Self-conscious Traveller Syndrome

Aleta Fimbres 09/01/2009

New situations can mean new reactions. Travelling provides you with as many new situations as you are prepared to take up. You might find some insight, beauty or joy, but there’s the risk of discomfort too. A quick trip to an Orang Asli village north of KL provided an unexpected opportunity to react differently.

So I’m musing on the affliction that is self-conscious traveller syndrome. Standing with a large bag full of packets of crisps, I looked across at the hut I was being ushered towards.

It was on stilts above the dusty ground and made from wood. It had no windows but sections were wall-less. Inside this dark and thankfully cool shelter a group of kids, mostly clothe-less and quiet, stood in various poses looking up at me.

They gathered around a ladder that went up into a high platform. Sitting at eye level an aged woman sat smoking a home made cigar. She was rocking a bundle of child in a sarong sling that hung from the frame of the leaf-thatched roof. There was surprising silence, only interrupted by my guide’s request for me to give rather than offer the snacks, and the music hut, which blared out western pop to an unseen audience.

It all looked somewhat familiar. I’ve seen the documentaries where they go off into the jungle and meet a group of silent people sitting in huts smoking. Except the intrepid explorer always has something intelligent to say and somehow manages to induce smiles and acknowledgments regardless of the language barrier.

For me there is only paranoia at being yet another colonial hangover, clad in trappings of wealth bestowing gifts to the poor natives. My social skills have no currency here. I am clumsy and apologetic.

Racked with a kind of guilt I seek the antidote of affirmation; I smile lots. I shall show appreciation by using their language, there’s an idea. A quick conflab with my guide provides the disappointing news that even here English has penetrated the vocab. The greeting I’m told to use is the familiar “hello”. Un-quelled my guilt deepens.

We move on to another hut and discover a young man apart from group. He sits looking with eyes that cannot see. His hands each have an extra digit, but they are flaccid like a glove finger with nothing to fill it. He gives me a beaming smile and a big thank you, my discomfort remains.

Okay, so affirmation doesn’t work, something I know very well but occasionally have to relearn just in case. It’s becoming clear that my mind is not equipped with any relief-making tools to aid this particular discomfort. This is a fact that’s hard to accept.

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Another group of placid, cautious children. I’m instructed once more to go into the hut. With what turns out to be a misplaced concern for privacy I loiter outside offering my paltry gifts, complete with smiles and hellos.

Again my guide urges me to boldness, “You have to give it to them, then they’ll take”. I ask questions avidly, what do they eat, how do they live, get educated etc?

Contrary thoughts sit inside opposite each other. I want to sit and talk to one of the villagers and ask them these questions. Why would anyone want to sit around answering my questions, it’s just people living their lives like you do yours.

The main purpose of the visit for my guide and friend would seem to be to collect photographs. Unfortunately I have a skewed view of this obsession with snapping shots of life for future reference. I like to rely on the memory, live the moment. There is truth in this but with total awareness I have to admit it is in part an excuse for avoiding an activity which I find embarrassing.

My self conscious traveller syndrome can be seen in evidence here. So it was I walking away mumbling when requested to stand next to the hut complete with Orang Asli people, the children, the chained up monkey – as if next to famous landmarks.

Another group of westerners wondered into the village, they too capture each scene and turned them into digital memories. The monkey is of particular fascination, as it jumps up to grab the crisps offered to it. The chain tightens and it is pulled back to floor, landing lightly on its feet, it nimbly opens the packet. Everyone laughs as the monkey chomps quickly through the whole lot. I wonder whether my guide would be offended if I picked up the discarded bag. The whole site is covered in litter.

We move on to speak to the young adults of the tribe. Sat around a group of scooters one of them prepares to head out into the jungle, 21st century style. Above the crisp packets and plastic bags hangs his blow-pipe case, it’s adorned with a simple engraving of a busty lady. His arms and chest are also engraved, with plain tattoos.

He lashes his knife to his waist above his pretty regular looking shorts and jumps on the scooter. My guide commentates the whole event. I’m instructed to continue to give out the crisps. To test me further, I’m told to also give the adults the crisps, and like the kids I have to give not offer. Never was food given with such self-doubt.

By now it was apparent that I was alone in reacting with self induced emotional and mental turmoil. My friends and fellow tourists were having a great time. Posing with exotic and fascinating people and places. Laughing at acrobatic pet monkeys. Cooing at cute children.

Taking myself perhaps too seriously, I saw only a disregard for privacy; a wild animal with a chain around its neck; people treated like zoo animals to be gawped at and fed. I also saw a need within me to judge, to see myself as the fully aware and frightfully right-on travelling person – notice I have self-conscious traveller syndrome, not self conscious tourist syndrome.

So perhaps next time I’ll avoid the option to visit the indigenous people’s village. I’ll go and pose with a statue instead. This may not be a long-term solution, but provides some relief. Meanwhile, developing a fuller understanding of how I can really get to know and appreciate other people’s cultures may lead me to change what I do here whilst I live amongst a culture many miles from my own.

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