A novelist takes us on a journey through fourteen months worth of life-changing experiences.
Sometimes, when I think back on the last year and a half of my life, it feels like the trade winds lifted all my thoughts straight into the air and blew them out over the Pacific, particles of memories from around the world, floating farther and farther away as I settle back into the island, drenched in sun and surrounded by sea.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the danger of a single story. The danger, she says, is that when we are told only one story of a place or a people, over and over again, we begin to perceive them within those confines, robbed of depth and flattened in perspective.
Our narrative of Africa, defined by catastrophe and poverty, Adichie explains, makes it difficult for us to see that the many millions of people who live on that vast and misunderstood continent each have just as many stories as we do. Ultimately, she warns that the problem with the single story is that “it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
After fourteen months traveling through fifteen countries, the familiar cradle of the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae mountain ranges lulls me into a sense that I never left. Occasionally, people ask me about my trip, and I try, with little success, to weave memories into stories that will entertain my friends. Sometimes though, someone asks, “What did you learn?” and under the weight of that question, my world quickly collapses.
Suddenly, I feel the moist sea breeze blowing through coconut fronds in the Marshall Islands, see a hundred hot air balloons float by in Turkey, hear the snow crunch beneath my feet in the Himalayas. I remember the places and people that, when I got lucky, allowed me a brief glimpse of the many myriad stories that make them who they are.
In the villages above Inle Lake in Myanmar, I walked quietly through rice paddies, watching faceless figures bob up and down, perpetually crouched over the red earth. While much of the world watches Myanmar’s unprecedented turn towards democracy, here, life remains relatively unchanged by the influx of cars and cell phones and information that has accompanied recent liberalization. Stilted houses are couched in fields of tea or rice, and villagers paint swirls of thanakah on their cheeks, yellow like the setting sun.
I watched the rhythmic movements of the workers and a few of them waved goodbye as I turned a bend around the terraced hills to face a deep green field, empty except for a few lethargic water buffalo and a small boy playing in the middle of a wide plateau. He played and laughed by himself, shouting at the top of his lungs, claiming this valley that for now belonged only to him.
I thought about how my childhood was spent under the watchful eyes of my parents in a townhouse complex where I never would have dreamt of a valley just for me. It was in moments like this, that I began to question whether, in our rush for modernity, we have marginalized lifestyles that have valuable stories to share.
Back in the capital city of Yangon, worlds away from the quiet of the countryside, I accompanied my friend Win Win to a car exhibition. Sappy pop music blasted through speakers as model after model of imported used cars were sold. Win Win wanted one that sat high off the ground, “or it will get stuck in the potholes!” she said.
In the cities, it is an exciting time for Myanmar. Everyone will tell you how much things have changed, some a bit apprehensively, others with an electric anticipation in their eyes. Foreign products are rushing in, and air-conditioned shopping malls are popping up all over Yangon, gleaming like golden tickets to the global market and the modern world. A monk pushed past the crowd to eye a four-door sedan the same blood-red color as his draping robes.
Often, I think that it’s safest to share the story of how my journey taught me to appreciate the opportunities I have been given. The poverty and scarcity, the old women crouched over indoor cook fires, the darkness of nights with no electricity—these stories could communicate how my travels made me grateful for what I have.
But in doing so, they also reinforce the stories of modernity and development that are so deeply ingrained in our understanding of the world. They mask the ways that the burden of our privilege rests on the shoulders of those rice farmers and grumbles in the stomachs of their children.
From Serbia, to Bosnia…
Fortunately, though any period of time spent walking new corners of the globe will unearth sadness and suffering you didn’t know existed, the stories that affect you most on a daily basis are usually ones of kindness. As I hitchhiked through the Serbian countryside, thumb held up in the midday heat, two young sisters, Simona and Olga, pulled over and offered me a ride into the capital city of Belgrade.
Open fields gave way to the wide avenues of a bustling city. Simona, dressed in white and wearing bold red lipstick, explained how the Balkan region was coping with the difficult legacy of the ethnic conflicts that raged in the ’90s.
“The wars happened when we were too little to remember,” she said.
At their apartment, delightfully cluttered with books and art, we drank instant coffee, milky and sweet. I reflected on their hospitality, so typical of my experience in the Balkans, and it became increasingly difficult to imagine the hatred that bred so much violence just a couple of decades ago. “It’s important to remember, but the young people really want to move past it,” Olga said.
So that weekend, they took me out with their friends to a club on an old barge along the river. We danced to mash-ups under the moon, and ended our night eating slices of pizza as the sun rose.
