Travelling is the finest nourishment for an enquiring mind. It opens eyes to different cultures and different lives. A past E.Y.H.O. traveller, Debra Scoffield, shares her experiences about her travels.
The Intrepid Traveller
By Debra Scoffield
I think I just paid 5 cents for a banana. I’m not really sure, because the currency in this country has so many zeros after the number that instant calculations are challenging and I’m never certain I have the decimal in the right place. So I could have paid 50 cents. Or $5.00. Half a cent seems ludicrously low, even in this inexpensive country. And who wouldn’t trust the sweet old lady wearing a basket of bananas on her head? I pointed to the selection of my choice and she pulled it off the bunch. She looked happy to have found a customer on this dusty back road, and I was grateful to have procured a quick snack. Not knowing how to ask the price in the local language, I simply held out a handful of currency in my open palm, and she extracted a 100 schilling coin. A trust was immediately formed and the exchange became more than just a trade of goods for money. She flashed me a grin with a few teeth shining pearly-white, and as I smiled back at her and thanked her in Swahili (just about the extent of my limited vocabulary), I realized this simple transaction had enriched my life by far more than a piece of fruit.
My friends think I’m a bit of a travel-aholic, and I admit I’m more adventurous than some. Countries with little infrastructure and few tourists are my favourites: the less developed, the better. They’re typically hot countries, where all of life takes place on the street – haircuts, arguments, showers, markets – and everyone is involved in everyone else’s affairs. I’m not the kind of person who wants to see the world from behind a tinted window in a car with a driver. I like taking local buses and mixing with people from the area, even though I’m obviously not local and can’t expect to blend in. In my opinion, the chickens in woven baskets and the 20 kg bags of rice that accompany us on board just add to the overall experience.
I especially love going to outdoor markets. The riot of goods for sale, everything from food to clothing to pots and pans, and the vendors calling out their wares, is one of the most fascinating and exhilarating experiences you can find yourself in the middle of, anywhere. The air is infused with the smell of spices, freshly baked breads and strong coffee, and people jostle each other to get the best bargains, haggling over the price and quality of their groceries and other necessities. Women carry bags of flour and other items neatly balanced on their heads, and I can hear the squawking of guinea hens, annoyed with being cooped up in cages (if they had any idea what was in store for them, they would be squawking even more loudly). I can spend hours happily immersed in the cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds that fills my senses as I wander from stall to stall, watching the population in their element. These rituals represent so much of the culture that I admire: personal contact, friendly interaction, food enjoyed at a communal table.
But, as a tourist, just try to buy a single mango, as I did at a market the other day. “Ripe, to eat today” was my stated goal to the first vendor I approached. He called out “Jambo, Mama” with a huge smile, and rushed to shake my hand. Suddenly, I had attracted the attention of several mango-sellers, their families and stall-mates, as they all eagerly tried to entice me with their ripe and delicious fruit. I attempted to select one from the overwhelming variety on display, cautiously squeezing and turning several over for inspection. With hand signals and a few words in common on both sides, I consulted with the vendor to make the best choice. As I was about to begin the bargaining process, intending to ask for the local price instead of the tourist price, I discovered that I was on my way to securing three mangoes (“one for today, two tomorrow, Mama.”), so quickly it made my head spin. I then perhaps foolishly confessed an interest in an avocado, and, after surreptitiously slipping three small, green, pebbly-looking fruit into my bag to help add to the overall price, I watched the vendor sprint across the dirt road to another stall to fetch an avocado. When, finally, there was a brief lull in the action, I looked into my bag and discovered a veritable cornucopia of assorted fruit: three mangoes, the three unidentified pebbly fruit, one over-sized avocado, a papaya (where did that come from?) and something that looked like a plum, only larger. I managed to get a grip and protest more firmly as I caught a glimpse of some potatoes about to jump into the foray. I was being up-sold by an expert at the top of his game; he no doubt saw me coming from a mile away.
But the vendor was smiling, in fact, everyone in the general vicinity was smiling. I gave up trying to ascertain exactly what I had purchased, paid what was requested, and joined in the laughter. As we all waved good-bye, I realized that my bag also contained the warmth of friendship and camaraderie. Later, back in my hotel room, I also discovered that the green, pebbly fruit whose local name I’m sure I was told, were actually quite tasty.
The more I travel, the more I appreciate the simple exchanges that create bonds across cultures, and the smiles of friendship that have enriched my life."
Debra has developed marketing plans for some of the most admired brands in Canada and internationally. She honed her writing style by necessity: it’s not easy describing multiple product benefits on a package the size of a candy wrapper. A graduate of the Humber School of Creative Writing, Debra’s work has been published in the Globe & Mail. She is currently working on a debut novel, A Thousand Kisses, a historical fiction based on a true story. Says Debra, "I love visiting countries with different cultures, but it’s the simple exchanges that enrich the experience."
Debra Scoffield lives in Toronto.
Visit Debra's blog for more scintillating travel tales.