Thanksgiving Special – For What Am I Thankful?

We’re not that big on holidays. Maybe it’s because I grew up in an immigrant household, in the awkward place of not really being able to fully appreciate the holidays of our origin, for lack of public acknowledgement and others with whom to celebrate, nor those of our new home, which were foreign and unfamiliar to us (I think every immigrant family must have a story involving its first Halloween). Or maybe it’s because from college to law school to clerkship to working abroad, we’ve moved around so much, and often been far from our family and friends with whom we would wish to commemorate a special day. Whatever the cause, routinely we see holidays come and go, marked only by an office function, perhaps, or a day off and an excuse to get out of town. Thanksgiving for us for a few years meant a time to go up to Canada for the weekend, where things would be open. This year, the time of Thanksgiving dinner passes on a bus, bound from the Malian border with Senegal to Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Thanksgiving on the road

Our Thanksgiving lunch (no Thanksgiving dinner)

For what am I thankful? However contemptible I feel for feeling it, and however nonsensical it is, while traveling in Sub-saharan Africa, it’s easy to feel a sense of relief for not having been born here. The conditions on this continent can be so challenging, that to my spoiled first world eyes, they seem almost impossible to endure. To live in 40 degree Celsius weather with no accessible place air-conditioned, to be constantly pestered by flies and mosquitoes that in addition to causing the usual itchiness carry disease, to have to keep myself and my clothes clean without water much less hot water on demand, to have to work so hard for so little and be appreciative for having any job at all… Of course, had I been born here, or were I really forced to live it, I am sure that I would adapt and make do. But I was not, and I am not.

Backpacking is, from the most cynical perspective, a voyeuristic “slumming it.” Backpackers travel to countries that are, generally, cheaper and poorer than the places we come from. In doing so, we sleep in airports and train stations, in hotel-cum-brothels, in dorms with shared bath; ride in minibuses, share-taxis and boats crammed full with freight and humanity; grow disheveled, with scruffy faces, patched and dirty clothes and grungy backpacks; exert ourselves, carrying our loads on our backs, taking 24-hour bus rides and hiking hours between villages. Why do we do this? Why not just travel in the developed world? In part it’s cost, but it’s also because we want to see the less developed world, in part because it is less developed, to see things that no longer exist (never existed?) back home. The contrast between places such as Africa or India and the world we come from, whether New York or Hong Kong or Paris, is so great that it is almost unbelievable that such disparate places exist at the same time in the same world.

So I am thankful for the incredible privilege of seeing it all. For the ability to travel from Venice to Dakar in 24 hours, at an expense that is manageable for me. For having a job back home that allows me sufficient money, and time, to do what I am doing. At no point in the history of the world has travel been so easy, so accessible, to so many (though of course still only a tiny sliver of the world population). With the advent of discount airlines, the proliferation of guidebooks, the rise of English as an international lingua franca and the ubiquity of the internet and ATM machines, with a bit of money and time almost no destination is beyond reach. And despite the homogenization and globalization of the last fifty years, fascinating differences, truly exotic (to us) locales, still exist. To experience more than it seems one person has a right to experience, for that I am thankful today.

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