Dearest fellow travelers, it gives me great pleasure to introduce a guest post from Sessily Watt, a good friend and fellow K alum. A few weeks ago, she and I were discussing the comments on the Great Expectations post, and about what it means to live in a different country rather than simply visit it for a short time. Sessily is a writer living in Chicago, and her post reflects on her time spent living in Ecuador in 2005. Enjoy!
We were standing on a sidewalk between several medical buildings, in the middle of a tour of a small hospital in Ecuador, when the woman approached us. (Or maybe she was our guide through the buildings, and it was at this point that she asked us about who we were. Time has passed. The memories have shifted.) After a flurry of conversation she was under the impression that some or all of us were medical students, and offered for us to come and observe a birth that was happening at that very moment. She led us back through the buildings to the doorway to the delivery room, where it became clear that observing a birth meant all ten of us (nine students and one of our program directors) crowding into the delivery room and its doorway. Four of us had already felt uncomfortable as we approached the room, and our discomfort increased. We waited a moment, but it was soon clear the rest were planning to stay and watch, so we left them there, walked out of the building, through the waiting area where the pregnant woman’s family was waiting, out the front door to a set of benches in front of the building. We sat down.
Out on the benches, we were split again by the cause of our discomfort. Two, male, were personally uncomfortable with watching a woman give birth. Two, female, were uncomfortable that we had been welcomed into that room without permission being asked or granted from the woman who was lying on that table with her legs spread. Our fellow students were back in that room, with their cameras out. We waited.
The nine of us had been together in Ecuador for five months at this point. One of our program directors, who was with us that day, had led us on three previous trips as a group. We had already passed through that stretch of time where we got on each other’s nerves, and now we were a more or less cohesive group. The people who chose to stay in that delivery room and watch the birth were (and are) perfectly nice, lovely people. I enjoyed traveling with them. But I judged them for staying in that room.
Traveling, especially as a tourist to another country, can lead to a sense of entitlement to see anything and everything. In my opinion, the people who stayed in that room were acting out that entitlement. They weren’t medical students. Their presence served no purpose for the woman lying on the table. They were simply there to see what it was like. (In the case of at least two people, who have since gone on to medical school, I can see how this experience was edifying. And, who knows, maybe in some way it will prompt them into actions that improve the delivery of medicine, etc etc, but those benefits move us further and further away from that woman on the table who was not helped by them and who did not give her consent for them to be there.)
A study abroad program like the one in Ecuador is designed to encourage students to take part in society as if they aren’t tourists: we lived with host families, attended an Ecuadorian university, and ended the program with an internship/volunteer position in an Ecuadorian organization. One would hope these experiences would lessen that feeling of entitlement to see everything. To a certain extent, we lived in Ecuador for six and a half months, rather than traveling there. Especially during my last month in the country, volunteering at an organization where I worked with Ecuadorians, Germans, and French, I felt like I had found a niche for myself. I woke up in the morning, rode the bus for eight stops, picked up a copy of El Comercio from the newsstand, and walked three blocks to the corner building where the organization had a series of rooms on the second floor. Sometimes I went to lunch with my coworkers, sometimes I walked to a sandwich place that was nearby. My coworkers and I tutored kids in the afternoon. Some afternoons I was bored, others I was outraged, or sad, or content. In the evening, I visited with my host family for a little while before I went to bed. Some nights I went out. By living in Ecuador I learned that I enjoy large cities, can’t imagine living without public transportation (though I grew up in a small town without it), and when I’ve moved to a new place I feel anxious about leaving home until I get out and walk around, take a bus or two, and maybe get lost. Without living in Ecuador, I may never have considered moving to Chicago.
But no matter how well designed, a study abroad program couldn’t make us Ecuadorian, and the trappings and support of the program at times increased the feeling of being a tourist. When we went on the program-designed trips, we traveled in our own bus, a little bubble of pirated American movies and Seinfeld episodes. There were always nine of us to compare to all of them, emphasizing our differences. Like any other tourist, we were there to see the country, to experience those cultural differences we heard about in our pre-trip lectures. Perhaps even to “broaden our horizons.” Yes, there are real benefits to exposing ourselves to differences–not to mention that it can be a lot of fun–but that focus on cultural differences, in combination with other factors, leads to forgetting that those people aren’t there to open themselves up for us to examine.
Every traveler has a different line they draw in how far they will go to experience it all. The other students in my program didn’t feel uncomfortable with their experience in the delivery room. The doctors were fine with their presence. The woman supposedly thanked them after it was all done (cynically, I ask, “Did she even know why they were there?”). As a very private person, I imagine that my line comes much earlier than others. By not staying in that room, I may have missed out on an amazing experience. I’m willing to imagine there are other instances where, if I had been willing to press a little harder, to dig in a little more, I might have had other theoretically amazing experiences. But.
I traveled by myself once while I was in Ecuador, right at the end of my time there. Throughout that trip, I often felt different from the people I was with, and like I didn’t belong. But it was during that trip I felt the least like a tourist. I wasn’t there to see the sites. I wasn’t there to see what life was like in this coastal city. I was there to visit a specific person, because I thought I would regret it if I didn’t visit her. It was in those moments when I was living my life and just happened to be in a country different from the one I grew up in–traveling by myself, volunteering–that I felt like I had the clearest glimpses of Ecuador.