A few days later, I continued on to Bosnia, equipped with the name of their friend in Sarajevo; a friend who, twenty years ago, would have been considered an enemy.
“Don’t forget to try the cevapci in the Turkish quarter,” Simona said, referring to the oily meat kebabs sold throughout the Balkans. “The most beautiful thing about Sarajevo is the smell of the food!”
Simona and Olga showed me the story of the youth of the Balkans, who inherited the weight of a very bloody conflict that happened when they were still too little to remember. This story was one of late nights and dancing, but more so, of reconciliation and friendship. But the stories of anger and hurt linger, the wounds still fresh for many.
When I arrived in Sarajevo, I found them etched into the buildings, pock-marked by sniper shots that rained down on the city during its siege by Serbian troops. Both of these stories are present and begging to be told; one speaking of the past, the other telling us something hopeful about the future.
Image by Sean Yoro
Along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, my features, more similar to those of the Buddhist villagers than the other Western trekkers drew the attention of many porters perhaps seeking a kindred spirit to take their minds off of the heavy loads they carried on their backs. At 4,600 meters, the air had gotten thin enough to make my head pound and my feet drag, and I found myself leaning against a boulder next to a young porter from the lowlands. He raised his eyebrows as he looked over at me.
“Look like Nepali people,” he said, and bits of conversation began to flow between labored breaths. It was his first time making the trek, and he carried nearly 100 pounds of luggage on his back for a trio of young European girls. “Tomorrow we go to the pass,” and I could see the anxiety creep across his face as he thought of the snowy ascent to 5,400 meters.
“Slowly slowly,” he said repeating the singsong mantra of tired porters. Lifting the backpack onto his tiny frame, balancing some of the weight with a strap around his forehead, he smiled before continuing on.
People from Hawai‘i know a thing or two about the power of stories untold; our history, pre-approved for tourism, bearing the holes of many stories that have been rendered invisible for the benefit of visitors who want to fulfill a fantasy about palm trees and hula girls and escape. But even as our own lives are packaged into one postcard-perfect narrative, it is easy to find ourselves on the receiving end of a similarly sterile story when the tables are turned.
In the Himalayas, this story is one of mysticism and enlightenment. Deaf to the stories of the environmental costs of trekking, or the human costs of porters doing hard labor for Western adventure seekers, trekkers inevitably fall into the language of self-discovery (“I really think I’m Buddhist now.”).
But whereas in Thailand I had scoffed at the backpackers seeking enlightenment between buckets of alcohol, in Nepal, the magnitude of the mountains and the beat of my steps on the well-worn trails somehow masked the blatant Orientalism in an air of serenity.
The next morning, I woke at 4:30 a.m. to begin the journey across the pass. A blizzard had come in during the night, and the snow was fresh. Every step demanded more oxygen than my lungs could pull from the air, forcing me to focus on each inhale, each exhale.
Eventually, someone shouted, “We made it!” and I realized that hours had passed, the world had given way to the primacy of my breathing and we were at the top of Thorong La Pass, the highest point of the trek. Had I finally fallen into mindful meditation? Focusing on my breath, living in the now … maybe I was on a journey to enlightenment after all.
At the pass, people from all over the world relished their accomplishment before altitude headaches forced them down to lower elevations. Prayer flags flapped in the biting cold wind—red, blues, and yellows screaming out against the stark white. I saw the nervous porter in the midst of celebration, and we shook hands.
“It was very hard, but we did it!” he shouted, his eyes squinting in the sunlight reflecting off feet of clean, white snow. I looked down at his feet and saw that he had done the whole thing in sneakers.
On a rooftop in Bethlehem, the hookah bubbled as someone took a long drag, coaxing the coals to burn brighter over sweet-smelling tobacco. The night air cooled quickly, and I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, my eyes tracing the circle of faces of friends I had met only a few weeks ago but who had welcomed me into their homes and their life in Dheisheh Refugee Camp.
An American professor had gathered us here to take oral testimony from the Second Intifada for his research. My gaze settled on Ibrahim, who wore an expression I had never seen before, vulnerable yet enraged as he told the story of how he was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier when he was just 14 years old, running towards the safety of his home.
We continued around the circle; Mustafa recalled the trauma of seeing his cousin blown up during the siege of the camp. Abed remembered the day that his whole class ditched school to throw rocks at Israeli tanks, and how that afternoon, they witnessed their classmate get shot in the head. “We were just little kids,” he said, looking down as he fiddled with his cigarette.
When I broke down and started crying, Ibrahim looked at me sadly, and said, “Tina, I’m sorry. If I had known this is why we were here tonight I never would have brought you.” Then, he winked, like he always does, and told me it was time for a funny story. They laughed as they recounted the time a tank chased their friend down the street.
