Sunday, October 23, 2005

10/13: it takes a village

Spent most of yesterday by the pool. Everything I normally devote my time to seems so far away. Just being is such a good lesson. Of course it also makes me feel extremely untalented because I don’t have any skills that might be useful here. I can’t swim (well, just enough to not drown in a current-less, shark-less swimming pool), I can’t plan itineraries, I can’t make conversation with strangers. All I can do is eat whatever’s in front of me, which makes me more of a circus freak than a savvy traveler.

Last night at dinner (fish, spring rolls, two kinds of eggplant and the best desserts I’ve ever had—an array of bright green, chewy, ricey things), I confessed my travel-related insecurities to Ryan, who said that not complaining and not being afraid to try new things are genuine accomplishments. As always, I am accomplished in the negative. I’m good at not taking up too much space, not being too annoying or demanding. My therapist would not be surprised. Nevertheless, I took it as a compliment, and the three of us had one of those long, good, getting-to-know-you-even-better conversations.

Today we visited the Sarawak Cultural Village, a “living museum” not far from our hotel. It’s definitely geared toward tourists, with all the longhouses and tallhouses of different indigenous tribes clustered unnaturally together. At the same time, I was annoyed by the American guy at our hotel who said, “Yeah the dances they do there are cool, but if you’ve already seen a real longhouse, it’s like, whatever.”

There’s this anti-tourist snobbery among some “real” travelers that bugs me. Of course people who want their picture taken with the natives and always need to stay at five-star hotels are irritating. But the search for authenticity can be futile, and can manifest as one-upmanship. And for people who are less educated or have less money, touristy things can be a way in. I hate it when people romanticize the underprivileged of other countries while condemning our own—like if you work in a rice paddy you’re cool, but if you’re an American who doesn’t know the difference between an Iban longhouse and a Bidayuh longhouse, you’re not.

Anyway, the dancing was cool (see previous post). And we got to wander through the traditional houses, climb notched logs, taste palm-flour crackers, dance a little to some violin music, befriend a couple of bobtailed cats. B and Ryan played the Malay version of Mancala, a game played with rocks and what looks like a long wooden muffin tin. We listened to the Iban woman stationed at the Chinese farmhouse talk about how much she disliked Chinese people because they are always sour-faced even when they’re on holiday. She had something to say about everything and everyone. Later Ryan read us a passage from his guidebook: “Be sure to see the Sarawak Cultural Village. The comments of the effusive Cecilia at the Chinese farmhouse are worth the price of admission alone.”

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