When our floating university sailed onto the shores of Mombasa, Kenya, hundreds of people ran to the peer to spread blankets cluttered with wooden animal sculptures. Kenyans waved and cheered, children danced, elderly people hobbled towards the crowds to lie their belongings on the baking concrete as if an offering. A student next to me pointed at a wooden giraffe that he wanted to get for his mother and wondered how cheaply he could score it. I turned and walked the other way. This was not the Kenya I imagined.
I was sailing around the world on a semester at sea: one of six hundred American college students, visiting eleven countries. For a year I poured two shifts a day of beer to raise enough cash for this. I wanted to see the world; wanted to learn my place within it. I wanted to be like Rimbaud and travel in a penniless state to find beauty in the most unlikely places. My peers however came mostly from affluent families and would return from each destination with bags of local style clothes and furniture, sculptures and the kinds of trinkets that I would later see in US stores marked up over one hundred times. There was even a competition on the ship: people set out to spend at least one thousand dollars per destination—in five days! So far in the five countries we had visited, all I had purchased was a Brazilian bikini for my best friend.
I didn’t want to be a tourist in foreign country.
Like Mark Twain, I wanted to experience local culture as a local. I didn’t want my only connection with people of another country to be me bartering over how little I could pay for a T-shirt. This was why I slunk off the ship that day, ignoring the sweaty small hands that grabbed at my shirt, urging me to buy. I didn’t want to be rude, I just didn’t want to be associated with the cabal that had invaded this town.
I wandered away from the center of town, past the ivory half moons that guarded the street, gleefully inhaling the red dirt and the salty air. My cotton shirt stuck to my back as I weaved south past more vendors, restaurants, bars, and so many waving people. I wanted to be invisible. Hoped the locals wouldn’t notice me watching them. Yet, they all stared back, some pointed, others laughed, a group of children even trailed in my footprints. And finally, after what seemed like hours of wandering, I needed water. The vendor, a short man with sinuous arms, stated, Five Shillings please. I reached in my pocket and pulled out the money I had exchanged before leaving Los Angeles and found a fifty.
This is all I have; can you make change? I said, my voice not as even as I would have desired.
The man held the bill to his nose. I couldn’t tell if he was inhaling it or checking to see if it would break with pressure. The children who had been following me reached to touch the bill. Some giggled. Around me I felt the heat of their small bodies. There was no excess skin on their frames, skin merely served to cover bone.
The vendor said something to one of the children, handed him the bill and then the child ran towards the center of town. One child touched my hand. I had to refrain from holding it, finding comfort in this sea of foreignness. Instead, I sipped from the water bottle the vendor offered. The children looked at the bottle longingly.
Did they have enough to eat? To drink? I asked the vendor.
He nodded, muttered something about them having more than enough, then offered me another water or maybe a beer?
I declined and exchanged smiles with the kids; one of them asked which country I came from and immediately after learning I was American, began asking questions about Tupac and the Wu Tang Clan. Soon the boy who had escaped with my fifty shillings returned, accompanied by a small crowd of people carrying sarongs, wooden animal sculptures and baskets. The boy handed the vendor the bills and the vendor carefully counted each bill, touching every one. Then he handed me my stack of bills. When I reached to put the money in my pocket, the new vendors started hawking me—buy this, you need, you want.
I tried to smile graciously and say, No thanks. It had worked in Venezuela, Bahamas, Brazil, even South Africa. It worked at home. But the vendors eyed my pocket as if me having the money made it obvious that I would spend it on a basket I didn’t need or want. Someone mentioned that I would have a good price. I did the math. At the time, one shilling equaled a penny. I had just bought a bottle of water for five cents and in my pocket they knew that I had the equivalent of fifty cents. Here I couldn’t use my plea that I was poor, that I was saving up to eat sushi in Japan—our last stop. Not while sweat dripped off the forehead of a woman carrying a giant sculpture of a giraffe as she begged me to buy her goods for a few cents.
That was the moment that I became a practical activist. At home I marched for human rights, civil rights, equality; I wrote letters to my government; I voted; I wrote social justice literature, studied it in college; and later, became an educator. But I, like most activists, knew my actions were menial: important grains of sand on an everlasting beach. I wasn’t building homes for Habitat For Humanity; I wasn’t working in free clinics or starving myself. I was, and am, living a comfortable life.
