Marco Polo Experiences, or vagabonding off the beaten trail
During my recent adventures in the Indian Subcontinent, I tried to steer off the beaten tourist trail as much as I could. Thanks to some contacts and friendships I cultivated in other parts of the world – very often a great key for successful connections in other places – I was fortunate enough to venture well far off the beaten path, in places so small that not even a detailed map would carry their names tagged somewhere in microscopic scripts.
Being one of the first foreigners coming to a far flung destination is definitely a great experience, one of those you would write off your book of memories as an anthropological quest, or, as I fondly call, a Marco Polo Experience: a case when, like my Venetian ancestor, your visit and yourself function as a cultural representation of the outside world, an important link between a community and their stereotypical – or plain false- ideas of the outsiders.
After a few forays into the deep backwaters of Bangladesh’s unknownia, I feel like sharing a few tips to maximize your –and your hosts’- experience during one of those rare Marco Polo encounters…
Be modest in your hospitality
You have come a long way and you have crossed unknown territory to reach here, but this does not mean that you have to exploit the generosity of your hosts. Especially in the South Asian context, where a guest is treated as a gift sent from the Gods, you will be pampered with attention, buried under tons of food, and taken around as a trophy. As much as not indulging in these offers would create a misunderstanding and offend your hosts, it would not be right and not polite to overindulge in their favors. Be modest and considerate when accepting gifts, food or shelter, and possibly bring some gifts to give back. Even a simple print out of a picture of your family would create the most unpredictable awe, and make your hosts extremely happy of having you.
Be aware of the local culture
You do not want to be the example of the ugliness of the Western race, don’t you? Respect their traditions and stick to their rules: in a conservative Muslim society such as the Bengali, for example, shorts are a no no, such as revealing clothes for women, who are also very badly considered when seen smoking. Reserve your mundane pleasures for the outside world or the backpacker’s pad, and try to act decently according to a culture’s rules and regulations. Which of course you have to acknowledge before you go. And pay respect to the village headmaster, if there is one, before entering any of the premises.
Be a worthy ambassador of your own culture
The language barrier should not put you off from trying to communicate with them. Bring along pictures of your family, friends, city, house, sport team or children, and show them around, as they would love it and this would help to foster great communication overcoming any language barrier. Try not to impress too hard tough, and refrain from showing culturally sensitive pictures/objects according to your hosts’ culture.
Be extremely patient
Of course, as we can be ugly, your hosts may be ugly as well. Be very patient, and come armed with an extra dose of chillness before you go. Some people may want to show you around the whole village as a trophy, take you to an unlimited number of houses for sampling an unlimited amount of food or drinks, or just be plain rude according to your own code of cultural rules. Moreover, consider that your personal space will be highly violated: I had dozens of people staring at me as I was brushing teeth, washing clothes, dress up or even just plain eating!! Their curiosity will be endless and as much as you may feel like a lion in a zoo’s cage, this is part of the experience. If you are not ready to find 20 people around your bed staring at you as you wake up from your night’s sleep, you may consider this kind of experience is not suitable for you.
Be ready to act like a rockstar (or a clown)
Because in this situation, you are one. They will feel so enticed by your odd presence – at least for the first couple of days- that any odd request will be asked. If you have a musical instrument with you, be prepared to play it and sing at all hours of the day and night. Be ready to dance and talk as you never did before, answering all of the most personal questions you may be asked. They are just as curious about you as you are about them, and they will show as much as they can. This can lead to some highly entertaining moments, alternated with other frustrating ones when your only desire would be to be able to switch the whole town off with a remote control… once again, keep your cool and be patient. You will miss all of this attention, once you are gone back into the main trail!!
Did you have any similar experience? Do you agree with my suggestions? I would be interested in hearing some other similar stories and share more ideas for untamed independent travel in the backwoods of the world!!