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     Volume 7 Issue 34 | August 22, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

Travel Tales

Broadening the Mind
(and Freeing the Spirit!)

Farah Ghuznavi

For many of us, travel represents freedom in an increasingly regimented world. Quite apart from the pleasures of the actual destination, the process of getting there has its own compensations (and by that, I don't mean traffic jams, jetlag or lost luggage!) There are invariably some "postcard" moments on any trip, ones that make you see something familiar in a different light, or bring an involuntary smile to your face - particularly if you're travelling far from home, when the possibility of stepping into alternative realities (or even just experiencing a different way of doing things) is perhaps the greatest.

Like the three-year-old girl I saw at London's Heathrow airport, in the women's toilet, who was clearly finding herself in a whole new world, as she discovered the joys of hot air-powered hand dryers for the first time! She was doing an ecstatic little dance under the drier, waving her arms around in abandonment with the unselfconscious pleasure that only a young child is willing to display in public these days. And from the expression on her face, there was little doubt that this way of drying your hands beat the boring old towel rack at home any day!

As for myself, I had my mandatory "where are you from?" experience during a recent trip to Europe, since people invariably manage to get my nationality wrong, no matter where I am! Walking along a street, I looked up to see a young man of South-East Asian origin, standing on the first-floor balcony. As we made eye contact, he asked me, "Indonesian?" (the man himself looked as if he might be from that part of the world). After I had replied in the negative, he looked at me thoughtfully, and asked, "From where?" Choosing the easy way out, I said "Indian" (I hope that was not a collective gasp of disapproval I just heard from my readers!), but he flatly refused to believe me, insisting that I "speak some Indian" to prove it.

After I had said a couple of sentences in Bangla (reasoning that there were Indians who spoke Bangla…), he was even more unconvinced, insisting scornfully, "I know Indian - that was not Indian!" As I pointed out, any number of languages tends to be spoken in India at any moment in time, so I asked him which Indian language he wanted me to speak. "You know, like they speak in the films! That's the Indian I understand," he responded. And it was only after I had spoken a few sentences in my halting Hindi that he finally conceded that I could at least speak "Indian", though he maintained that I looked much more "like a Malaysian, or an Indonesian, or even a Filipino... Or maybe like one of those mountain people from, you know, Nepal"!!

I have to admit, he's not the only one who has ever thought so. Some years ago, I was taken aback when an immigration officer at Kathmandu airport tried to wave me past his desk, uninterested in my passport. I insisted that he had to take a look, since I needed an entry stamp. He was shocked when he saw my Bangladeshi passport, and asked me why I had a Bangladeshi passport. Because I was a Bangladeshi, I pointed out. And then it began. First he wanted to know if either of my parents were Nepali; when I replied in the negative, he went further back into my family tree, enquiring about my grandparents. As I continued insisting that everyone in my family was from Bangladesh, he finally gave up, nodding his head in puzzlement, and added as a parting shot, "Once you get back home, madam, you should speak to your parents! Something they are not telling you..."

After that barely disguised slur on my parentage, I was not particularly amused when the Kathmandu airport comedy continued, with the Customs officer initially addressing me in Nepali (which I don't understand that well). When I politely requested him to speak to me in Hindi, since I don't speak Nepali, he said in a very affronted tone, "I don't know what's wrong with your generation! You can't even speak your language properly - you should be ashamed of yourself!" I hotly defended my patriotic credentials, asserting that I spoke my own language (Bangla) very well indeed, but was left feeling distinctly ruffled by his look of scepticism. Indeed, it was only after I realised that my apparent "local" status was a genuine advantage when it came to bargaining with the Nepali shop-owners (something I'm usually hopeless at), that I finally learned to embrace my new identity - at least for the duration of my stay there!

Continuing on the subject of "postcard moments" on my European trip, I also witnessed a game of football that consisted of a very determined eight year old girl ferociously protecting the goal from the efforts of three similarly aged boys. It was hard not to admire the competence with which she not only intercepted the incoming ball, but also kicked it out into the field where the trio waited patiently for their next shot at the net! The scene triggered a memory of home for me, but sadly not a pleasant one.

It brought back just how offended I had been by the obnoxious and ubiquitous advertisement for a certain toothpaste featured on Bangladeshi television channels. It features a young girl being reviled by her mother for "constantly playing football" and eating ice cream, instead of doing her homework. Strangely enough, the logic of the connection between football and having the yellow teeth that the girl's mother is so concerned about is never quite made clear in the advert!

All ends well (in the twisted logic of this Neanderthal world where girls are not supposed to be interested in sports), after the youngster begins brushing her teeth with a particular brand of toothpaste - and gives up football in favour of homework. I have to say, the complicated nexus of sports, dental care and homework left me puzzled! Is it not possible to play a sport AND do your homework? Or is the idea supposed to be that athletes never brush their teeth...?

Whatever the case, it seems likely that such an advertisement is aimed at a particularly close minded segment of society, and that frankly, such antediluvian attitudes should not be encouraged in the 21st century. And coming back to the point of this article, if there was ever any doubt that travel broadens the mind, the rather cute conversation I overheard a while ago - between two people trying very hard to appear well-informed in a small town in Germany (but likely not have travelled TOO widely in the big world), went as follows:

They were discussing the US presidential candidates (or at least the Democratic ones) and trying very hard to remember the name of one of the major candidates... Was his name Osama, they wondered? No, no, they agreed that wasn't it. So was it perhaps then Hillary? No, it was definitely something like Osama, one of them insisted (no wonder Barack Obama is still struggling to correct the misconception currently cherished by over one-tenth of Americans, who believe that he is actually a Muslim).

But eventually they reached a consensus that "Osama" didn't quite sound right to either of them (I have to say, it was REALLY hard not to intervene at this point!) But then they got it - oh yes, it was "Obarra". Of course it was (not), and they didn't even TRY to guess the first name!! Just as well, if you ask me who knows what they would have ended up substituting for "Barack"…?!

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