01.12.2010 - 02.12.2010 28 °C
Today an important word is redefined in my mental vocabulary. When I left New York City, 'independence' wore a vintage wool beanie and Nike high tops. As of an hour ago it traded those in for a straw sun hat and goes barefoot.
To start, although I don't want to blame the way I've previously seen independence on my country, it's hard to deny that the US encourages people to fend for themselves. Going from 'rags to riches' and 'pulling yourself up from your bootstraps' are frequently used, positive cliches associated with independence that to me epitomize what Americans aim to do. The top student in a graduating class is commended for their hard work, singled out above the rest as the brightest. The "most successful" will apply to the top universities with a resume that boasts all their best qualities. If someone lends you money to start a business, as soon as you have the means it's expected that you pay your sponsor back. If your friend takes you out to dinner, you offer to take them out next week. If someone gets you a birthday present, you make sure to mark down their birthday and buy them something of equal or greater value. Sure, most of us don't do all these things, maybe because we don't have the means, maybe because we don't care. But if you could be the BEST at everything you attempted, wouldn't you be satisfied? And if you could reciprocate every time someone did you a favor, wouldn't you?
Essentially what I'm trying to say is that it seems to me that growing up I idealized the person who rose to the top because of their own determination and talent. I believed that it was important to return the favor to anyone who helped me along the way. After all that if I achieved my goal, I had gotten there independently, and that was commendable.
Being a woman deepened this mindset. Growing up I was always involved in athletic activities and loved math and sciences. Part of the thrill was competing in a man's world, proving that being a woman wouldn't keep me from winning a 100 yard dash or finishing an algebra test first. If I didn't understand something in a class, you can bet that I would never ask a boy next to me for help. Often times, I wouldn't even ask the teacher, especially if he was male. I had to be an independent woman who could achieve anything a man could without assistance. If someone did help me, I'd be sure to watch out for the second they needed an explanation to something I already understood.
Traveling adds a third dimension. A solo woman traveler, an even more complex one. Try telling your friends you are going alone to Colombia. Worse yet, try telling them you are going to the Brazilian Amazon. How many men did I meet traveling alone that didn't have to worry about being out alone at night? How many male couchsurfers didn't have to screen for sketchy subscribers? Tons. Yet I did it anyway, because again I was out to prove something. To prove that I could make it around the world, as a woman, alone.
So how did this affect my day-to-day? Tremendously. In Colombia, an old friend of mine took me out to dinner one night. Per usual in Latin American countries, if you're a woman, men pick you up, you choose the destination and they pay for your meal. And drive you home. I had a hell of a time being okay with that. Leo, my friend, one night explained to me a fundamental difference he saw between European women and Latin women. 'They are too proud,' he said of the Europeans, 'they act like they don't need men around.'
In Porto Velho, Brazil, a 23-year old woman Tati took me to her home to stay the night after our boat docked from the Amazon. I knew her family was poorer than I could ever imagine, but nevertheless she insisted on having me as a guest in her house, meaning I couldn't pay for anything. I gave her kids bracelets from the US (which I had actually brought as tokens of appreciation to couchsurfing hosts) and played with them all night although I was sick. I knew I couldn't give her back anything close to what she had given to me: security and friendship when I needed it most. So I did the best I could with bracelets, and endless thank yous. My blog post about her was a tribute to her generosity. And to this day I feel badly for not having been able to express to her--verbally or materially--what her gesture meant to me.
Fast-forward a dozen more examples to my first week in Thailand. A Sweedish friend I met in the ferry to Koh Phangan offered to carry my backpack up to the bungalow. Too proud to accept, I carried my own pack. In that moment accepting would have conceded that I was a weak woman traveler incapable of carrying my load. Ridiculous, I know, but that's how I'm accustomed to thinking.
And then today at the end of a hike in Laos something changed. I was at the top of the mountain, stone-stepping in a lagoon where the waterfall began. Bamboo and palm tree canopies, crystal green-blue water with perfectly round rocks at the bottom. I went to step from one rock to the next, flip flops in my hand and camera ready, when a Lao girl offered me her hand to balance better across the lagoon. I hesitated. A thousand thoughts went through my head, each as ridiculous as the next: I can do this alone, I've stepped stones a million times; I probably do more trekking than her shouldn't I be the one lending her a hand? But I'm behind her, even if I take her hand out of courtesy I won't be able to help her in return...
It dawned on me that I can give as many gifts, favors, donations as I want, but I could never for the life of me accept any of those things 'for free', even something as small as what this Lao girl was offering me. In economics they say that 'there's no free lunch', but life doesn't work like economic theory. And independence has absolutely nothing to do with doing everything alone. I took her hand and we crossed the lagoon together.
In the back of the tuk-tuk on the way to the hostel, I realized how many times this trip--and obviously before this trip--I've felt guilty or unsatisfied accepting things from others. It's a real handicap of mine, but I have a hard time believing I'm the only one suffering from it. As a westerner, as a women, as a traveler, I'm giving up this bullshit definition of independence ingrained in my head. Swallowing my pride. Life is not a fucking competition.