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101. Not Alone on the Journey September 8, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication, Reflections.
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I am a woman who seldom asks for directions. Mostly I use maps, some of which are stored fairly well in my head. To a large extent I think of where I’m headed in terms of my general sense of its direction from wherever I am at the moment. Part of the great fun of traveling to new places is to test my ability to find them. But sometimes traveling is more than a destination, a map, and a plan. Sometimes it’s a process of sharing the journey.

Recently my husband and I in Brazil. Our trip included a balance of time for ourselves at the beach and time for visiting dear friends whom we hadn’t seen in ages. We arranged our own itinerary including several days with our friends and we reserved a rental car from there to head down to a beach place we’d rented. We’d even downloaded the Google Directions with step by step maps. We felt fully ready to head off alone on this portion of our vacation, and test our ability to find our way there.

We probably would have found our route based on our own prepared plan, but for our friends, it wasn’t good enough to just send us off on our own devices. Rather, the extended family was drafted to research our trip, including our hosts sister who works for a government tourism board and a nephew who regularly takes the route we were to take — a new highway that hadn’t yet made it to Google Maps, but was found on Google Earth. Armed with new maps, new directions including a listing of every small town along the way, and warnings about traffic laws we might not know about and potential labor strikes that could block traffic, we thought we were finally ready to say thank you and good bye to our friends, but other plans were already in place. Our hosts would drive ahead of us and lead us to the new bridge that led to the highway we should take.

We followed them closely for about a half hour, and then they pulled their car over and parked, so we pulled over behind them and got out of the car to thank them again and say good-bye. Then we learned that the nephew was arriving in a few minutes to escort us for the next leg of our trip, leading us down the new highway to a point where we’d only need to go straight south, to a point that completely coincided with our original instructions and where everyone was confident that there was almost no chance to get lost or to run into highways blocked by strikes, or other yet unspoken dangers.

In that final third of the trip, my husband and I talked about how normal it feels for us to make our plans alone and how strange to have an entire committee dropping everything to make our plans with us. Since we both grew up with the strong sense of individualism and independence that marks much of the culture of life in the USA, it is even a bit uncomfortable for us to have so much involvement from friends and their relatives in our journey. And yet it was that very sense of feeling welcomed and taken care of that made me want to visit Brazil again, and visit these friends.

I thought of this experience again when I heard the excerpt from former US President Bill Clinton’s speech at the recent Democratic convention:

You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”

This exactly seems to be the crux of the matter and at the same time the dilemma. Many of us, myself included, are much more attracted to the ideal that we share rather than compete; that the crowd is wiser than the individual; that the more people included, the merrier. We may be generous to others, but we also still may feel more comfortable not asking for help, not depending on others, and taking our own decisions regardless of what others think.

I’m not sure we have to make this stark choice, or rather, we may truly need to be both self-reliant individuals and a people who come together to ensure a better life for all of us.

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