Lessons from six weeks on the road

Six weeks on the road, ping-ponging between the first and third world left me with lots of time to think. As I moved between Singapore, being the former and India/Vietnam, being the latter, I kept a running notepad of lessons I “learned” this trip. Learned is relative. What really happened was that during one long, twelve hour car ride, I had the opportunity and inclination to write down and flush out some important lessons I had learned in bits and pieces during hundreds of previous journeys to a myriad of places.

1- Some journeys are so slow and dull that you cannot just sit back and enjoy the ride, soak in the scenery, etc. Sometimes wanting to use travel time “productively” is a desire to anesthetize the boredom. The excruciating drive from Mumbai to Bijapur was that rare time where I put on my headphones and withdrew into my music. My default is normally to watch the scenery go by but this journey was too dull and equally long whether traveling by car, train or bus. Moments were quite surreal as my eyes filled up with chaotic third world streets and my ears filled up with Bruce Springsteen singing about racing in New Jersey streets.

2- Sleep two-star but dine four-star. While a low rent hotel room might possibly make you ill, a low rent restaurant almost certainly will. The vast majority of the hotels I have stayed in have been forgettable. So many of the special meals I have enjoyed have been as proportionately unforgettable as the hotels were forgettable.

I should add some corollaries to this:

Restrooms in five star hotels are often time mini-oases. I have washed my face and relieved myself in some of the most expensive hotels on the planet. One part of my recent assignment in Mumbai was around the corner from the five-star, Four Seasons Mumbai hotel, where I ended up retreating often to enjoy the restrooms and the restaurants. Though it drives my wife crazy, there are some advantages to being a Western white male in the Third world. When I want to use the restroom in a five-star hotel or avoid excess baggage fees on air flights, my ethnicity/gender does help. I appreciate my wife’s point. The people who are extra deferential to me should treat everyone equally. Clearly. And I should be six and a half feet tall. But neither is likely to happen. In both cases I have to adjust to the reality as it is presented to me.

3- Know the local culture. Respect the local culture. Give in to the local culture. Working in Asia in general and India in particular, I am constantly removing my shoes. So much so that slip-off sandals are my default foot-ware when working in Asia. Footwear is one area where local culture and my values align easily. When it comes to asking for directions, especially in India, there is a vast disconnect between my values and local practice. When lost in India, which I am often, my default is to say, “excuse me” or something to politely start a conversation. Years of failed efforts have led me to accept the Indian way of getting directions. Just stop your car, get someone’s attention then announce your destination. Skip the pleasantries. The one strategy I hold on to is to ask a few people the same question and average their answers before I plot my directions.

4- Never underestimate basic human kindness (but only up to a point.) I am almost always pleasantly surprised at how helpful strangers are to me. My very few bad experiences are vastly outweighed by the many good ones I have had. Having said that, keep in mind that in many cultures saying “no” or admitting you do not know something are not good things, so, when in doubt, ask a few different people.

5- We are all tourists, because in most of the time when we are photographing, we are outsiders. This is true whether we are 100 or 1,000 miles from home. The degree of our “outsider-ness” determines the quality of any encounter, for both sides. A perfect example of this happened when I was photographing thread merchants in Mumbai. Most of the crush of people gathered around me wanted to see what I was doing. They also wanted to see which shop-keeper I was going to immortalize in a photograph. Though I kept my wits about me, and my gear close at hand, the reality was that no one was going to do anything to me but push uncomfortably close to see what I was doing.

6- When in doubt, take a deep breath, a step back and think outside the box. While assisting my wife as she was photographing three generations of Vietnamese women recently I was reminded of this. As we reenacted the pose found in an old family photo to show the change in the family over time, we hit a bump. It seemed to us that asking the grand mother to stand like she had stood forty years ago was a problem. After a moment of silence (and dread) we were told simply that photographing groups of three is bad luck in Vietnamese culture. So we worked with groups of two and four. We encountered this one more time in Vietnam, but we were better prepared the second time around.

7- Remember the hierarchy. Know when to circumvent it and when to respect it. I have found that showing drivers, clerks and guides a little extra respect makes a huge difference. Buying a driver a Coke, for example, goes a long way towards, at least temporarily, mitigating that hierarchy. Having said that, buying that same Coke for a woman would likely be interpreted completely differently, usually as an inappropriate sexual advance.

8- When in doubt, follow the locals (up to a point.) When I am photographing at night, I tend to work until the streets empty out, then I move on to a more populated area, or I call it a day and then go home. My reasoning is, if the locals do not want to be “there,” why should I? Another example of this was Christmas eve in Sai Gon (the common spelling used there) where thousands of Vietnamese donned Santa Claus caps and cruised around the city center. Accepting that this was the local ritual went a long way toward making that a memorable evening. Having said that, there have been plenty of moments where if the crowds went left, I went right, if for no other reason than to avoid the traffic.

9- Most people you encounter who appear to be focused on your money are in fact, just trying to make a living. Waiters, drivers and guides that I encounter, especially in India, appear overly subservient, do so because they want to make a living while avoiding their employer’s anger. Doubly so in India where hierarchical worker/customer dealings are the norm.

10- Never assume. Always ask why, even if just to yourself. Remain curious! A dozen times a day on this trip I said, usually to myself, “huh?” Some times the answer is political, or economic, or cultural and sometimes it is a combination of those. Other times the question is simpler. Every time I eat an artichoke I ask myself, who was it that said “let’s boil this thing within an inch of it’s life then drag it over our teeth (after dipping it in butter.) ” The “foodie” in me wants to thank the person who did that. More importantly, the curious person in me wants to know how and why that happened.

11- Time is not some Western imperialist plot that disconnects us from the full experiencing of our daily acts (though I have heard people argue that idea.). It is primarily a framework that enables two people to meet on the same street corner at the same time. Ditto for making the trains system work etc. When working in different cultures, keep this idea in mind as you try to also appreciate and adapt to the local attitude towards time. My wife refers to time in India as IST, Indian Stretchable Time, referencing how people are presumed to be showing up late for an event.

So why are these on a photography blog? Because it is my blog and I am a photographer. No, seriously….. As photographers, amateur or professional, most of us travel a lot, so I thought this might make things easier for other photographers. More importantly, much of our collective milieu of photography involves photographing people, working outside of our culture of origin, or both. In all cases list of lessons can no nothing but help.)

As you can see, many if these points overlap. As you also might imagine they are easy to suggest but harder to implement. So how well did I do during my twelve hour drive? I would give myself a “B”. Keeping my driver well fed and happy was easy. Keeping my patience with the maddening Indian traffic was harder. My grade was dragged down by a late lunch encounter with some waiters. Between my hunger and my exhaustion from too much time in the car, I ended up in a bad mood, where I probably did not do such a good job of following my own advice.

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