by Barbara Benjamin
People travel for many reasons: to get away from the routines of daily life; to face a new challenge, to see new sights, or just to kick back and relax. I travel to experience new cultures, to come away knowing what it is like, day by day, to live in a place I’ve never lived in before. So, when I travel, I always travel on the side roads. Rather than booking accommodations at a travel agent’s favorite resort or hotel, I often land in another country I’m visiting without reservations, and, speaking to the airport cab driver or questioning some locals I meet on the road, I find out where I can rent a house. Occasionally, I am able to find a house far away from the tourist areas that is advertised in my hometown newspaper or on the Internet, and I can book in advance.
Once I find my temporary new home, whether a cottage in the tropics of Jamaica, West Indies, or North Wales or a pre-Revolutionary farmhouse in Downeast, Maine, I begin my adventure of setting up my new household, shopping in the local markets, cooking the local meals, conversing with the local people, and attending the local church. Mingling with my new neighbors in this way, I often make friends and have the good fortune to be invited into their homes for lunch or afternoon tea. That’s when I really learn what it would be like to live in the place I’m visiting, as my new friends enthusiastically share stories about their lives, all the latest town gossip, and their secret recipes for national dishes. I should explain that, whenever possible, one of my first purchases is always a local cookbook, and I often learn more remarkable information about the people I am living among from their cookbooks than from all the history and guidebooks available.
Traveling this way, I always have a chance to observe the demographics of the culture, the rhythms and mores of diverse people in the region I’m visiting, and, unfortunately, the inescapable and ever-present antagonism that exists between different groups of people within a single culture and between cultures. No matter how majestic and serene the snow-capped peaks or how deep and placid the waters that mark the landscape, there is always an underlying tension between the diverse groups of people who live there. Like the tension created by the tectonic plates that rub against or move away from each other under the earth’s surface, the people in every culture rub against each other and move away from each other, often leading to violent social eruptions.