Thursday, September 26, 2002

I like traveling. I like it a lot. "How much, exactly, do I like it?" I ask myself. Liking something, I thus discover, is more than a simple matter of quantity or volume; I can't check the mercury on my like-o-meter, or call my like broker for some insider tips. It's not so easy to compare the latest likability statistics with the ones from last year's annual report.

Do I like reading books more or less than I like symmetry? Do I like the Eiffel Tower more than the color blue? My shoes more than butter? Which do you like more? I guess if I had to choose, I would pick symmetry, blue, and butter, but not because I like them so much, just because I think I'd notice their absence more acutely. It wouldn't make sense to choose books over symmetry, because I don't think we could even read without symmetry; the pages wouldn't open properly because the book bindings wouldn't be straight, our eyes wouldn't be positioned evenly, and the eyeballs themselves wouldn't be round -- at best, we'd have to wear amoeba-shaped glasses to correct our vision. And the alphabet would be so complicated, because there'd have to be irregular replacements for all the symmetrical letters (ABCDEHIKMOTUVWXcilotvwx). Oh and by the way -- the Eiffel Tower would lean, and your shoes wouldn't fit.

So perhaps we can conclude that it's more appropriate to think about how we like something rather than how much we like it. For example, I mentioned that I like traveling, but I certainly don't like it in the same way that I like, say, coffee. Sometimes I go for months without traveling -- not so with coffee! And although I like my coffee with milk, I certainly don't recommend traveling with milk (though I have to admit, I did carry a half-liter for some time while hitching through south Spain -- we needed it to put on our muesli).

The way I like traveling is also different from the way I like taking a vacation, although it might be difficult to distinguish based on external appearances. A vacation, as reflected in its name, means leaving a place -- taking a break, from work, school, or what one might consider one's life. Traveling, on the other hand, is characterized by going to somewhere -- not in order to leave life behind, but rather to explore it. A vacation is almost like a temporary escape from oneself -- it is successful to the extent that one is able to forget the reality of day to day life. In contrast, traveling is confronting the self constantly, often in radically disparate environments, and observing the patterns that emerge. There's no obvious external expression of this; it's something one does by oneself for oneself.

Although I'm calling it traveling, its essence is not moving from place to place or seeing new things. It's more about paying attention to oneself -- as if one were a psychologist, noting the patterns and connecting them to possible sources. Just like a psychologist, one tries to nod one's head and say mm-hmm even during times of trouble and strife, taking it as an opportunity to see more clearly the root of the difficulty.

Even though actual traveling isn't necessary for this work, I find that it makes the patterns easier to distinguish. It provides a changing background from which to pick out the constants. It's difficult to make out the leaves of a single tree in a forest until one takes a few steps -- when one changes one's perspective, the background changes; and if one pays attention, the pattern of the tree becomes clear.

For example, I've noticed that I'm a pretty nice person most of the time. I share, I smile, and I listen. But if there's something wrong with me -- if I'm tired, upset, or depressed -- I'm really not very nice at all. Not only don't I do nice things for others, but I sit there and notice all the terrible things about everybody else. So now I know, if all I'm seeing is how awful the world is, perhaps I should ask myself what's really wrong -- it's probably not the fact that that girl is wearing an ugly plaid jacket.

Traveling provides ample opportunities to observe the full range of one's feelings and reactions. It can put one in situations that are difficult, uncomfortable, and scary, which perhaps is why many people aren't so fond of it for prolonged periods of time. The idea is that learning to accept these situations -- and one's reactions to them -- is preferable to learning to avoid them. Avoiding them altogether is impossible anyway, and even the attempt imposes severe restrictions on one's life. If you can't stand the heat, they say, get out of the kitchen. In this case, the heat is fear and the kitchen is all of life. Mechanically avoiding fearful situations creates a pattern of running away, making one into a pinball, subject entirely to the unpredictable nature of the external world.

Accepting fear -- being able to respond to fearful situations consciously rather than mechanically -- is perhaps the most important skill one can learn in this life.

So yes, I like traveling. But that doesn't mean I like everything about traveling. Two of the things I like least, for example, are being poor and being rich, both for the same reason.

When I'm in America, I'm poor compared to most of my friends. I don't mind living simply -- I prefer it -- but it disconnects me from the activities we used to have in common. Eating in restaurants, going to movies, and going out drinking are social activities I used to take for granted. Now I consider them frivolous luxuries, doorways into the vicious cycle of living to work rather than working to live.

