Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Conversations with Strangers

I am not usually the type of person who strikes up conversations with strangers. If I’m on line at a starbucks and the person behind me starts chatting I am usually the one to nod politely and look away, or when my cab driver starts up a conversation I smile and quickly switch on my ipod in my pocket. I’m not antisocial or anything, I just don’t really like conversing with strangers knowing I will speak with them for 10 minutes and never see them again. However, when I’m traveling, everything changes. I love speaking to people. I think it’s a symptom of traveling alone and craving a connection to people, but I really love speaking to everyone I meet. From drivers to waiters to fellow tourists some of my favorite moments of this trip have just been listening to other people talk. And it’s amazing what other people will say to a total stranger. In South Africa, where there is so much fresh political and racial tension, people are very eager to talk about race relations with a friendly American girl with a smile on her face. In Cape Town they were more used to Americans and while I had some nice talks with other tourists, no locals really approached me. However, in Port Elizabeth where I guess they don’t see as many Americans, especially young girls traveling alone, waiters, drivers, fellow restaurant patrons all wanted to strike up conversations with me and gauge my feelings about South Africa and its turbulent past. I studied Apartheid in school, but I was only 6 years old when it ended, so by the time I studied Apartheid it already seemed like a thing of the past- no different than all the other history I learned. However, it really wasn’t that long ago and everyone I talked to lived through it, and is now living in the messy aftermath. I was amazed by what strong opinions everyone has on the subject and everyone was very eager to share. Luckily I was fascinated and just as eager to listen.

One of my favorite conversations that really stood out to me was with a white middle-aged South African man who had served in the SA army for 20 years. We had a conversation that must have lasted at least two hours about apartheid and then the state of the world and wars in general. When I speak with people back home I am always very honest about sharing my opinions regardless of whether or not the person I’m speaking with agrees with my opinions. However, I have learned here that sometimes getting angry and arguing a point can end a conversation and sometimes it’s more important to hold your tongue and try and convey your point later. The man admits now that apartheid was wrong, but does not seem to be able to comprehend why there is residual anger by the black South Africans. When I brought up the fact that apartheid was an oppressive political regime and dehumanized non-whites he would respond every time with gruesome stories of his experiences from war. I would talk about segregation and the suspension of habeas corpus and he would respond by telling me about witnessing black resistance fighters brutally rape and torture whites. At first I found it really frustrating. I was arguing politics and he was arguing war. I felt like he was arguing a separate point. It took about 4 or 5 of these back and forths for me to realize that for him policy and combat are one in the same. For people growing up in more conservative families in America or for those who have friends and family in the army this may not seem like a great revelation. But for me, it was a gigantic revelation that hit me hard. In America war is not deeply engrained in our every day lives. Even those who do have family in the army- war is not fought on our land. War is something that happens abroad and while we feel the human casualties when our soldiers die, we do not experience the brutal attacks on civilians and feel the fear of constant danger. Speaking with this man made me see that he is still clearly traumatized from his experiences, as are many white South Africans are, that he can't separate politics from war in his head, because for him they are one in the same. There is a saying that one man’s war criminal is another man’s freedom fighter. Some of the freedom fighters, like Nelson Mandela, were non violent and should not have been imprisoned. But some were extremely violent and engaged in acts of guerilla warfare so gruesome and torturous they make murder seem merciful. The soldiers witnessed innocent people being raped, tortured, and disfigured and then the culprits later walk free since it was all in the name of freedom. Those images are so spurned into the mind of this man that he cannot talk about the policy of apartheid without countering with these stories.

I come from a place where war was not engrained into me and can easily see that while the acts of warfare are tragic, they are unrelated to government policy. Just because a few people acted horribly in their fight for justice doesn’t mean an entire race should be blamed. He kept asking me about 9/11 and asking why I didn’t want revenge. I told him that I believe that 9/11 was a tragedy, but I do not blame an entire nation of people for a small group of terrorist’s actions. I used the opportunity to bring up the idea of follow through after war as I think that is a great weakness both America and South Africa have in common. I told him how America armed Afghanistan during the cold war against Russia- training the locals with massive weapons and then just abandoning them afterward. As Charlie Wilson, the man who orchestrated the arming said, “We changed the world, then we blew the end game.” We supplied no economic aid for rebuilding in Afghanistan and a little over a decade later a soldier from those camps named Osama Bin Laden launched the worst attack ever seen on American soil. Now of course I don’t blame America for this, but I used the story as an example of lack of follow through, because I believe that is South Africa’s biggest weakness and their lack of follow through post apartheid has created the imbalanced poverty stricken nation facing us today.

Speaking with him gave me a new level of understanding about the complexities of politics. It also made me all the more despondent towards the situation in the Middle East. Now understanding the mentality of people who cannot separate policy and combat because both are deeply enmeshed in their everyday lives makes me wonder how things will ever get solved. Maybe the simple realization that people see them as the same thing will help people to start separating them? It’s like therapy; the realization of the problem is the first step in solving it.

Great conversations of cultural exchange like these could not happen back home and I am so appreciative of the chance to learn and (as cheesy as it sounds) expand my mind’s horizons. I know this blog is usually dedicated to photographs, but it’s also about what I’m learning on my travels and I just felt I had to share the wonders that can come from speaking with people while traveling. So all you fellow polite nodders and earphone grabbers, next time wait a minute, smile back and listen to what your friendly stranger has to say, because it could change your whole perspective, and isn’t that what travel is about after all?

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