As a school boy growing up in Uganda, I recall being enthralled by Mr. Whitelaw, my history teacher from England, who came into class one day dressed as a nineteenth century explorer. He proceeded to recount tales of David Livingstone and other cartographers, like Richard Burton, who traversed Africa in their passion to map the continent. I was captivated by the stories of these pioneer adventure seekers. I idolized Burton—an amazing polyglot that spoke twenty-five languages.
Since then travel became an unstoppable compulsion. At age fourteen, using my monthly allowance, I hitchhiked with a close friend to Kenya, spending a few nights in Nairobi and then almost two weeks in Mombasa, which was the first time we ever saw the sea. During school holidays, with my family of eleven, I explored the national game parks of East Africa—Serengeti, Tsavo, Amboceli, Manayara, Murchison—and later during high school summers, I took off with friends on mountain climbing excursions to Elgon, Meru, and Ruwenzoris, led by another real life travel mentor, our geography teacher Mr. Treadaway. But it was really only after climbing to the glacial summit of Kilimanjaro where I quenched my thirst with snow (mixed with Tang orange juice powder) that I became a true travel junkie.
As the years went by and I visited more and more of the iconic places of our planet, I came to realize that my cultural baggage often holds me back from fully appreciating the myriad societies that thrive here. That baggage along with witnessing many first-hand examples of culture clash—sparked by humans obsessed with cajoling others into thinking the way they do—is what has led me to write the travel stories in this collection. These stories are intended to occasionally shock but, more often, to expose the humor and folly of the cross-cultural conflicts and challenges we experience every day, as well as the kindness and generosity of strangers, and the trauma of exile.
Exile made travel an inescapable part of my adult life.
During Idi Amin’s brutal reign of terror in which three-hundred thousand black Ugandans were killed in tribal warfare, I was kicked out of my country along with eighty thousand other Asians for being brown skinned. My people became economic scapegoats caught up in the cross fire of the political posturing of post-independence Africa. Overnight, my Asian-Ugandan culture dissipated into thin air.
As a political refugee, I came to live and work in Europe, the U.S., Central and South America, and Asia in search of a new culture to belong to. On this journey, I met many other wandering cultureless souls who made me laugh and cry at the absurdity of the world we live in. Many of them helped me come to the realization that I would never be satisfied with substituting my lost culture with another one. I was destined to become a
global citizen learning how to weave in and out of cultures without actually assimilating into any one of them, and yet feeling very much at home in all of them.
To come to terms with my “cultural dilemma” I have consistently used travel as my solution, sometimes as an escape, but more often as a tool to find new ways to create my own culture by integrating values from multiple cultures and making them my own. Travel has been my savoir in numerous life and death occasions. It has uplifted me when my spirits were down in the gutter. And, when I am down and out on self-confidence, it picks me right back up again. Travel continues to be my living laboratory, providing me with deeper insight into the cultures of our world. Watching shows on Discovery or National Geographic channels just doesn’t cut it for me.
When Marco Polo first traveled to China in the thirteenth century, I wonder which of his values he had to rearrange in his head. How, why, and when did his personal cultural baggage shift, so he could survive living in the emperor’s court for so many years? Reading journals of his experiences, one of the first written records of travel, I marvel at his flexibility to adapt to circumstances in an utterly foreign land. There were no precedents to rely on for that lonely, sometimes terrifying path that he ventured on some seven centuries ago. No Lonely Planets. No GPSs. No Culture Shock for Dummies. Instead, he mastered the Chinese language and customs in order to survive.
Yet travel also generates its own dire consequences. Slavery, colonialism, and the ongoing need of humans to conquer lands and peoples are some of the many tragic outcomes of travel. It has resulted in the decimation of native Indians in North and South America, the aborigines in Australia, the Bedouins of the Middle East, and various tribes in Africa. In the twenty-first century, the onslaught of human trafficking, human organ theft, ethnic wars, and genocide continue undeterred.
Is travel really a blessing or just a Pandora’s Box in disguise?
Have all the numerous advances in the world of travel over the centuries brought about any changes that would make this world a better place for each of us?
Are we any closer to thinking of ourselves as citizens of the world first, and only second as humans from a specific culture practicing its ancestral rituals that both liberate and hinder us?
Will we ever develop a new Esperanto—a common world language that will promote greater understanding of each other?
Does the culture you grow up with ever really die in you?
Can the hungry of our globe eat culture?
When will we develop curricula in our schools that compel our children to spend semesters abroad to see how others cope with living rather than settling for reality TV and Survivor shows?
At what point will global events like the World Cup, the Olympics, the UN General Assembly, and Kumbh Mela—that fourteen-million-strong gathering of humans in India that pray for world harmony and peace—truly become stepping stones for greater mutual understanding among all peoples?
Will the Blogosphere or Twitter and U-Tube get us there any faster?
With the rise of mega cities, the monopolies of corporatocracy, the runaway train of climate change, and a global population of seven billion are we not compelled to come up with an axiom to replace “survival of the fittest?”
What would it look like? Who will take the lead? Do we dare to follow?
Our search for answers continues . . . induced by more and more travel.