And now in Africa, I'm rich compared to nearly everyone, which creates its own kind of barriers. It's not just that everyone assumes I'm rich because of my skin color, but I actually am rich, even with my meager travel budget. The irony is that, in this world where so many people dream of being rich who will never experience it, I prefer being poor. And I'll tell you why.

When Juliette and I first arrived in Kafountine, I had a lot of idealistic notions about the small community we were becoming visiting members of. Over the course of the following month, these ideas were gently shaped into a more balanced, pragmatic, and realistic view.

After the first few days at the friendly Baye Fall house, I wanted to show my gratitude for their hospitality. Very quickly it became apparent that the easiest way to do this was with money. There seemed to be a small amount of money on hand, but the brothers had no visible income. So of course I was happy to hand out a thousand CFA note here and there -- it cost less than three dollars a day to feed five people, and the expenses beyond food were basic; candles, soap, and occasionally some medicine.

Soon, however, problems began to arise. At first it was primarily psychological -- I didn't like being in the position of Mr. Moneybags, the rich white patriarch you bow down to in hopes that he'll toss you a coin. All I wanted was to live how they lived. But it was too late. I'd created my role by opening my wallet and once even saying "Keep the change."

At the same time that Juliette and I were paying for the food, the brothers Baye were supplying themselves with grass. I wasn't about to make a judgment against smoking, but it felt strange to be subsidizing its purchase. Stranger still, they seemed to have no money for things like repairing the two broken lanterns, but always a little for grass.

But, I argued with myself, the numbers are so small -- we were spending no more than we normally do, but rather than feeding just ourselves we supported three other people. So many people have helped me, I thought, and now it's so easy for me to help others. And on top of it all, I liked them quite a lot. So I left things as they were, continuing my little internal struggle: when to say no, and why?

One day, while Juliette was away exploring the Casamance, a truckload of Baye Falls arrived from the north; three Senegalese men and a French woman, all in the full Baye Fall regalia of patchwork and leather amulets.

The woman was away during the days, trying to straighten out a property purchasing debacle, so I further deepened my moneybags role by continuing to finance the food for the eight of us. Little did I know that she was doing the same, and so it was a surprise when not only great quantities of grass showed up at the house, but also a large bottle of whiskey.

This was too much for me. Drinking and smoking is an individual choice, but spending other people's money to do it violated my sensibilities. Unfortunately I had assumed the French woman approved of her compatriots' behavior until it was too late, so all I could do was close the wallet until the abundance of money ran out.

This situation exemplifies one of my favorite characteristics of traveling in third world countries: you get great lessons at a very reasonable price. Here, I'd been able to observe a lot of my own issues as they came up -- not only simple naivete, but also fear of confrontation, desire to be liked, semiconscious moral judgments, discomfort with feeling responsible towards others, and aversion to living with people with whom I have an unresolved issue. In addition to all that, it made it clear to me that throwing money at poverty does nothing to solve it. What it had done was to support irresponsible behavior, create dependence, and disconnect action from result.

Juliette returned from her excursion and we had some long discussions about what kinds of patterns we'd like to promote both in ourselves and in others. Finally we arrived at a solution simple enough to work. Rather than buying everything that was necessary, which had at first seemed harder to abuse than merely handing out money, we decided to use a method practiced by parents for ages: a weekly allowance. We picked a number that wasn't too big but could buy enough food to last the allotted time, and put it in a can for all to access. The question was, would it last the week? If not, we suggested, we could eat plain rice for a few days. We wanted to create a sense of responsibility for the money that otherwise seemed to come by magic. It allowed us to contribute without obviating their decision-making capabilities.

As the week came to an end, it seemed to have worked. The important things were purchased, and in fact one of the brothers happened to give up smoking during this time. And for me, the biggest advantage was that nobody came to me for money anymore!

This experience of money and poverty, joined by many other observations traveling in poor countries, created a base for a lot of questions about helping others.

What does it really mean to help someone? Is it enough to address the symptom of the problem, like giving money to the poor? Or are we further obliged to look deeper into the source of the problem? And if we do find the source and address it, like discovering that poverty comes from inadequate education, is it enough to merely provide a good education system and wait for the symptoms to go away? Unfortunately, it seems that even when education is available, children often can't attend because they have to work in order to eat. One school in a village we visited had tried to solve this problem by giving free food to the students. A brilliant solution, except that much of the food was eaten by the underpaid teachers. Where to start?

