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     Volume 8 Issue 78 | July 17, 2009 |

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Food for Thought

Travel Tales
Cross-cultural Encounters

Farah Ghuznavi

One of the main purposes of leisure travel, for most people, tends to be some form of sightseeing; and there can be little doubt that enjoying the architectural beauty, culture and/or cuisine of any travel destination are among the most pleasurable aspects of visiting different places. But a largely underrated pastime, and one that I particularly enjoy, is people-watching. Apart from the small “slices of life” that you come across as a result of this, it can also sometimes be an eye-opener in terms of dispelling stereotypes.

Extended family relationships are alive and can be seen in the number of grandparents accompanying their grandchildren on various expeditions.

For example, those of us living in more traditional cultures are often heard to be highly critical of western mores, including the alleged breakdown of the family unit. Notwithstanding higher rates of divorce and the prevalence of nuclear families in many western countries, the picture is more complex than such a sweeping generalisation might suggest. For one thing it is worth considering that the structure of families has changed rather than collapsed, with friends taking on greater importance (and sometimes a status similar to relatives) as well as the incorporation of half-siblings and the remarriages of parents.

Travelling on work in Europe, I increasingly began to notice that mothers are no longer the only ones largely responsible for looking after children. It is clear that fathers are playing a much more active role as parents, and most people would probably agree that that is a good thing. I was amused to see, on one occasion, two young fathers out for a mid-morning walk during the weekend, accompanied by their two little girls aged about four. Each of the kids was carrying a doll almost bigger than themselves under one arm, while pushing the dolls' prams with the other. When one of the prams veered off-course from the haphazard handling, something which inevitably happened every now and then, one of the fathers would casually intervene to set it back on course, clearly seeing nothing incongruous in doing so!

Proof that extended family relationships are alive and well can also be seen in the number of grandparents accompanying their grandchildren on various expeditions. Thus I saw one elderly man struggling to keep up with an excited five-year-old girl whom he had (recklessly) taken for a walk on the beach. In addition to making her grandfather hold the string while they were crab-fishing (presumably in order to keep a safe distance from the dangerous beasts), she spent most of her time skipping a few yards ahead, while he struggled to keep up with her, weighed down as he was with her crab bucket, spade, fishing rod and other beach paraphernalia. Despite that, he had a broad smile on his face as he watched the little one cavorting.

Watching ‘Slices of Life’ on the street.

Nor are grandmothers exempt from such duties. At the women's toilet in the cinema, I came across an elderly lady who was accompanying her two granddaughters to see “Alvin and the Chipmunks”. The younger child (aged about three) was in the toilet, while her grandmother stood outside next to the door, which was slightly ajar, keeping an eye on her. As the little girl instructed the old lady to “look at my knickers, grandma, they have little flowers on them I like the purple ones best! Don't you like them?”, our eyes met in shared amusement.

And speaking of family outings and events, I also had fun attending the christening of a friend's baby, Andrea, in a Pentecostal Church during my trip. How could it not be fun? I was the ultimate tourist in that venue! Among other things, I was the only Muslim and the only brown person in the midst of a group of self-confessed “happy clappers”; inevitably, I felt a bit like a poster child for "the other". Anyway, people were polite enough not to stare, but I could sense some level of curiosity.

At one point, I noticed one little girl of about five, who didn't speak English, but was staring at me with a degree of fascination that led one of my friends to ask her if she had never seen a brown woman before. No, she said, giving up any pretence that she was anything other than quite fascinated (I think that my teep and natural dye shirt helped to boost the exotica factor). After a moment's contemplation, she added, "I have seen elephants, though..."! My friend continued "There are elephants in the country where she comes from." "I thought so," said my young friend, with a touch of satisfaction. Obviously I had successfully lived up to her expectations regarding my exotic origins!

The exotica factor can of course go both ways, as a friend of mine from Norway discovered a few years ago. Tove was travelling around India, and encountered the usual “Sister, sister, where are you from?” question from a group of young men in Agra. Obligingly, she replied “Norway”. Her audience were thunderstruck, and there was a moment of silence before one of them robustly enquired how on earth she could be from "nowhere"! To add the finishing touch, once she had clarified the issue by spelling out the name of her country, the boys felt compelled to respond in kind, informing her that they themselves were in fact from I-N-D-I-A; a funny coincidence given that that was the very country she was visiting…

Unlike some people, including one of my best friends, Katy, I tend to look on holidays as a time to relax and take it easy. I have yet to recover from a trip with her when we spent three whirlwind days in Berlin ticking off a seemingly unending list of activities, just so that we could say that we had “been there and done that”. On subsequent occasions, we learned to show due respect to each other's very different styles of travel-- which basically consisted of our arrival somewhere, swiftly followed by my sending Katy on her way with the aforementioned list, while I proceeded at a more leisurely pace, taking in fewer monuments and more cafés (at which she would meet me, exhausted and happy, in due course). Personally, I attribute the longevity of our relationship to such strategic decision-making.

I have since then continued my “take it easy” policy, particularly when I'm taking a few days off as part of a work assignment that involves travel. Staying still can yield its own benefits, not least some “postcard moments” of people-watching. Like the time I was sitting on the pier enjoying the sunny weather and sea view while having a coffee with some friends, when a huge red fire engine pulled up hereby.

We were all looking around trying to see which building was on fire, while these four rather well-built men strode out, in matching black uniforms and surprisingly flashy sunglasses, looking like something out of the movie "Men in Black". Without missing a beat, they walked into the bakery, while we all speculated about whether one of the ovens had malfunctioned. The mystery was solved when they came out with swirly white ice cream cones, which they then proceeded to sit down and enjoy - while their fire truck rested in a less than well-parked position, lounging in its spot with the comfortable arrogance that only a fire engine can pull off…!


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