In memory of the fearless treks of those who make freedom possible, may our travels teach us to follow in their footsteps….
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
– Nelson Mandela
Trekkers like to talk about their treks
Trekkers tend to seek the company of other trekkers. Drawn to each other’s tales of far off lands and distant shores, we paradoxically satiate our appetite for adventure while stirring an unsettling hunger for further and more exotic travels. We congregate in the dusty roadside bars of Cambodia and vegan restaurants of San Francisco, exchanging travel tips like veterans do war stories and flaunting our open-mindedness like it’s Jennifer Lopez’s booty. We often unconsciously pontificate to less traveled friends and acquaintances about the importance of really ‘experiencing’ other cultures to appreciate humanity. We gently affirm that a week spent poolside at club med does not count as world culture. We speak of travel like it is available to all – “hey, if I can make it living in India on a $50 a month budget eating rice, tomatoes and watermelon, trust me anybody can do it”. This however, is a fallacy.
Finding inspiration in others paths
For the vast majority of the world, trekking across the globe is not an accessible reality. Not only for obvious economic reasons, but also for issues related to precarity, marginalization and social injustices. As I sit here reflecting on my globe trekking lifestyle, I can’t help but feel that somewhere in all this excitement, I missed the point. Perhaps, some of the most insightful treks are not necessarily those that take us to remote or exotic worlds, but those that give a glimpse of lives lived fearlessly in the face of ineffable injustices and adversity. Tracing the footprints of inspiring people and communities across the globe, these are the treks that open our eyes to unprecedented expressions of empathy and strength. They are not always the most obvious. All too often the dust of time and winds of tourism have buried their tracks and we must train our senses to probe deep beneath the surface, like skilled archeologist. In the moment, we may not even realize the extent to which these stories inspire us. In my experience it is only after the last tingles of excitement fade away, that I discover a permanent mark on my soul.
Expressions of humanity
Writing this post, I am reminded of a trip to Robben Island in South Africa. It began as a perfunctory tour of the site where revolutionaries Nelson Mandela and Jeff Masemola were imprisoned during the apartheid years. I was cranky, having just made an emergency visit to the dentist in Cape Town and ready to move on to our next destination. Upon arrival, we were hurried on to one of the many vintage prison buses waiting to take the hordes of tourists to the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years. (I can’t really scoff, that’s what brought us to this deserted island too.)
Just another historical tour ?
Much of the tour was as anticipated, Nelson Mandela ate here, the prison guards lived there, that is, until we were introduced to a former inmate, imprisoned for over ten years. An intellectual, arrested for circulating anti-apartheid propaganda, he shared moving eyewitness accounts of prison guards who bribed hard-core criminals into urinating and raping young political prisoners to break their spirit. He spoke of long days laboring under the hot African sun in the prison rock quarry. These political prisoners were students, professors, lawyers, teachers, doctors and politicians. Some were arrested just for speaking about resisting the racist tyranny of the apartheid government. This really hit home hard. These were not criminals, they were academics, like me.
The stories that deserve to be told...
Despite living in a constant state of fear of reprisal for themselves and for their families, they stood up for the rights to which they believed all people are entitled. Like thousands of others who resisted the apartheid, they did not let hatred and anger define their experience. Today, several of these men volunteer side by side with former prison guards, the same guards who persecuted them, and made their lives a living hell. Together, they share the message of love and forgiveness, continuing to give hope to a country, a world rather, still struggling to overcome racism, xenophobia and tyranny. Their story has brought me courage when facing daunting representations of global events and struggles in my own life. I believe, this is a trek worth repeating, one that transcends time, place and culture.
It is up to those of us fortunate enough to witness such treks, to tell the tale, in order that we ensure they are never forgotten. The next time I find myself reminiscing about my awesome adventures, I am going to think long and hard about which of my experiences really deserve to be shared.