I often find myself in what some consider to be strange places. “Strange” as in places they’ve never heard of before. The truth is I have often never heard of the places I visit either until I find myself there. I don’t see the places as strange because I am always welcomed with warmth, kindness and generosity.
I am now on a little island on the Pacific Coast of Mexico near Mazatlán called Isla de la Piedra or Stone Island. Few people outside of Mazatlán have heard of this place. It’s actually a peninsula and not an island so one could technically drive here from the mainland but it is a circuitous route and not all of the roads are paved. It is much easier to take a five-minute lancha ride from the embarcadero in Mazatlán.
Although Isla de la Piedra is super-close in proximity to Mazatlán, it is a world away in terms of infrastructure or lack thereof, ambience and lifestyle. Mazatlán itself is quite diverse offering neighborhoods ranging from ultra-modern, tricked-out gated communities and high-end, high rise condos ala Miami or Fort Lauderdale to a beautifully restored historic old town chock full of churches, plazas, restaurants and other sites; or lovely, quiet tree-lined neighborhoods akin to California and of course, traditional Mexican urban neighborhoods with corner bodegas, etc.
Isla de la Piedra, on the other hand, is still undeveloped although I hear plans are in the making to change that but for the time being it is still quite rustically natural and therefore peaceful. Her miles of coconut tree-lined, soft sandy beaches receive tourists daily but mostly for day-trips. In the mornings only the pelicans, one or two fishermen, a handful of dogs and I witness her breathtaking sunrises from her tranquil shores.
By noon there are hundreds of tourists eating fresh ceviche (Mazatlán, I’m told, is the shrimp capital of the world – yum) and other fresh seafood and Mexican delights. Children frolic in the sea and build sand castles while their parents are serenaded by roving bandas (like mariachi bands but with tubas and drums) and buy jewelry and trinkets from the vendors peddling their wares. All of the restaurants close around 4:00PM so by sunset, which is around 5:15PM these days, the beach is again left for those lucky few of us who call the island home.
Those of you who know me know that I’ve been traveling the world, ironically, in search of self. You also know that I’ve been finding myself in my brothers and sisters from different worlds, different backgrounds and who speak different languages. Often the people that I encounter are not frequently exposed to people who look like me on a daily basis or seemingly ever because I don’t tend to travel on well-beaten paths. These encounters have enabled me to gain access to parts of myself to which I had also not previously been exposed.
I have grown accustomed to stares, giggles and requests for photos. In Asia, my picture was often taken without permission as frequently by European tourists as it was by Burmese laborers. The thing that seems to cause the greatest stir in my travels is not necessarily the color of my skin, my height or my nationality but my hair. Which, for the record, baffles even me on most days so I can’t say that I really blame gawkers.
Because this is my life, my skin and my hair I am used to the questions and to the requests to touch me and/or my hair. I always acquiesce and in fact, I encourage the hair-touchers to put their whole hand in my ‘fro and really get in there so they have a deeper understanding of it and of me. This attention is the norm for me however it shocks acquaintances, friends and even family members who find themselves in my company at the center of the equivalent of a tiny carnival side-show attraction which they had no idea was even in town. I have encountered this situation literally all around the world with companions from many different countries and cultures yet all of their reactions are always the same: surprise.
My very own daughter, who was not a stranger to the stares, still expressed shock one night when we were at a charity fundraising event. She introduced me to a slightly tipsy board member who was approximately five feet tall; I was well over six feet in my heels on said evening. The height differential is only significant because what happened next required some effort – the tiny, tipsy board member reached up with both hands and grabbed two fistfuls of my hair. My daughter’s response was “Did that just happen? She just went right in without warning!” We both giggled.
In Vietnam the attention seemed to reach somewhat of an apex mostly because they don’t seem to have a cultural imperative to smile like Americans, Thai or Burmese or the inclination to do so like the Balinese, Malyasians or Indonesians. This perception comes, in part, from my admittedly limited and culturally-biased perspective that a smile helps lessen the awkwardness of a stare. I chalked up the intrigue in Vietnam to their lack of exposure to people who look like me although I was still mildly surprised at the degree of attention which included causing no less than three traffic accidents. I assumed that in this day and age they would have seen brown folks by now on their televisions or computers if not on their ubiquitous smartphones.
When I stated this to my beau at the time with whom I was traveling, he astutely responded: well just because you see ET on your television or computer does not mean that it would not be shocking to see ET walking down your street. Touché. I thought that was a very fair assessment of and a plausible explanation for the experience we were having which we both heretofore had thought was reserved for those with real celebrity status.
The ET argument lost its strength however in Europe where they have plenty of brown folks of their own yet the intrigue with me and my hair continued. (For the record – Catalonia has also apparently not received the “please smile while staring” memo). And the ET argument flat-out died here in Mexico which shares a border with the US because surely black Americans have traveled here, no? Apparently not because I have found the reaction here in Mexico to be equally as intense as in Vietnam with two minor differences:
- They don’t ask permission to touch me or my hair – they just do it.
- I understand Spanish.
