Reflections on the ‘exotic’

Some years ago, an earlier version of ‘me’ spent almost two years living on an island in the tropics. This was not a resort island, just one where people cultivated subsistence gardens, told entertaining lies to each other, and speculated what other people were really up to. (Nobody ever came to see you just to have chat; more likely, they wanted a cup of your coffee …. or perhaps your shoes.)It was, and probably still is, a very beautiful place. Allow me to demonstrate photographically:

I’ve always really liked this photo, partly because I think the canoe with the flag is a really nice touch, but mostly because I enjoy the the omen like nature of an approaching storm. Often, though, the island produced vistas like this one:

There were also many rivers, where people liked to do things like this:

And also, occasionally, this:

After hard days of playing in rivers, taking photos, or preparing subsistence gardens in a slash and burn way – that is, gardens like this one:

people would return home to houses much like these:

Where, if they were lucky, they had the use of toilet facilities like the one depicted here:

(This last is known in the vernacular as a ‘sea toilet’, for obvious reasons. The next model down, called a pit toilet, is basically a deep hole in the ground with a privacy structure built over the top. You may not believe it, but the pit toilet is not so bad; unless it collapses underneath you as you begin your morning round of ablutions. In such cases, one must jump – as nimbly as one can with pants at half mast – for safety. Such jumping is necessary if one does not want to end up, quite literally, in the feces. Should this happen, however, the up side is that it becomes an equally literal source of enjoyment for the rest of your stay. Which is to say, a humorous story that circulates endlessly among the local population. I might add, this story probably retains its salience after you leave. Indeed, if you are remembered at all, it is likely because of the ‘pit toilet incident’.)

At this temporal distance, it is hard to remember with any accuracy what it was that I thought was actually doing on this island at that time. Approaching it from the edges, I guess I may have had several reasons for hanging out in villages and taking nice pictures of toilets. Probably, I thought it was necessary for producing some sort of career trajectory. I was moderately young at the time, so this kind of ‘deep travel’ might have been an imagined prerequisite for the much sort after ‘career’or ‘vocation’. The fact that I am writing a blog, and not best-selling travel books, gives you some indication of how that worked out for me.

Maybe, I thought I was just trying to experience, and understand, a vastly different way of life from my own. You know, something ‘exotic’ and so mindbogglingly  different, that I would be magically transformed by it. Which is why, in the collection of photos from this period, I have examples like this:

I would like to tell you, that there is something deeply cultural happening here. I would like to say, that these women are reciting esoteric prayers over the food, and swishing fabric over the table to chase off evil spirits. But that would be a lie. All that’s really happening, is that the women are swishing tea towels to chase away flies. This was a special occasion, however, at least insofar as it was a party to celebrate the end of another school year. There was  a prayer, but only of the saying grace variety. So after all, it was cultural, but not in the ways that one expects it to appear in exotic locations. That is to say, not at all like the ways it might appear in the places that we, the travelers, come from. Worse luck.

But surely, there is something really interesting happening in this next photo?:

And there is something interesting happening here. It is not, though, the kind of interesting thing I would like it to be. If it was, I would say that these men are constructing a platform so they can better make offerings to a protective, yet morally ambiguous, sea god. I imagine this god would look something like the ‘smoke monster’ popularized by a particular television series, and that also hung out on a tropical island. But, alas, I can’t.

What these men are actually doing is building a wharf. Travel on and off the island, at least on that part of the coast, was notoriously tricky. This meant, among other things, that it was also hard to get crops to market on the mainland, or supplies from the mainland to the island. When possible, people used local boats like this one:

And it was for use with such boats that the wharf was being built.

But don’t let all the co-operative wharf building action fool you. There were deeper forces at work (but not sinister sea god ones, unfortunately). These included the way it was funded – which was, if memory serves, part of a local level government initiative – but also involved discussions about where the wharf was to be situated. Not everybody was happy that the wharf was going where it was, since apart from convenience, it also conferred some sort of prestige. This is why, when the rough seas that come with the rainy season arrived – and the wharf was found to be a little ‘short’ high watermark wise – many people were not as upset as they should be.

I don’t know about you, but jealousies over government projects do not seem that exotic to me at all. They do, of course, tell us something about the everyday conditions under which people in a place live, and the wider micro-politics of that place.

It is true that I could have selected more traditionally ‘exotic’  and deeply cultural pictures to show you. I could have used them to tell a very different story. I could have presented myself as some sort of Indiana Jones type ‘explorer’. (Truth be told, a bull whip would have been really handy with that whole pit toilet thing.) But quite frankly, I feel like I’ve heard more than enough of those kinds of stories already. You know, how so-and-so explored ‘off the beaten path’, and how that three days in [insert appropriate location] really helped to ‘understand’ the ‘people’ there. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those stories, and will gladly listen to them. In a way, I’ve just told one myself. But I do think it’s important to take such stories with more than just a grain of salt (yes, even mine), since invariably the more mundane things are left out. (I, for instance, neglected to tell you that I read a feces load of novels in that two years.)

So, what was the outcome for Arthur Wingsmith in the end? Was he, as is supposed to happen when one travels, broadened in the mind and transformed in outlook? As for things mind related, I can’t really say for sure. In terms of transformation, I’ll let you be the judge – at least, if you will permit me just one last photo. This is me, after that two years, and posing for what I believe was an academic ‘beauty shot’:

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