The Lone Ranger

by Sanjena Sathian

Travelers, no matter who we are, relish independence. Traveling writers and journalists even more so. Our tales have a much greater dramatic effect when we return if we are solitary characters; our adventures seem magnified. It’s something inherent in Americanism – we prize the individual, the rugged explorer, the lone ranger.

As many bloggers have already pointed out this summer, myself included, this individualism is not so cherished in the east. It’s instead wondered at. “You’re here alone?” I’m always asked. “All by yourself?” And the look on the question asker’s face is not of awe but rather of confusion. What is the pleasure in being by oneself?

The view of the Ilam mountainside reminds me why I travel.

But the obvious truth, which anyone who travels knows, is that it’s impossible to be alone as a traveler. We fall into step with others along the way; other expats, locals, different versions of ourselves. Traveling is a careful dance with your surroundings, and being alone ironically pushes you even deeper into the arms of the place you are in.
Pico Iyer, a writer of Indian descent (like me) whose family moved abroad (like me) and who studied in America (like me), catalogued his travels through Asia in the 1980s, carefully noting the dance between East and West: “When Westerner meets Easterner, each finds himself often drawn to the other, yet mystified; each projects his designs; and each pursues both his illusions and his vested interest with a curious mix of innocence and calculation that shifts with every step.”

It is a kind of romance Iyer detects; a kind of dance. I’ve worn several skins in Nepal so far: the tourist and the traveler (which are two very different feelings – the latter only slips on, silently, once you have been in a place long enough to stop taking pictures of, and being surprised by, the obvious); the student researcher, the NGO activist, the journalist. Each one requires a dependency on the hospitality of locals, and thusly the dance begins. There is a kind of pleasure in that dance: a mutual learning and growth, a curiosity without danger. But the dance of the journalist with the local is something altogether different, and when it becomes an embrace – when you become too close, too dependent, something seems wrong.

I spent my last few weeks in Ilam desperately trying to do some reporting for a piece I’d been planning in my head for months. Mere days before I was leaving, it seemed I’d had a breakthrough, but when my two Nepali friends and I arrived in Birtamode after a four-hour long jeep ride, the man sent to meet us had no idea what I wanted. I sat in silent frustration as they begged and pleaded with him to help us, but it was no use. I couldn’t even come up with the Nepali to explain my research; all the arrangements had been done by locals because I was helpless even in this basic regard. I had made myself dependent, and nothing is worse for a journalist than feeling like a situation is out of their control. We left empty-handed to come back to Ilam, and I cursed my choice of coming to a country where I’d overestimated my language abilities and lost control of my situation.

This is the danger of attempting reporting in a place where you are wholly dependent on another. As journalists, we expect ourselves to stand outside of a place, to watch it from on high and gather our understandings all alone, and dependence seems to threaten that both crucial American individualism that we as travelers seek and the detached, observant objectivity that we as journalists seek. But isn’t that kind of standard… well, a little silly, in some cases?
When we sat in the van on the way back to Ilam, winding our way through the hilly tea gardens, hurtling through the most star-speckled night sky I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t help but feel my frustration soften.

Journalists have paradoxical ideas sometimes. I’ve been told to be detached from the world about which I’m reporting, to turn on it with fresh eyes and be objective. But journalists, like travelers, really just want to tell a good story when we return. And no matter how much like the lone ranger we’ll make ourselves sound when we tell it, the reality is that as it was all happening, we were probably holding on tightly to the arm of another, limping our way cluelessly through a foreign land. We – journalists and travelers alike – want to tell stories that show how intimately we came to know a place. We can only get so deep, though, with the help of whomever we stumble into along the way.

So this is the dance of East and West; it is a careful, calculated dance at first, but inevitably, it tumbles into a headlong embrace. And as I leave Ilam, abandoning the skin of a journalist (slash researcher slash NGO activist), and slip into the skin of a traveler, the dance will begin again. I’ll hope to be embraced by each new place I step into, but even if I don’t, I can still feel the warmth of Ilam’s arms around me.

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