I recently had a great conversation recently wherein someone said: “This (traveling around the world, and long term travel in general) is the ultimate selfish act, I left all my stuff behind, all my responsibilities and packed up my necessities and hit the road.” I laughed and said that travel will actually cost you dearly, not necessarily in money, but in ignorance. You won’t be able to ignore anymore what we’re doing to our planet, our fellow human beings, ourselves. By striking out and opening your eyes, you sacrifice the “blinders” that allow us to forget/ignore, the poverty, hunger, and unequal distribution of the world’s resources. I “knew” that when I said it, but now I “feel” it in my bones. I have to do something, I want to do something. But what?
The next morning I woke up with mosquito bites on my arms, and a stirring in my mind. The beginnings of something, but I don’t know what. We headed out to the Periyar Tiger Reserve at 6am (I told you we don’t sleep in on Semester at Sea) and took a misty boat ride around the channels of the reserve looking for animals, but really just enjoying the coolness of the mist coming off the river as the sun rose. I enjoyed the quiet comraderie, the scenery, the myriad of birdlife and despite seeing elephant droppings, we only ever saw Bison and Wild Boar and a bazillion frogs (no, not Brazilian).
I enjoyed getting my Nikon out and just shooting until my heart was content. It was hard for me to take photographs of the Indian people. I don’t like the austere, impersonal act of pointing a camera at someone going about their business, and without their permission taking a piece of their moment in time. I have done it, and will do it again, but I struggle with it. Imagine how you’d feel if a busload of people road through your neighborhood speaking a language you didn’t know and took dozens of photos of you while you were cutting your grass, walking your dog or working on your car…weird.
We hustled out of the reserve to make our next bus but got held up by the cutest monkey troop that would make your heart burst out of your chest. We headed down to Kottyam with a lecture on the tea fields, rubber plantations and different customs in the regions we were crossing. But no matter what, the poverty, lack of water, lack of resources, trash, dirt, and shacks that served as homes were our relentless scenery. By late afternoon I couldn’t contain my tears and cried quietly in my seat staring out the window with my iTunes providing a melancholy soundtrack for my travels. But once finished, I felt cleansed and human. I am not ashamed of shedding tears for souls less fortunate, I am ashamed that I can do nothing for them and somewhat terrified at the reality that the only difference between me and them is the toss of destiny’s coin. My $500 iPod, my $700 camera, my $200 outfit, my full stomach, my backpack full of snacks and two liters of clean water, my moneybelt with two credit cards, a passport and cash, more than 90% of them will ever see in a decade if not two. And the bus rolls on.
We spent the rest of the afternoon into the early evening floating down the backwaters of Kerala. It was beautiful, peaceful even with 19 other people. We rarely spoke, but we would laugh often as the kids along the canal ran alongside waving. We watched life on these gentle waters unfold as people went about their daily routines of cleaning, cooking, bathing, harvesting rice, transporting it downstream, piloting tourists on houseboats. Less poverty, less dust, less heat, less pain in my chest. These people looked happier, healthier, and I relaxed into our surreal float towards the Arabian Sea.