My luxury is that in my comfort I can travel. And these have been the best moments of my life. I have wandered through over thirty countries, on all but one continent, with nothing more than what can fit in my backpack. It is how I learn about myself, my place in the world, and all the necessary information I never cared for in high school: math, geography, languages, sociology, archeology, art history. Most of the time, traveling is not very fun. I have been chased by napalm victims in Vietnam, chewed out by Egyptians, debated with by the Dutch, pleaded with for help by Tibetans, begged for money by Indians, glared at by Mexicans, left on beaches by Greeks, yelled at by Italians, fondled, accosted, stolen from and that’s not even the worst of it.
Yet, every time I leave the bubble of California, I set out to be the best houseguest I can possibly be. Often my hosts are not excited to have an American on their soil. It is true that so many of us are like our country, loud, boisterous, proud, obnoxious, the kind of houseguest who would eat with his mouth open and not flush the toilet and kick his shoes up on the coffee table. But I try to abolish that stereotype. In Mexico they say that instead of asking for permission, one should ask for forgiveness. And for the most part, this is what I do whenever I enter a new land. Forgiveness is not merely about apologies and offerings—though those are nice too—but about letting the past go and trying to work together for a future. When I was in South Africa, Desmond Tutu spoke to our university and told us the story of a white American girl who was volunteering in a Shantytown there. She taught English. And one night in front of the whole town a group of young boys raped and murdered her. Her parents, understandably scarred by the terrible event, came to visit the Shantytown and instead of pressing charges, instead of living a life filled with hate and accusation, they chose to forgive the boys and even began working in the town where their daughter came to her horrible end. I suppose it was through this act of forgiveness that the people of the town were able to grow and learn. And it was all because the parents abided by the laws of ambassadorship.
Whenever we leave our homes, we are ambassadors. Whether we are at the market down the street or at a bar in Japan, we should carry ourselves with the dignity and flexibility of leaders. And the best leaders know when to sit back and listen. We have so much to learn from other countries. Like how we can learn forgiveness from South Africa, a country plagued by one of the ugliest human atrocities our generation has seen. But the lessons don’t always have to be huge. I have visited schools built entirely by the students and learned how to be an experiential educator. From the Dutch, I have learned the importance of bringing my own bags with me when I shop. And in every country that doesn’t speak English, I have grown to understand how difficult it must be for immigrants to the United States to communicate. I have been invited into houses of people who our country calls the enemy and listened to stories about family and love. Once a Tibetan girl on the lawn of the Potala Palace, invited me to her home, served yak butter tea, showed pictures of how her country has changed since the Chinese took over, and then thanked me for listening.
Recently though, it has gotten more difficult to merely listen. People are more vocal about cursing my government. And now most of my day I am expected to speak up. I now spend most of my interactions explaining that a lot of Americans are like me and think my government is acting like a ruthless houseguest on the planet. But I realize that getting off my soil and showing the world that there are people who do not agree with the actions of the politicians of my country, explaining that we are protesting, making small changes; that there are amazing Americans doing amazing things for the planet—for us all—makes a difference in the perception of my fellow travelers, my countrymen and women for generations to come. And yes, it is difficult to hear someone bad mouth your people; it’s like when someone says something cruel about your parents—only you can do that. But this is another way to be a good ambassador. An angry Egyptian will think all Americans view all Arabs as terrorists unless someone explains it to him. A French Polynesian will always believe that Americans are out to destroy the environment unless an American shows her respect for the ocean by not throwing her trash into the sea.
It is the small actions that resonate.
Most of all, to be a good ambassadors, one must be flexible. Ultimately, I travel to grow. I will not learn patience if I get upset every time a bus is late; I will not learn compassion if I push away every beggar; I will not learn understanding if I set rules and rigid plans and never allow them to falter. That is why, after being bombarded with Kenyans when I was a college student, trying like mad to be a traveler, I changed. Right there on that street in the center of Mombasa, I saw how much I had compared to another. So I bought a sarong, tied it around my waist, and for a few days, allowed myself to be ok with being a tourist. I stopped being frugal to support, even in a miniscule way, the people of a country who had less than the coins I find under the seat of my car. Sometimes, the best thing a traveler can do is to realize when her tourist dollars are as necessary as her debating skills.