He thought it was trying to run him down, but it had really just been making its way down the road, oblivious to his panic. “You should have seen his face! He jumped out of the way and the tank just kept going!” Mustafa shouted over the laughter. It wasn’t funny at all to me. It made me sadder, even, that this was a funny childhood memory for Palestinians.
When I saw the concern in their eyes as they checked to see if they had cheered me up, I couldn’t help but see the humor in the irony. I was touched by their compassion, but more so, inspired by their ability to laugh.
I had come to the West Bank without expectation, hoping to see both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through my own eyes. On the first day, as my bus from Jerusalem passed the checkpoint into the West Bank and armed soldiers boarded to check IDs, I saw the reality of occupation and apartheid.
By the second day, after seeing a group of Israeli settlers making monkey noises at Palestinian schoolgirls in the city of Hebron, it was clear that the single story of Palestine created by the media did not capture this reality. By the end of the month, I was so completely heartbroken by the plight of the Palestinians that I couldn’t bring myself to cross the border back into Israel to hear the other side of the story.
I went nearly a year with a single story of Israelis as soldiers and settlers with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. When I returned to Palestine, my friends from the camp planned a day trip to a desert canyon a couple of hours away.
We spent the afternoon swimming in the clear, papyrus-lined stream, eating bread and hummus in the shade and sliding down the smooth river rocks. Away from the cramped and crowded alleyways of the refugee camp, we almost forgot that we were in Section C, Israeli-administered land in the West Bank, until a group of American boys on birthright joined us in the pool.
When they started directing harsh stares at my friends, loudly proclaiming that they weren’t afraid of “terrorists” the anger inside me grew.
In that moment I knew that I couldn’t let my single story of Israel be one of hatred and occupation. So I went to Tel Aviv, in search of an Israeli voice that would tell me a different story. It turned out to be much easier than I expected.
Over good strong coffee or cold beers on the beach, I spoke with young Israeli activists who showed me that not all Israelis were simply soldiers at checkpoints, that some of them fight against militarization and apartheid and stand in solidarity with the Palestinians imprisoned on the other side of the wall that their government built.
In this city by the sea, there were incredible people longing for connections with those who their government had wronged, people who were trying desperately to understand their place as settlers on colonized land and to imagine a future where they would not have to build their lives on a foundation of violent occupation. They showed me that in Tel Aviv, like anywhere else, there were many stories to be told.
As I spoke to one activist, sitting on the beach at sunset, our conversation turned to where I was headed next. “Romania,” I told him, and he said, “Ah, that’s where my family comes from.” I stupidly asked if he visited them often, and as he raked his fingers through the sand he replied, “No, they were all wiped out in the Holocaust. The only survivors came here.”
Speechless, I looked out at the sea, and my thoughts drifted back to my friends in the West Bank, imprisoned behind a wall, when only forty-five minutes away, the waters of the Mediterranean lapped at the shores of the desert. Single stories tend to create and recreate oppression, seeking out new victims upon which to repeat their tragedy.
On the lessons I learned…
In the words of Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie, “The consequence of a single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”
Travel has not made me immune to the single story. It’s painful for me to confess here, that though my friends in Palestine became some of my biggest heroes, my first impression of them was the undeniable resemblance to media images of screaming, angry Arab men that had been etched into my consciousness without my consent.
As my preconceptions were shattered time and again, however, I have become more aware of the dangers of a single story, and of the ease with which we can get lost in the ones that we hear most often.
Minds are difficult to open. Instinctively, we often group people together into whatever categories we can, the easiest and most dangerous being “us” versus “them.” I wish I could say that my travels taught me how to resist this urge, that my encounters with the world enabled me to truly appreciate our “equal humanity.”
But I would be lying. The greatest lesson that I learned through my travels is that preconceptions and prejudices exist in much subtler forms than we are aware of; that our society fosters these preconceptions by telling an incomplete story about people it doesn’t understand; that even the most open-minded among us can fall victim to the limits of these stories if we allow them to define and delineate our explorations of the world.
If it is indeed in our nature to simplify, to generalize in order to make this world a little easier to understand; if we, as human beings, cannot help but grasp onto a single story to help wrap our minds around a world too complicated to make sense of; then the single story I choose to tell, is that everywhere—from villages perched high in the Himalayas or a few feet above sea level in the Marshall Islands, from cities like Bangkok that scream with energy to the lazy seaside towns of Southern Italy—people are struggling with everything that life throws them, but still, they find a reason to smile. And that similarity is stronger than any of the differences between us.