Monday, February 10, 2014

A Treatise on Travel (and other things)

Tonight is alive with countless smells, neon lights, masses of people. Take a deep breath, let the full outdoor air rush into the space between your ribs.

You shouldn’t take a camera where I am going.

Do you know what an abaya shop looks like? Have you ever seen a mannequin covered from head to toe, with even the niqāb shrouding all but her opaque, listless plastic eyes? Can you imagine how the men who work the store look at you, an American male wearing Nikes and shorts, as you walk into this establishment with your friends? In this position, the blood floods every conscious appendage in your body as you take the brunt of this foreign environment full flush in the face.

What picture have I conjured up in your head? Perhaps one of fear, maybe even a shiver of horror at the discriminations to which I undoubtedly bore witness? Would you believe me if I told you that the experience is beautiful, if I described the kindness we meet at each turn? The sounds of bartering, garment trading, and melodic Gulf Arabic spills out of the souk shops into the warm, vibrant air, and, denied for what we seek, yet undaunted, we move onwards.

We are in desperate search of spandex fabric, which we will find, insha’Allah...

We scoured the Heart of Sharjah that night for the elusive stretchy material, needed for the design models the architectural students I was accompanying were building. We wandered through nearly fifty streetside shops, two shawarmas cut from the meat tornado in front of us with mango nectar to wash the meal down, and nearly a thousand grinning teeth telling us the same thing– No, no, we don't have that, but _________ does. Which way? we asked. Always down the street and to the right, so we circled tirelessly through the unquiet darkness.

You might say we failed, and if by that you mean that we didn't find what we had come to acquire, I couldn't argue with you. From the materialistic perspective, it was an exercise in futility. But if there is any one thing that I have learned from my 18 days in the UAE, it's to shut up about the momentary objective and instead experience what my surroundings have to offer. So that's what I did, and I found something ever the more valuable than a synthetic fiber. I found happiness amongst squalor, real people living real lives honestly and without the cognitive disconnect that privilege grants so many of us in the developed world. I found people who asked real questions, people who believe in things they've never been able to see. And I found a big part of my heart tugging at me to stay there, to not return to the effortlessly manicured grounds of my campus.

This experience is but one vignette within three weeks of extraordinary adventure – a synecdoche of my time here. When I think back to my expectations of this country before I left home, I am reminded that I formed hardly any. Somehow, I knew before coming that much of what I was stepping into would defy expectations.

It has. All the better for me, because I knew I would learn from it.

I never could have imagined the outpouring of support I would have waiting for me here. I don't care if I've said it before; it rings truer all the time. Today, for example, I passed by the piano in the student center, on my way to somewhere else. A friend of mine saw me, called my name, ran me down, and insisted that I come back and show his friends the music that I write. This has become the norm already, somehow. I have been playing the piano for 14 years, in the process devoting thousands of hours to practice – but I have never received this kind of support from anyone, even my own family. I am astounded daily by the unmitigated warmth of this eclectic grouping of people.

Nor could I have expected the opportunism that permeates the atmosphere here, nor the way it feels like the American West, as though anything - good or bad - is possible. Being cavalier here is sort of the norm; you don't wait for things to come to you; you make them happen. It seems a truer manifest destiny than we enjoy in America: not because the opportunities are more accessible here, but rather because the general attitude is better inclined towards self-actualizing one's life according to his or her dreams. I wish I could parlay the inspiration that settles upon me as I've listened to students, cab drivers, and all other walks of life tell about who they are becoming. It is once again romanticizing the world for me.

However, I should also denote that the case for realism is not absent here. If you wanted, I could give you a harsher reality about unmet expectations: for instance, how something in the nature of the student-professor relationship here makes for some of the most foreign classroom dynamics you can imagine. I could describe my shock when a girl candidly defended child labor to my operations management professor yesterday morning, straight-faced and earnest. I could describe for you the cognitive dissonance of many here who are unable to grasp the vastness and value of the privilege they enjoy; I'm in four classes with third-year business students, and I am one of only five students total who has held any sort of legitimate employment. Wealth has its drawbacks, too, not least of all on your world perspective towards poverty and hard work; some students here came from high schools where instructors accepted pay for passing grades. I could inform you that the dorms don't look any less like prisons or mental hospitals than when I first arrived, and I doubt that I'll find any better way to handle them than by avoiding them during the daylight hours. Most haunting of all, I could relay the sinking feeling I get in the pit of my guiltily full stomach when I pass by the janitorial and groudskeeping staff, who never say a word but do occasionally make incredible eye contact. They are migrant workers subsisting on below-legal-minimum wages and dangling on the precarious brink of either starvation or work visa revocation. These are not my expectations for basic standards of the way things should be, things I often take for granted in America.

