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People's stories animate the landscapes in which we travel



In the past two weeks I've met a man who crossed the Andes on foot, horse, bicycle, car and — quirky, but true — rollerblades. I've trekked with a mountain guide to a rocky outcrop upon which he was due to marry his fiancé the following weekend — before abseiling down it with her.

Guide stands on the rocky outcrop upon which he was due to marry his fiancé.I've stood in a forest with a woman who came here in the hope of finding the perfect plot of land; after trekking for three hours she had stopped dead in the midst of swathes of soaring, twisted southern beech trees, and had said to her disbelieving husband: 'This is it.'

Landscapes have a profound effect on the traveller — my conversations with these characters were undertaken against the backdrop of Argentina's improbable wine region, the parched province of Mendoza, and the steppes and mountains and icefields of Patagonia.

These people were showing me their homeland, delighting in it anew as I, the visitor, marvelled at jagged peaks and surging glaciers and vines irrigated with snowmelt via channels invented by the Incas.

But though we tell ourselves we travel to discover new places, it's their inhabitants who evoke for us the soul of a place far more effectively than do their landscapes. For what is an uninhabited place but a slate devoid of witness or attestation?

Even the emptiest of continents cannot be adequately understood without human interpretation: on a recent trip to Antarctica I would have observed the vacant landmass with my eyes rather than my intellect had it not been for the biologists accompanying our group.

How would I have known, for example, that the albatross spends most of its life at sea? What would I have made of the diversity of textures etched upon the pack ice and glaciers and icebergs, the infinite shades of white and blue that colour this continent, without knowing what had caused them?

It's not enough, then, to simply gaze out at the passing scenes and to believe that we have captured a country's essence. Unless we've also listened to the people whose explorations and migrations and settlements and wars have been lived out upon these tracts, we won't ever have truly seen it.


"People the world over are open to the inquisitiveness of others; they are quick to share their personal stories and so evoke the collective character of the countries in which they live or the places from which they have come."


And this is what I most love about travel: the opportunity it presents for discovery not so much of landscapes as the stories of the people who populate them. As a journalist and travel writer it is my job, of course, to ask questions and take notes and ensure I've got the facts straight. But even without a notebook in hand my introductory question has always been the same: Where do you come from?

This untempered curiosity — nosiness, some might say — has got me into trouble more than once: when the black man I had approached on the assumption he was from my home continent of Africa turned out to be from New York City instead (he responded to my question with that characteristic drawl and a dirty look); when the East Asian-featured man hawking gelato in Delhi turned out to be from, well, Delhi (my guide pointed out that his forbears had come from Tibet).

I've been on the receiving end of such assumptions, too: a cashier at my local supermarket assumed I was Jewish (since many fellow South Africans living in my neighbourhood are) and scolded me for buying bacon; the receptionist at a Las Vegas motel, upon being told in my distinctly South African inflection that I had travelled there from Australia, said, 'I should have known from your accent.'

My own mistakes have been invaluable lessons in the importance of posing questions diplomatically and in never assuming someone is something they are not. But for the most part my professional licence to ask questions has generated beguiling stories and connections galore. People the world over, it seems, are generally open to the inquisitiveness of others; they are quick to share their personal stories and so evoke the collective character of the countries in which they live or the places from which they have come.

These are people who have animated the landscapes I've passed through and so illuminated the issues and events and opinions that colour and shape our world. The American octogenarian I met in Tanzania in the 1990s who insisted she hadn't voted for Bill Clinton (he's white trash, she'd declared) and who said she wasn't travelling alone but with the soul of her late husband (a man who, though dead, deliberately put obstacles in her way).

The mountain guide I trailed behind on a hike in Argentina who told me she'd been adopted during the country's so-called Dirty War and believed she may have been stolen from her mother and given unlawfully to her adoptive, military parents.

The naturalist undertaking his 45th voyage to Antarctica who, when asked how he maintains such an abiding interest in the continent, said 'I can't hold it in. I'm deeply cognisant of what a privilege it is to be here. And if that ever stops, I don't deserve to come back.'

And so it should be for all of us.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

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Existing comments

When I travel I'm always aware of the privilege and wonder of the journey. I would never describe myself as an intrepid traveller though. I am drawn to the landscape more than the possibility of interaction with the people of the landscape. Having said that, I've met quirky travelling companions and had good conversations with locals. And memories of my travels will pop into my mind when I'm doing something ordinary around the house - how profitable is that!

Pam | 29 March 2017  

What a wonderful article Catherine. As a poet I was moved by your graphic pictures of people and places and your understanding. Thank you.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 30 March 2017  

Unless you travel overseas in a cocoon, you'll be walking past people whom you can't or won't help, the visible life in most of the world being worse than it is here. In so doing, you'll be infringing James 2:16: "If one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" Touring places is superficial and escapist, but to go deeper and tour people is usually a prelude to moral abandonment. Perhaps our journalists are exempt from this dilemma because their calling is see for themselves the Jericho-to-Jerusalem roadwrecks in the rest of the world so they can tell us about them.

Roy Chen Yee | 30 March 2017  

Roy, in democratic countries, journalists have no privileges or exemptions from the law that normal citizens don't have - just as religious people have no claim to a higher morality than en ethical atheist.

AURELIUS | 20 April 2017  

Aurelius, I don't know how your post is supposed to relate to mine but in answer to it, I would say: 1. a normal citizen who is a brain surgeon does not have the privileges and exemptions of a journalist because brain surgeons do different things from journalists; 2. The difference between religious people and ethical atheists is that religious people obey a morality higher than themselves while ethical atheists obey themselves.

Roy Chen Yee | 20 April 2017  

Roy - read my comment again - journalists don't have ANY privileges and exemptions under the law. A priest or a brain surgeon can also claim to be a journalist. It's a craft. And no - ethics and religion can't be so neatly dissected as you have suggested into 'self-serving' VS "serving a higher power". Your initial comment demonstrates quite clearly how plucking one line from scriptures without putting it into context. It's quite easy to do this in order serve an ideological purpose (which is the same as serving one's own purpose). You have simply reduced the faith VS deeds debate into that of the three wise monkeys - "See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil." In other words - don't venture too far from home because you might be obligated to help someone who is worse off than you!

AURELIUS | 21 April 2017  

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