Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Report From The Eye Of The Storm

Return with us now to the thrilling theme of "traveler versus tourist," a metaphor we here at the Far Side Global Headquarters - deep in the jungles of Borneo - have adopted for our worldview.

The reader may think of this column as a follow-on to our last screed called, "Who Is More The Fool?"  In today's edition, we will explore "traveler versus tourist" as it applies to "diversity."

As we have developed our metaphor, we have shown that a traveler enters new realms of culture and experience as an observer and reporter.  The traveler attempts to meld as much as possible into the surroundings and taste the sweet and bitter of the foreign world.  The traveler does not judge nor discriminate.  The traveler understands that the surrounding culture has developed over spans of time and he seeks to understand why.

The tourist, on the other hand, brings his culture with him.  He seeks to impose his own norms and standards on the surrounding land.  He is the evangelist, the one who thinks his way is better, or at least more comfortable, and so forces conformity in order to feel less threatened.

In terms of mainstream labels, we may think of travelers as conservatives (seeking to conserve), while tourists are liberals (seeking to liberate).  The conservative wishes to conserve what is found in any given place, while the liberal wishes to change everything to suit some "greater good."

A traveler is conscious of his tracks and tries to minimize his impact on the surroundings.  Instead, he absorbs the local flora and fauna, making deep mental records and spending great amounts of time pondering and examining the context in which he finds himself.

This is not to say the traveler accepts everything at face value or is naive.  If he finds himself in a land where ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice are the norm, he does not wait around to examine the roots of these beliefs, he simply steps quietly but quickly to the exit.

On the other hand, we have the tourist.  The tourist is deathly afraid of having any experience that is outside his zone of comfort.  He is convinced that local cuisine is filthy and infested, and so brings his comfortable McFoods with him.  He is convinced that local accommodations are rat-eaten and sub-standard, and so brings his Holiday-Innian experience with him.  He believes the locals are heathens that must be converted to whatever system of belief he holds dear.  He criticizes the local customs and beliefs as ridiculous and beneath his consideration.  To a tourist, everything is wrong but his own standards.

In the past three years, I have found myself in a very curious position, straddling the traveler-tourist paradigm.

I have been deeply involved in building a "western" style arts center in Jakarta, where the owner has wanted to bring "western" style shows to the city.  On the other hand, I have been dealing with "western" companies wanting to break into the Indonesian market with their wares.  On both sides of the equation, I have run head-long into the tourist mentality.  The locals want international shows, but are not willing to learn and accommodate international standards.  The foreign companies want to enter the local market without accommodating local styles of doing business.  The locals think that "international standard" is the way something looks, and the outsiders think that "international standard" means the way we do it back home.

It is the perfect storm with your humble traveler standing at precisely the geodetic center of the storm.

On the one hand, I want to help the locals bring these massive foreign shows, and want to teach them the styles and methods of doing it.  On the other hand, I know the mentality of the foreign shows, who expect a certain modus operandi on the receiving end.

It is a delicate situation in which your humble traveler finds himself.  I believe both sides are right.  I know how these mass-market shows operate - god knows I've helped create enough of them.  On the other hand, I know the the locals have developed their style of doing business over centuries of physical isolation from the rest of the world, being a chain of islands fairly remote from any mainland.

For your humble reporter, it is both gleefully fun and infinitely frustrating.  On the one hand, I want to help the locals fit into the international market they so desperately want to join, and on the other hand, I want to help the foreigners fit into the market they do desperately want to join.

The immovable object meets the irresistible force.  It is not an enviable position, since I have had my share of both sides railing against me.  Both sides expect me to be able to change the other, yet my personal mentality is that both sides are completely right.

Such is the life of a traveler.

It would be so easy to be a tourist.  I could force whichever side I chose onto the other.  What I have chosen, however, is to find some way to blend the two, in the hopes of making both better for the experience.

In point of fact, I am in the position of believing that the "western" way of doing shows is the right way - in its context.  And I believe that the Indonesian way of doing business is right - in its context.  When the two contexts meet, one can begin to appreciate the fun I have had for the past three years.

I must become a travelist or a tourer, but in either case I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.

Centuries ago, Marco Polo was the first Westerner to record his travels in Indonesia - specifically in the area of central Sumatera around the modern city of Medan - where he met the Batak people.  In his wake, Lutheran missionaries followed and were slaughtered and occasionally eaten by the Batak.  That is, until a fellow by the name of Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen showed up and converted a large number of Batak to Lutheranism.  To this day, the Batak have a unique church (HKBP) that separates them from all other Indonesians.  In simplistic terms, the church is western Lutheranism blended with the Batak language and sensibilities.  A new culture created from the blending of two otherwise clashing ones.

It is possible to make a hybrid culture without surrendering the more profound elements of the progenitors.  However, it is not an enviable position to be at the crux of the effort.  It is akin to hanging on to the blades of a blender, trying to maintain one's identity while at the same time trying to make the rest of the mix into a homogeneous mass.  All sides want what the other has without surrendering any part of what they bring, or accepting any part of what they want.

Your humble traveler stands at the center of the plains of Geddon, amidst the final conflagration, and tries to maintain enough individuality to report on the destruction of both sides.  Perhaps I will be slaughtered and eaten, perhaps I will find that happy medium and become a patron saint.  Either way, I will destroy something and build something else.

History is yet to be written.

But one thing I am assured of...I am a traveler.

Post Scriptum - when I first arrived in Indonesia, I had a Batak girlfriend.  One Christmas, I followed her family to the HKBP church.  When it came time for Communion, I went to the front with her.  The first priest looked at me, then asked her (in Batak language), "Does he understand (this)?"  I responded (in the Batak language), "Yes, I do."  He shot a glance at me and his jaw went slack.  Then he passed me down the line without being slaughtered.

That is what travelers do.