Health care is equally complex. If you buy medicine for people, sometimes they'll just sell it back to the pharmacy. Even if they take it, they seem not to care about dosage; more is better. Astu laughed as if I was joking when I told her that eating too many Paracetymol, a prescription pain killer, can kill you -- she'd finished a packet of ten pills in two days because of a toothache. "But it disturbed me," she explained.

And of course there's always the question of the cause of the illness -- AIDS is rampant in Africa, but that's not the only disease that might be curbed by more education and awareness. Economic pressures seem to play a huge role in the issue of health, from start to finish. At the end is the cost of treatment, and at the beginning is the environment itself. Catch, a chronically unemployed man who plagued us with too much of his free time, explained that he knows spraying pesticides is dangerous to his health, but he needs the money. In India, I read a newspaper article about a boy who fishes plastic bags out of a river to sell them. He has chemical burns all over his body because the river is so polluted, but he needs the money. Where to start?

It's so tempting to think that large amounts of money can solve some of these problems. If there aren't enough jobs, create more jobs by introducing infrastructures. This is what the International Monatery Fund and the World Bank have convinced everyone, loaning huge amounts of money to infantile and corrupt third world governments. Now the money is gone, but the debt -- complete with steadily compounding interest -- remains, assuring that the poor will always be poor, always be subject to the power of those with money.

In the Senegal River, for example, there is a high risk of Schistosomiasis, a disease caused by a parasitic flatworm. This sounds like a problem that could be addressed by helping; the disease is relatively easy to diagnose and treat, and has been addressed in many developing countries. By doing a little investigation, however, one would find that this is actually the result of an aid effort. The problem didn't exist intil a multinational dam project was started in the 1970's. The project, created with the intention of solving many problems (drought relief, irrigation for farming, electricity generation for three countries, and keeping salt-water from entering the river), resulted in disaster. The farmers lost the annual flooding of the river which was necessary to maintain the soil, and couldn't afford the costs of irrigation which was supposed to replace the floodwaters, and ultimately there was a war between Mauritania and Senegal over limited water resources. Meanwhile, irrigation canals provided an environment for Schistosomiasis to flourish, killing 8500 people each year. All this craziness has cost over $100 million, given or loaned by countries who got it back via construction contracts.

Even if introducing large amounts of money could somehow improve the lives of the poor, the uneducated, and the unemployed, what can an individual do to make a difference? Certainly sending a check to the World Bank will not put any more rice on the table of a poor African family.

From a distance, there are some things we can do which are perhaps helpful: donating money to a group or project that's doing something that seems to make sense; being aware of big "global economy" schemes that result in the exploitation of the poor countries, and expressing our dissatisfaction; using our "purchasing power" to choose products whose production is good for the world (good luck finding them); and perhaps the most reliable thing we can do to save the world is just to use less stuff.

Unfortunately all these activities are completely disconnected from the problems they're trying to solve -- we don't experience the suffering of the banana pickers in South America whose babies are born with mental disabilities because they breathe pesticides all day. And we don't experience the happiness or relief on the faces of an African family when they learn that a fifty kilo bag of rice will be delivered in the afternoon, unless we are there to buy it for them. So this kind of at-home-activism is really abstractivism -- it requires a really good imagination to be genuinely motivated to help, or a strong egoistic desire to consider ourselves altruistic. If we have this motivation, great -- we can channel it into something good.

These are just the beginning of the questions, the answers to which are sure to be as dynamic and variegated as the people who come up with them. I have a few hunches about some principles I would begin with:

Follow-through. Going somewhere, doing something positive, and leaving, is probably not going to create a lasting improvement unless one can establish some entity to maintain the work into the future.

Deep understanding of the problem. Without really understanding the problem, its source, its effects, and the context in which it exists, it's easy to create even worse problems by providing a shallow solution.

Deep understanding of oneself. If I decide that I'm going to be the one to save the world, that's dangerously close to deciding no-one else is -- watch the ego.

This last one, in my view, is the most critical. My experience is that to the extent I know myself I help others. Unfortunately it's more apparent in its negative aspect; to the extent I don't know myself, I hurt others. Wow. Where to start?