The Unexpected Life Lessons We Get From Traveling
Jul 29, 2013
They All Look the Same
Shortly after I arrived in Zambia, my host Sean brought me to the rafting headquarters to introduce me to “the boys” meaning the team of river guides. “The boys” (all men, in fact) were fit, age 20 to 40, with dark black skin that is common for locals. They were all wearing the rafting uniform, yellow tee shirt and green river shorts, both with the company logo.
As we began talking about where I had been and where I was going next, one of the guys brought out a map. As the guides went off to complete some work, Sean and I chatted over the map. When one of the guides returned, I thanked him and tried to give the map back. “It’s not his map,” Sean said, “It’s Chongo’s.” So then I tried to give the map to the person I thought had been introduced as Chongo. “It’s not his either,” Sean said. I had guessed wrong on who was Chongo.
“Ah, ‘they’ all look the same,” Sean (who is white by the way) said with a smirk, mocking me. I became really embarrassed and afraid I looked like a racist. Me being the foreigner, the American. But it was true that I was having trouble keeping track of who was who.
It wasn’t until days later that I felt okay about how the situation had unfolded. As a raft guide, I meet new people all the time. On this particular trip, I was with a boat load of young women who were in Zambia working for a week as volunteers. They were all twenty-something, white, and American (basically like me, except younger). They each introduced themselves and we spent the morning together in the boat. But they weren’t my clients, since I was just along for fun. So I didn’t have my usual focus on getting to know them or their names. When we got to the truck at the end of the day, I realized I didn’t really know who was who. They all looked the same.
So that got me thinking. The hardest rafting trips for me to learn names on are usually the Boy Scout trips when all the boys are about the same age and size. Or the Elderhostel trips where everyone is gray-haired with glasses. And the easiest time for me to learn names is when the demographics are all mixed up, when people are different sizes, ages, shapes and colors.
One other thing that stopped my self-doubt about the situation, was that after a few days I knew who was who among the guides. There had been some personality added to the input details, so distinction wasn’t based solely on appearance. And like many groups of people, those personalities were all over the map: one playful and a bit reckless, one shy and thoughtful, one super professional and a great leader.
So I decided that a group that all shares similar demographics, does all look the same from a distance or on first meeting. The key is to know that all those people are not the same. And I gave myself a break, knowing that I believed that all along.