Part of my academic vocation (yeah, I consider my job a “calling”) is traveling: conferences, academic meetings, symposiums, and fellowships. Many times, I want to think of these travels as “perks.” However, they are not really perks. Honestly, if not with my active networking (no – not that kind of networking which starts in a coffee shop) and strong determination on finding financial support from institutions, I would not be able to travel all the way to South America (the farthest city so far is Sao Paolo in Brazil), Europe and even East Asia.
With the salary (okay, I have honorarium and RATA as a university administrator but still not enough to say I am a globetrotter) I receive from a state university monthly, the farthest city that I may be able to visit, perhaps, is Mumbai in India. [While India has a relatively low per diem, going there is another story. There is no direct flight from Manila to any Indian city. In most cases, one has to travel to India via Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi or Dubai].
Today, we see people blogging about their travels. There was one time, I heard from a live blog (a video blog) telling his followers that traveling is a right (like human rights, I think – that was his point). Another blogger was inviting his viewers to join him as he ventured on traveling around the world.
There is a group of travel enthusiasts where members meet annually and discuss their favorite heritage sites (I wanted to be part of the group but then I felt insecure when I checked members of the group. Most of them visited an average of 150 UNESCO World Heritage Sites).
Also, there are several “networking” organizations (and now I am talking about those networks that occur in coffee shops) that provide travel opportunities at discounted rates.
This post is what I shall call an anti-thesis of memorable travel encounter. I definitely am convinced that each travel we do is somewhat memorable. However, I believe our overwhelmed senses seem to unsee some things, which are not in accordance with that very idea of memorable travel encounter. That said, I have listed some memorable observations, which are equally as memorable as being amazed and awed.
I recently visited Antwerp in Belgium to attend a meeting and a training at the University of Antwerp. I was with three other colleagues from my University. We were part of a research project funded by the Flemish Interuniversity Council. On the last day of the training, my colleagues and I decided to try the Stoofvlees (Flemish Beef Stew) because it was highly recommended by our Flemish collaborator. We went to this restaurant located somewhere opposite the Cathedral of Our Lady (hmmm, the bell-tower is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and we were welcomed by this interesting barker – a very charming and adorable one.
Well, he recognized our being “different” – that Asian thing in other words.
As a gesture of hospitality, the barker started mimicking different East Asian languages. He was really funny. Then, he saw me – a big-built guy – something perhaps, unusual for him? But there was a fascination in his tone while he was trying to communicate with me. Then I understood what he meant – based on his hand gestures. In a humorous tone, he went on exclaiming “Shaolin,” “taekwondo,” “wushu.” I then said, “sumo wrestling.” There seemed to be confusion in his eyes but we laughed at it anyway.
Point is: there is a tendency for Europe to reduce Asians as East Asians. Then I realized, the Europeans constructed the concept of Asia a long time ago. However, their concept of Asia then was not really the East Asia as we know today. What happened along the way? Hmmm, not giving a lecture here!
In many European cities I visited (such as Gent, Antwerp, Brussels, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Paris) there are street performers who instead of passively begging for money, they do performances (street performances). One performance fascinated me the most was the bubble man.
In Gent, he was Bubble Master. I did not get to see if he was asking for money but children were happy when he produced bubbles in the thin air. But I am certain I saw some mothers were giving him money.
In Brussels, he is “Superman Bubble.” He was wearing a blue Superman coat and a Superman pants. The bubbles were “heavenly.” It reminded me so much of a happy childhood. But there is one thing that caught my attention. Unlike the Bubble Master in Gent, this performer was asking for “donations” which had this inscription: “for happy travels, thank you!”
I wanted to give a Euro or two but then I asked myself why was he asking for travel money? More so, why would I give him his travel money? I came to Europe proving to the consul that I have financial means. Not to mention, traveling in Europe (or any developed state) was never easy for me (coming from a developing state). You know, embassy being skeptical about the travel (I was once denied of Visa) and immigration officers (both local and foreign) asking for travel purpose with a stern look.
Europe is a paradise for a non-European (an Asian) like me. However, a lot of European cities are as stinky as Manila. I was surprised to see young men peeing everywhere just like how young men in Manila do it almost everywhere as well.
In Paris for example, some metro stations smell like pee (mapanghi as we usually say in the Philippines).
Then, there was trash everywhere.
How come my eyes did not transmit a message of disgust to my brain?
As an outsider I believe I was on denial because my seneses tended to focus the visuality of these historical cities (the cultural landscape of Paris for example is so amazing, in full fairness!). Not to mention, the cold wind also made it somewhat different – in a good way? (At least for me).
Travel made me very grateful and thankful. Despite budget airlines, I am convinced travel is not for everyone. Uh huh – I do not agree with it being a right! Travel is a privilege. It is not even for all middle class people. As I said earlier, if not with the opportunities attached to my travels, I do not think I could afford to do these travels – especially in Europe.
Nothing is cheap in Europe. At least in the cities I have been to: Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Belgrade, Brugges, Brussels, Chester, Edinburgh, Frankfurt-am-Maim, Gent, Köln, London, Manchester, Novi Sad, Oxford, Paris, Stockholm and York. A one ride ticket in the metro for example is ranging from 3 Euros to 4 Euros (200 to 300 pesos). Water is more expensive than cola, juices, and coffee. A sandwhich is ranging from 4 to 10 Euros (same goes at McDonald’s). Even going to the toilet seems luxurious – 50 cents per use of public toilet.
That said, poor people are also everywhere. They, however, have creative ways to survive. They sell souvenirs to tourists. To travel from one place to another, they jump literally to the metro entrances – guards do see them. Were they complacent – the guards? I really do not know.
Yes, traveling indeed is a life lesson.
I hope one day academics start thinking of an epistemology of traveling to reflect how travel holistically transmits knowledge and not just some memorable travel encounters.