I’m back in Uganda. I am a little surprised at how at home I feel. I am truly so happy to be here. The next 10 days are jammed packed with a trip to a village in the south to begin archiving some of the cultural dances, checking out a school that is being built, and meeting with folks about bringing a student delegation here in 2019. I am going to teach some workshops and we are meeting with the embassy about future collaborations. And that’s just the beginning!
All of the work we are doing is assisting the desires and ideas from Ugandan artists and friends. Whenever I begin international collaborations, I try to think a lot about respect and reciprocity. I never want to assume people want or need what I have to offer. I never want people to feel that I have taken advantage. It’s a fine line and takes constant awareness. I am learning all the time and I mess up all the time. I just keep trying to do this work the right way and hope I am close more than I am far.
How does one navigate different cultures thoughtfully and respectfully? There is no real exact plan one can follow because each culture is so different. Of course, there are the obvious ways to do it very, very, very badly. I watch other travelers a lot when I am traveling. I am often very aware and watch how other US citizens behave. It’s not always bad but I do see a lot of loud and obnoxious. Ordering people in the hospitality service around. Making a big deal about how all you want is a damn steak and you’ll pay whatever is costs to have it. It bums me out. I assume they didn’t have a mom and dad like I did who scolded me when I was rude. One time, when I was little kid, we were at a Texas steakhouse with the extended family. I ordered my steak rare and apparently, I told the server, “I mean bloody.” My mom didn’t scold me in public but later she told me that was not appropriate. First of all, it’s gross to order something bloody- don’t say that. Also, I think maybe my tone implied I thought the waiter wouldn’t know what rare is (this was not my thought process as a kid, I think I just wanted to reiterate that I wanted my steak bloody) but she made it clear that you do not patronize people who are waiting on you. Both of my parents have always instilled in me a respect for ALL people. You are no better than the next person. You never look down on someone. This is not an acceptable way to behave. I mean, my father has strong judgments about people who partake in criminal activities. He and I do not see eye to eye on the death penalty but one should form their opinions on a person based on their actions. Not their appearance, their job, their home, their car, etc. My father taught me this early on. I mean, seriously, I got scolded for being obnoxious in a Texas steakhouse. If you can’t be obnoxious there, where can you be?
Okay, back to manners. I was recently in the Cancun airport (twice in fact) and the behavior of the travelers in this airport was fairly atrocious. It’s shocking to me that people don’t check their manners while traveling. I am a loud, opinionated, talk-before-I-think-it-out, bossy, adult beverage loving, middle aged woman. This combo seems ripe for problems but I work hard to check myself. Is my volume acceptable? Am I making assumptions? Do I know the proper way to move through this situation? Have I researched or asked about the cultural norms for this situation? Am I talking too fast? I am no expert on this. I get it wrong a lot. Sometimes people let me know and I am ALWAYS grateful for the help. Yes, it can a little bit embarrassing or a humility check, but I always want to hear about it. Recently we were having breakfast with our dear friend Ritah. She is sort of like the Administrative Director at the Cultural Centre here in Kampala and we were asking a bit about customs and she said, “Oh don’t you worry. I will tell you if you are doing it wrong.” Yes. Please. Thank you.
I've been thinking lately about this. How to travel. How to be a good guest.
I suppose there is planning. A person can do research before they go. There are some simple things one can check out, like how to dress.What is appropriate attire? We do this at home, we ask our friends, “Is this party like a dress up party or can I wear my jeans?” Why would we not do the same when visiting somewhere new? Should I be more covered up? Dress nicely? Closed toe, hard shoes?
Here is my routine back home for deciding what to wear:
Open closet. (After the walking the dog and, if I am on top of my game, the gym.)
Get the sleeping cats out of the closet. (How do they always get in there when the door is closed? I swear they have taught themselves doorknobs.)
Stare at the mess. (Why can’t I keep my closet clean?)
Think about my day. (Okay it is 7am right now and I have to work at the office, go to a meeting , teach, and then rehearsal. I am back home at 10pm. I need movement clothes to teach, nicer clothes for the meeting, what is the first thing I have today? I’m tired.)
Pick out 1 of my 10 standards outfits, usually some combo of a skirt and a “nice” t-shirt. (Nice t-shirts are a lie but in my middle age, I chose comfort over fashion every time.)
Pack yoga pants in my bag for teaching. (I love yoga pants more than I love yoga.)
Stare at my pretty shoes but almost always default to my flip flops that I have convinced myself are appropriate for all occasions. (They are not really, but living in New Mexico allows a certain leeway.)
Lint roller everything. (DAMN CATS!)
DONE. There. How hard was that?
What are other questions or quick pre-travel searches that can be helpful? What is the food of the region? The economic situation? What is the dominant religion? I try to watch my mouth. Probably it’s no big deal to curse out loud in, oh say, the heart of Paris but in general I try to watch it. It’s super rude. Check your environment. What is the main language spoken? Just because Google says English doesn’t mean it’s the native tongue, it may mean it’s the colonized tongue. It still may not be people’s first language. Slow down a bit and enunciate well. Not in that obnoxious comedy routine way (“THIS IS A FORK! UNDERSTAND? TWO SYLLABLES FOR-WORK!”) Just in that, this is not your mother language so I will speak thoughtfully. I understand a lot of Spanish but if you talk too fast it’s gone for me. Más despacio, por favor. Of course, one can really do the homework. What is the history? What is the government system? What are some films or music coming out of where you are going? Just knowing a bit more can create a more thoughtful and easy-going experience.
I feel like I learned how to travel from my dear friend Byron Laurie. He is the master of etiquette. He always starts high- he wears nicer than perhaps necessary clothes for a good first impression. He is full of please and thank you and sir and ma’am. He waits and assesses the situation. He sees things, little nuances I never notice, that give insight to a person’s economic situation or their possible political opinions. He is always a gracious guest, offering to help and never really making himself at home. He would never open a fridge and help himself (Helping yourself to food in the fridge at a home that is not your home is something I have since learned, from my deceased grandmother-in-law, is a common trait of white people.She had a whole list of things Gringos do that bugged her. I do most of them) Byron is the ultimate guest in a foreign land. I know his parents and I KNOW they raised him with serious manners but he also just sees more than other humans do. He has a knack for it. Some of that may come from his being an African American man. His alert is always on high. One time, we were in Budapest, Hungary and there were a few women, Tricklock actors, and Byron and we were all riding on the train. This was a long time ago. The people on the train were quiet but we were not. We were loud and excited and Byron pulled us aside and basically told us to check it. He was a black man, in a country in Eastern Europe where we had never been, and he was the only man with a gaggle of American girls. He was pretty confident that everything would be fine but we needed to KEEP. IT. DOWN. I have held onto this lesson my whole life. I have a Byron in my life all the time in the form of one husband named Aaron Hendren who is pretty good at letting me know when I am too loud, too excited, too drinky. But I spend a lot of my travel time thinking What Would Byron Do?
WWBD. I’m making myself a bracelet. As I continue to learn along the way, I can always have a way to check it.