Sunday, January 14, 2007

How was the trip?

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”
Or, for that matter, like me writing about much of anything. But, on the other hand, you really don’t want to see me try to dance, regardless of whether it’s about jazz or not. So I guess I pretty much have to stick to writing about what we saw and what we think.

Anyways, we’re officially back now and fully ensconced in whatever it is that we happened to be doing (or left neglected) before we left. Many have asked “How was the trip?” Others have asked a similar, more fundamental and difficult, question: “What was it like?”

Asking how the trip went is easier, for both questioner and respondent, than asking what the experience was like, because capturing the full texture of an intensely subjective experience demands more than a small amount of perceptive capacity from the questioner and demands great descriptive skill from the respondent. Especially in cases where, as is the case here, the responder’s powers of communication are pretty limited as mine – hey, I’m just the sound guy. But, at the very least, I can take a swing at it, even if I’m not Hemingway – and that’s pretty much what blogging is all about anyway, right? So, I’ll do what I can with what we’ve seen.

Vincent: But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It's the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it's just - it's just there it's a little different.
Part of what we’re trying to do with this project is give our viewers and readers the tools for to create a more complete mental picture of what’s going on in the region. At least one aspect of that task is communicating the specific textures that describe the smaller more surprising differences that make an otherwise alien tableau somehow more real.

The first order of business is limiting my scope by telling you what I won’t be writing about. A lot of the traditional, time-worn, breathless explanations of overseas travel aren’t particularly useful, are as profound as something from a greeting card, ultimately better suited to fortune cookies.

You’ve already heard whatever other platitude or banal homily I’m likely to come up with (many Africans are quite poor, or that people are people everywhere, or that many of us are extraordinarily blessed by the circumstance of our birth, or that hope springs eternal, or whatever) and this stuff has already been fixed in the western cultural firmament, so I’ll skip it.

Similarly, another hard-hitting story of perfidy, corruption, mayhem, or any other conceivable description of disaster, malfeasance, or humans acting badly won’t be particularly shocking or enlightening, either. Telling people that bad things are happening around the world rates with “Sun Rises In East! Again!!” as a profound revelation. There are those far better trained, equipped, and funded, who already are doing yeoman work on detailing depravity and bearing witness to man’s inhumanity to man.

And for those looking to read about a spiritual journey of transformation, I don’t really want to attempt to write some long exegesis about how this trip was profoundly life changing, universe, and I’m pretty certain you aren’t that deeply interested either. If you are, I won’t be explaining it here, and the drinks will be on you. But more generally, the idea that such concepts would be worth writing about – let alone reading – would be a kind of self-indulgence seldom seen even among the most self-absorbed bloggers. Even had this been a 21-day trip that could fundamentally alter a worldview, zeitgeist and weltanschauung, that kind of thing doesn’t translate, doesn’t keep, and is lousy when reheated.

Likewise, it is unlikely in the extreme that we’ve gleaned some essential fact, perspective, or outlook that will confound and amaze the policy wonks, scientists and decision makers of the world. The “Everything I Needed To Know About The World I Learned After Three Weeks in Africa” school of thought is just flat-out silly. Certainly if we’ve learned something in just a few short weeks that has escaped the notice of some of the world’s brightest, then a lot of thinking on the value of formal education, practical experience, and knowledge as a whole would become, at a minimum, highly suspect.

Instead, what I would hope to be able to do is something is capture some sense of the texture of this time and place, the notions that fleet across the back of one’s consciousness, providing a brief flash of illumination that give a glimpse of something that turns into revelation much later. Hopefully, in explaining some of the things we’ve run in to, we can shed some light on these sorts of things and help you, should you be interested, can use this information to develop another lens through which you can think about the sorts of problems that enter our world through our computers, televisions, and newspapers. But then again, I’m not a writer by trade, so don’t hold your breath waiting for insight.

At the most basic level, the thing that struck me most about the experience was, for lack of a better term, the fundamental, overwhelming, implacable ordinariness of it all. This isn’t to say that what goes on is banal or uninteresting, but rather that the conceptual tools with which we try to understand simply cannot simultaneously explain the full span of the human experience and provide a particularly useful intuitive comparison of such disparate elements. A person can viscerally appreciate what is happening to themselves or someone else or they can understand that what those experiences are radically different. The problem is that it is incredibly difficult to do perform both tasks at the same time. On one hand, once a person has adapted to a new local environment, then it becomes commonplace. On the other hand, if one compares two relatively commonplace experiences, then most of the contrast between them is lost. The act of adapting to the environment leaches the color out of all the contrasting features – at the end of the day, one is essentially reduced to comparing luxuries.

The most exotic – or at least odd and incongruous – thing any of the three of us really saw, when you get down to cases, was each other. And trust me, exotic we ain’t. What made us odd is that pretty much everyone else was, for the most part, living out the normal, ordinary parts of the human drama, things that everyone can describe and related to almost immediately. We, however, were the only people not doing something very familiar and basic to people everywhere – and that’s what made us odd. Not heroic, or extraordinary, just unusual. Everyone else was living their lives with roughly the same markers and demands with which all of us live our lives.

Since I can’t seem to get to the point, let me say it this way: it’s not just that you or I or anyone you know could, after a shockingly short time, subsume the role of anyone else on the planet, but rather that, despite this, there aren’t any really good semantic mechanisms for comparing two the lives of people so similar in fundamentals, but so dissimilar in particulars. And maybe texture might be helpful in figuring out how to understand those differences.