its different forms, I ended up fascinated by mountains. I had originally intended on focusing on the waterfronts of large cities but ended up finding great reward among rural villages. I had originally intended on traveling for four months and ended up doubling that time. Ultimately this trip was a priceless one (and one which I could scarcely afford to take again).
Perhaps the greatest fulfillment arose from the day-to-day getting about in places vastly different from what I know. There is a somewhat dark aspect to the kind of realization this exposure brings: attitudes inclining toward alienation or cynicism. As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in The Poisenwood Bible: “Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization.” After traveling through places which have so much less than our nation of plenty, I have returned with a greater appreciation for our liberties, prosperity, and grocery stores. I have also learned that we have much to learn from other and seemingly less prosperous nations.
I was most impressed by how gracefully people lived without the bubbles of safety and comfort we take for granted. It is safe to say that people in less developed countries such as Southeast Asia (SEA) live more in tune with their surroundings; more in connection with the life giving and life taking forces of nature. Even Bangladesh, the densest populated country in the world, is primarily composed of water, farm, and village.
There is something remarkably different in the way in which people appreciate water in different lands. In most of SEA water is regarded as a variable element of change. In the West we think of our lakes, rivers, and oceans as a sort of constant and pleasing backdrop. Floods and hurricanes periodically interrupt this notion and the real estate plots assumed to be terra firma. In lands that experience yearly monsoons and their attendant floods, people follow quite a different model. While we often think of water as that which is opposite of land, in SEA the two intermingle and mix. Roads become canals for part of the year and then once again roads. Rice fields start as ponds and then end up as dry fields of golden grass. In Vietnam the same word for water is for country, nuoc.
I suppose I have one regret about my trip. Since I traveled most countries during their dry season, I didn’t have a chance to live through a monsoon. I wish I could have seen how different places changed when it rains every day. I wish I could have stayed longer and seen Varanasi flooded. It must be an entirely different city.
What I learned most during my trip was how little I know.