These issues are real, and I'm not trying to sweep them under the rug to sell you a fake travel guide. You are going to see things you don't like when you go somewhere new, after the honeymoon fades and you wake up from that filmy dream of wanderlust. It is truly difficult for me to reconcile the problems I see with the wonder I feel about this place. But that's everywhere. Here is still incredible. You can't find people like this anywhere else in the world.

Meet the bakers, calligraphers, and camel race bookies of the United Arab Emirates. Their stories are better than yours, I promise. I've talked with them enough to know. The things they teach me about kindness, about respect for other cultures, about reserving judgment for a citizen of the country that has waged so much war in their world... it convicts me to live with a stronger connection to the ideals I espouse. They are industrious, charismatic, and – above all else – loving. The lessons they teach me are priceless lessons, ones I want to pass on to every person that I know. But I know that it's just not as powerful second-hand, so I recommend something else to you instead:

Travel. Please, please, please travel.

Since I matriculated two-and-a-half years ago, I have witnessed first-hand how college is a great opportunity for young people to transform themselves in incredible ways. I have watched friends rise and fall not unlike ancient Rome or Carthage; while hyperbole, it really is astounding the amount of change one can undergo in such a short time. I have not been exempt from this syndrome, having watched my dreams, desires, aspirations, knowledge, and applied wisdom expand, bend, and occasionally snap. But this travel experience, this parachute into the 100% unfamiliar, has been a whole other animal entirely.

And I have come to this basic conclusion. If you want a shift in your knowledge or the way you consider the world around you, I suggest you do yourself the following favors. Read. Study. Take classes, even re-enroll at university if you feel that you must. Talk to people who are different than you. Take chances and embrace opportunities that carry the potential to expand the way you are living.

But if you are looking for something more, a true and insubstitutable impetus for real change in your lifestyle... if you are looking for a irreversible shift in the way you live – affecting more than just your daily habits and affectations – I beg you to travel. The longer and the more unfamiliar, the better. Travel alone, if possible. Wear a confident smile, but talk only enough to get the person across the table from you kickstarted. Ask probing questions and apologize if you offend anyone (small hint, though: with questions, it's nearly impossible to do so). Don't answer quickly when the questions are turned back on you. Take an opportunity to change in that very moment where your thoughts become actionable. Stop letting convenience, custom, and habit do your thinking for you. And if you can even manage half of this, you will accomplish far more than you would have thought possible beforehand. 

Here is just a sampling of the results of saying yes to the newness available to me in this place:
Desert camping; highly recommended.

Desert sunrises: see above caption.
When you put thirty guys together in the desert and add campfire and steel wool, this is what you get.
Camel racing. This is indeed a real thing. It's free, if you're ever in the neighborhood and want to drop by.
This makes driving look peaceful, but I'm lucky to be alive after a few cab rides.
The best moments have not been captured on camera, as you might be able to imagine. Some have been auditory and can be found here on my personal blog's music page. I've written nine new songs since arriving; it's been one of the most creatively productive periods of my life. I would love for you to share in these sounds in which I've been investing my expressive emotion. Similarly, none of the scintillating conversations can be captured by any other medium than writing about it ex post. You win some, you lose some when it comes to preserving these memories.

There is a wonderful published work called Riding the Waves of Culture by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden Turner, which delivers an idea I find very applicable for closing this mammoth entry (and I do apologize if you've gotten this far and I've wasted your time). We often hear the following aphorism repeated, especially when it comes to travel: "when in Rome, do as the Romans." This is certainly a good practice, but there's a better way to do it yet. Instead of simply imitating, when in Rome, a person should understand the behavior of the Romans and in the process become a more complete version of himself. This perfectly summarizes a massive concept I've been struggling to define since I got here. Studying abroad is not simply about conforming to a new way of thinking, a new set of customs, and a new cultural identity. It's about bringing your own background to the table as well, considering the new elements of what you are experiencing in a new environment, and choosing the type of life that you are now going to live moving forwards into the future. This is the truest value of a travel experience. You are given the chance to combine strengths, not to select one over the other.

I have watched pieces of my life that I thought were dead come back to life here. I am once again outgoing, excited about academia, and ready to embrace opportunism with a renewed vigor. I feel infinitely younger and yet older at the same time. Dormant things are reawakening, and I am growing exponentially wiser in this season of life. In this way, I am not changing from who I was into someone else, but rather becoming more me than I was before. These things were always inside of me, but I cannot underscore enough the catalyzing role this Sharjah experience has played in the process. My hope now is that I can return to America in four months, having retained and further expanded this treasure of lifestyle learning to even greater heights. 

Wondering what's next for me now? So am I! So stick around, and we'll keep rolling along on this journey together.

Until next time – Jon

At the Atlantis resort, atop the reclaimed Palm Island in Dubai.


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