Travelling can be an eye opening experience. Especially when you leave the tourist tracks. When you look beyond the beauty of the surrounding nature and into the eyes of the people. When you talk to them, when they talk to you, and when you learn from them. It teaches you about other cultures but it also provides you with new insights about your own culture.
The other culture I had the privilege to meet a lot of people in Lunyuk, Sumbawa. Here I met lot of girls and women. The girls here get married young compared to western standards. The oldest girl I met, who wasn’t yet married, was 24. It was more common to talk to a 21 your old mother of two. One of the 16 year old girls, who spoke great English, revealed to me she really wanted to study and maybe even work abroad. While she would be there, finding a nice, handsome boy was just as important as working there itself. Taking care of the children and the household is the primary occupation of the women here. They are very proud of their children. Seen from a western point of view is it is too easy to judge. Too easy to feel sorry for them. For the fact that most of these girls might never have a job we see as fulfilling and contributing. They will most likely spend their entire life in one village and with one man.
But when looking at my situation through their eyes ( as much as that is possible…). They, quite possibly, feel just as sorry for me. Here is a 27 year old women. She doesn’t have a husband. She doesn’t have children and she doesn’t even have the luxury of knowing she will have a roof over her head every night. What will become of her? What is her purpose in life? Why would you want to travel halfway around the world, when you can have a home and loving family right where you started? We speak different languages, both literally and figuratively. For me it is unthinkable to live their lives and be happy, for them it is unthinkable to live my life and be happy.
My own culture In the Netherlands, we celebrate Sinterklaas. A tradition where children receive presents, like Santa Claus in many other countries. In short it’s the celebration of Saint Nicholas’ birthday. He comes to the Netherlands every year. To deliver the presents he has helpers called Black Petes. These dark skinned, friendly characters have been the topic of debate for a few years now. It is said that the dark colour of their skin is an expression of racism and refers back to the era of slavery. There was even a study conducted by the UN into the topic.
Many Dutch people defend the tradition. Stating it is a friendly children’s fest, no harm is intended and therefore no offence should be taken. The Dutch all grew up loving Black Pete, regardless of his skin colour. For most of them it is impossible to see this tradition differently then we have always seen it. Harmless and cheerful. Through the love for Black Pete we, white Dutchies, are blinded to how others might see it. Racist and a reference to slavery.
We are all a product of our environment. Stepping outside of our own beliefs and seeing things in a different light is only possible when we realise that our cultures are a collection of beliefs, habits and rituals. To accept and understand others we first have to look at ourselves. Why do we believe some things are good and others bad? Why do I feel sorry for girls who get married at seventeen, why do they pity me for not having children at 27? Why do many good intended people celebrate a tradition that’s seen as racist by others? It’s all because of a set of beliefs, habits and rituals, reinforced by the people who we are surrounded with. The beauty is though, if you go traveling, and you keep your eyes and ears open to the changing surroundings, you might see more than just pretty places and pretty faces.