There are many tricks to travelling well that the seasoned traveler picks up along the way, from never leaving home without activated charcoal to how to best stash cash and avoid falling victim to clever thieves. But when abroad, the one thing one cannot simply purchase at the chemist and yet is as essential to the wandering spirit as charcoal is to the besieged belly, is a sense of humor, and in third world countries in particular, a sense of the tragicomic. For in countries beset by poverty, disease, poor education and worse hygiene, tragedy and comedy live side by side and often dance a grotesque tango upon a very fine line. If you do not wish to cry, you must learn how to laugh.
Only the heartless cynic would not be moved by the child beggars of places like India and Africa, the homeless curs and beaten beasts of burden seen anywhere the poverty line is passed by in a downhill plunge. India is perhaps a particular challenge, loved by some, loathed by others, for in few other places do poverty and opulence live in such close and confounding proximity. One moment you are admiring the exotic carvings of a temple and reveling in the scent of incense and flowers, the stirring chants of priests and wise men. The next, your heart is creaking under the weight of the countless pleading eyes of starving children, dogs and cripples, while the smell of unwashed bodies and open sewers fills your unwilling nose.
Life is at its most intense in countries rich in culture but poor in common welfare. Beliefs run deeper, are more fiercely held, grounded in a need to feel a connection to something bigger than this, the desire for proof that God is indeed bigger than all that humanity and this earthly existence can throw at us.
The necessity of feeling that there is indeed a reward at the end of all the suffering a poor soul may encounter and endure in a lifetime. Yet the fatalism inherent in third world countries is born of experience rather than religion, of centuries of children born and lost by the dozens, loved ones found and relinquished before the fullness of time to all manner of disease, war and accident.
Fatalism is a magician that converts hopelessness to acceptance, an acceptance that while flavored with grief is cured of fear or question, for fear falls by the wayside when events out of our control are left with a greater power, and who are we to question a mystery we cannot possibly comprehend? And so where a westerner would weep and wail, the weary peasant shrugs.
Outrage is replaced by a waggle of the head and a roll of the eyes in the general direction of the designated deity that surely knows better than we where this mess will lead. Simple faith takes the place of many a philosophical argument about right and wrong, for the reality of that dusty field still to be tilled leaves your throat too dry to argue for long.
When one travels, one essentially goes in search of Life, evidence of the many colored existence of humanity spun out across this globe. In a sense of the tragicomic, that Life can and must be embraced to enjoy fully the encounter with other cultures and all the potential for absurdity such assemblies bring. And so I tried my very hardest to embrace and accept the gentle colliding of worlds, as I faced Harry the gardener upon his return from the funeral of his niece, his face sad and beleaguered as he described the terrible manner of her death in hushed tones, looking very smart in his funeral attire, a freshly laundered T-shirt and pressed black slacks.
As he spoke, it struck me that his face reminded me of Clark Gable – if Clark Gable was black with a sleepy eye and a near constant look of slightly distracted consternation. It was mildly amusing until in horror I learned that his niece had burned to death fighting a brushfire that threatened to consume her vegetable garden and in the end took her as well. And in near equal horror that a giggle threatened to develop and escape my lips, I struggled to keep a straight face as I read the words on Harry’s purple T-shirt, bought at the market in some first world donor clothing bale, now so clean and crisp and straight from a funeral… “I left the golf course for this?”