When Shobha and I sat down to interview Ernest White at the World Travel Market last fall, I was at a bit of a disadvantage. Shobha already knew Ernest, but I had just met him. Without any preparation, and without having visited either of his websites, I just decided to go with the flow of the conversation.
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Listening back, I noticed that I said “Wow” a lot as we chatted.
Ernest White and Tajikistan
Ernest is the kind of traveler who tells stories that make you say “wow.” At the same time, Tajikistan is one of those off-the-beaten-path places I most like to visit. It was entirely off my radar, but it sounds like a “wow” kind of place.
Ernest visited Tajikistan to update a Bradt guidebook. He says, in the interview, that because he didn’t speak the language, he had an authentic tourist experience, though later he also points out that most visitors would not try to fit in as much as he had to do for the guidebook assignment.
One of the things he mentioned was that he got stared at a lot, and that people wanted to take pictures with him.
This touched off two memories for me. When I was in the Peace Corps in Malawi, I was one of very few whites in the town where I lived. People stared at me pretty much all the time. Everyone knew everything I did. (“Why did you walk into town yesterday, Madame?” said in a tone of surprise because I’m white.)
If I entered a smaller village, small children would scream and run away – the Malawian equivalent of the bogeyman is white. Older children would want to touch me to see if the white rubbed off.
At the school where I taught, my girl students would ask to braid my hair, which was quite short, and giggle hysterically to see how the braids fell apart as soon as they let go.
Another memory is more recent, of traveling in China with my teenage daughter: white, tall, with long, brown hair.
Everywhere we went, people stared at us, and particularly my daughter. Complete strangers would take pictures with her, often without even asking ahead of time. They’d just go stand next to her and, before she knew it, someone else would be snapping a picture. This did not make her comfortable, and my husband and I started very quickly to insist that we were going to be in the picture as well, jumping between whoever it was – usually an older man – and our daughter.
A conscious traveler
But anyway, back to Ernest White. He struck me as a uniquely conscious traveler, aware of his own good fortune, and I agree with his view that having a fulfilling life isn’t just based on wealth. He is sensitive to cultural differences without judgment, embracing differences instead. After all, everyone brings their own cultural baggage with them as they travel.
I also loved his description of communicating without language, of being open to the powerful connections that you can make anyway.
Having guests for a meal
In telling about those powerful connections, Ernest spoke about when he was invited to dinner by a man he met in a shared taxi. Without a common language, he could only speculate about whether the food he received was their usual meal or whether the man’s wife had prepared something special.
Here’s my question: don’t we all do that? When I have guests, whether I know them or not, I clean up beforehand. I take the piles of folded laundry upstairs, I clear plates and glasses we’ve all left around, and so on, so that our guests’ first impression won’t be too horrifying.
I also put more thought than usual into what I’ll cook for dinner. For example, I might make an extra vegetable dish or a more complicated main course. I might bake something for dessert, something I pretty much only do when we’re having guests. Doesn’t everyone do that in every culture?
Ernest White in South Africa and Egypt
Tajikistan was so fascinating that we didn’t end up having much time to talk about anywhere else. However, we did touch on South Africa and Egypt.
Ernest and Shobha both love bunny chow. I’ve never been to South Africa, so I had to go look it up. It’s a portable meal, in which a hollowed-out loaf of bread is filled with curry. There are several different theories to explain its origins, and it has nothing to do with bunnies, in any case. The original bunny chow was vegetarian, though some bunny chows nowadays include meat.
In speaking of Egypt, Ernest mentioned the advantages of visiting a country when tourists are mostly avoiding it. (I wrote about this in this blog post.) You get the place to yourself, which increases that feeling of awe: awe at the place itself, awe at your own good fortune that you can experience it. You also support that country, which is losing tourism income.
Right now, Egypt is on a campaign to lure tourists back, and I’d certainly recommend it if you’re at all interested in ancient history. Some of the temples and other ancient structures along the Nile are fascinating. And the three-day cruise on the Nile that I took many years ago was an experience I’ll never forget.
Ernest White’s blogs
I didn’t check out Ernest’s blogs until after this interview, and all I can say is he is a truly excellent travel writer. I want to be like him when I grow up!
Flybrother.net aims specifically at African-American travelers like Ernest. To quote the blog’s description of itself: “Fly Brother tackles international travel in unabridged, unapologetic, full and complete color.”
ErnestWhite2.com focuses on Ernest White II himself. His insightful, thoughtful and often personal writing on this site is sometimes about travel, but often about other issues.
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To read a transcript, go to Shobha’s blog, Just Go Places.