Learning to Travel as “Other”

M.L.T.S. Contributing Editor – Travel

Forget being kidnapped in Pakistan, almost dying from cerebral malaria in Nigeria or crossing the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The most terrifying experience of my life involved walking into the Grade 9 classroom in Watrous — a small town of two thousand people — in central Canada. It happened in January 1968, when the second term began, a few days short of my 14th birthday. The chilly reception rivaled the outside temperatures of minus 30C.

In this conservative, provincial town, strangers rated in the same league as door-to-door salespeople  — dodgy. And anyone who hadn’t started kindergarten with the class didn’t really count. My initial reaction included temper tantrums and screaming fits that I wanted to go back to the even smaller town where my family lived before the move. Eventually, I settled in and started to carve out a niche of friends. Some had been born there and others, like me, moved to town later. By the time I graduated three and a half years later, a pattern of living as “other” — the outsider who never quite fits — developed and it served me well in my live of travels.

Those of us who suffered the new-kids-on-the-block syndrome  — and there will be M.L.T.S. readers who fit into this group  — shared memories of difficulty, battle-fatigue and isolation. It shaped our lives and characters, forever, for better or worse, as do so many early experiences. For some, like me, it proved the best thing that ever happened; for others it bordered on soul-destroying. Rather than chose the path less travelled, it became my nature to grab a machete and hack my way through the jungle. Ordained perhaps, but the move at 14 sealed my fate.

The introspective experience of the acceptance-by-peers struggle turned into a determination to play by my own rules. To coordinate my own game plan and to control my hedonistic destiny.  Consequently, I often quip that I “forgot” to get married, have children or save any money. But it wasn’t until I started to reflect on my life that I realized how pivotal a point the move played. According to my mother, I was the only one affected by the relocation. My younger siblings adjusted.

In my early 20s I bumped into some of my classmates who expressed concern about my choices. I taught on Indian reserves in northern Canada and took university classes during the summer. By their estimation, the only thing that counted was to get married and have children. I shrugged my shoulders and went back to the reserve. Then, when I got tired of the cold, set out for West Africa for two years. The next time I became bored with life in northern Canada, I did a stint in China. It was in 1986-87 when people still wore blue Mao suits. In 1992-93 I headed out on a round-the-world trip through 29 countries, a present to myself for finishing my PhD.

When visiting my parents 20 years after the encounter with my classmates, I ran into the same women and they asked for an update. I told them I planned to stop in Tahiti to do a bit of scuba diving on my way back to teach at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. The looks they shot me sent a clear messages: Bitch!

It started on the reserve, where I’d quickly discovered that if you lived and worked in other cultures it cut you a wide swath – such a lovely prairie expression – as you aren’t judged by the same values and standards. So, with the Cree nobody said much about my iconoclastic behavior. In Nigeria  —after being socially reconstructed as the daughter of the Chief of Qua to help explain why I fit into a bush village  — I roared around on my motorcycle and frequented the village bar. A local woman would have been totally ostracized for even considering it. In China, the wei goren (foreigners) attracted attention for their expert status. Traipsing through Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe on the global jaunt further enhanced the perks of living outside the culture into which I’d been born.

The closest I ever came to leading the “white middle-class lifestyle” happened when teaching at the university in New Zealand. I hated it. I gagged and got claustrophobia. But I escaped  — conveniently timed with when I got my New Zealand passport  — to head off to pursue creative self-employment. Subsequently, I ended up in Australia. My loudly declared objective in life involves never having a “real” job again.

At the end of 2008, during the financial meltdown, I decided to liquidate and move from Sydney to Casablanca, Morocco, with two suitcases and a carry-on. People questioned my sanity. How could I consider landing in a country I’d never visited, didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language and hadn’t have a job lined up? I snorted and said that if I could move to Watrous and survive at 14, it would be easy. And, by comparison, the move to Morocco was a cake-walk.

One response to “Learning to Travel as “Other”

  1. OHMYGOD I needed to read this. Thank you so much. I’m so sick of my family questioning my choices because they’re not “normal.” We should talk. Email me? amanda@flurtsite.com

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