My following philosophy on all of the above is just one of the many reasons I can usually be found in “strange” places on tiny, remote islands away from the general population living amongst feral dogs, feral plants and feral people…
You see, I view all with an open heart and an open mind. I understand curiosity and do not perceive it as a negative thing; on the contrary, I believe that curiosity is what inspires learning and keeps us thriving as a species. As an autodidact, one of things I value most about my freedom is my ability to pursue those things about which I am curious until I am satiated. And what an incredible time to be alive wherein we can pursue our curiosity with abandon whether on the internet from the comfort of our own homes or hopping on a plane and exploring this beautiful planet of ours!
In the US we have been socialized and conditioned to be politically correct and to not ask certain questions or say certain things because they are considered rude or inappropriate. We operate in this manner because we fear hurting another’s feelings or we fear appearing ignorant which is equally as tragic. The idea that anyone other than us is responsible for our feelings is what I consider to be one of the major issues, if not the major issue, that has disempowered us – both as a society and as individuals – for it has led to the near-extinction of open and authentic dialogue. The great news is that these conversations still happen elsewhere in the world where a question is simply a question and curiosity is simply curiosity and where there does not appear to be any shame in ignorance. All of us who seek knowledge are ignorant to varying degrees otherwise we would not be seeking knowledge, correct?
We all notice differences. Children in all of their beautiful innocence see differences whether they are in skin colors, hair types, eye color, height, weight, physical abilities, etc. To point out that someone is different is simply an expression of ignorance. In this context, “different” simply means different than what one is accustomed to and “ignorance” is just the act of not knowing. Neither of these things is bad; it is the value or the weight that we are conditioned to assign to “different” and to “ignorance” that creates issues.
If I go through life reminding myself each moment of each day that I or others like me have been discriminated against, treated poorly or made fun of because our hair, skin or nationality is different, then when people approach me my reaction may be vastly different than what it is today. However, my journey is one of healing, forgiveness and love – all of which I practice giving to myself daily because I am dedicated to allowing my higher-self to enjoy the ride this time. This means that I am able to see the people who approach me simply as curious and I am more than happy to help them learn about me.
I have never been approached by someone wanting to touch me or my hair who expressed malicious intent, judgment or hidden agenda. I have never been made to feel less-than. I do not feel like a zoo animal although one guy told his wife in Spanish I looked like a “pajaro” which means bird; I took it as a compliment and smiled. And I do not feel like they “should know better.”
In fact, I feel the exact opposite. Firstly, I am grateful to be in their countries freely exploring my own curiosity. Secondly, I am humbled that they feel comfortable approaching me and interacting with me. If a person is close enough to touch my hair then you better believe we are making eye contact and if we are making eye contact then we are establishing a connection and acknowledging each other’s existence. What more could one ask from a stranger? Additionally, I have learned how to say the word “beautiful” in as many languages as countries I have visited from curious strangers, including immigration officials, who have touched my hair.
Establishing a connection opens the door for dialogue and allows for the exchange of ideas. When we are comfortable being our authentic selves in the company of others and we can express ourselves honestly then we can have open, meaningful discussions in which both parties leave the conversation bigger and better for it. We are able to explore ignorance-borne biases and we can choose to abandon them or not but either way we will have investigated them and made a connection with another human being.
I have had mind-blowing, perspective-changing conversations in the course of my travels about: the custom of multiple wives with a Saudi Arabian; the practice of teenage brides with an Indonesian; the merits of prostitution with a Thai working-lady; why some rural villagers eat dog meat with a Vietnamese fellow and, a plethora of conversations about Islam with Muslims from around the world – to name just a few examples. All of these discussions occurred because we dared to establish a human connection.
One of the first things that I tell people with whom I am sharing time is that they need not worry about offending me. I instruct them that their only job with me is to speak their truth openly and honestly. I am interested in communication, connection and growth – none of these things are possible if we need to mind what we say or how we say it. I have found that when we provide space for free communication, without fear of insult or judgment, words actually become secondary and we gain the ability to listen to each other’s truth with our hearts which is how we establish deep, intimate connections and receive insight, understanding and achieve personal growth.
If I do find that I am offended by or judgmental about something someone says, I make a mental note to investigate that later because I know that that is a part of myself (either past, present or future self) that I have not yet explored and healed thoroughly. I view these moments as opportunities for personal growth and now instead of perceiving them as reasons to get angry or bent out of shape, I view them with deep gratitude. I have learned a tremendous amount about myself in this way and it has allowed me to heal some very old, festering wounds. This process of self-healing has freed me immensely and cleared the way for me to easily connect with people from all walks of life.
For the record, I cannot remember the last time I was offended or had my feelings hurt by someone. It’s not that I don’t have feelings; it’s that I have learned that no one has the power to hurt my feelings except for me and if I am feeling hurt it’s because of an unhealed wound that I previously created which also means I am the only one who has the power to heal it. I have learned how to use my feelings as gateways or portals into self-awareness because ultimately they provide clues and shine a light into the dark areas of self that still require healing. The clues are not in what people say or do but in what I think and feel about what people say or do.
I had to first accept that both my feelings and my healing were my responsibility and no one else’s. Then, instead of wishing others would change who they were or how they were in my company in order to spare me the discomfort of having to deal with my own emotional baggage; I opened myself up to the discomfort. Where I once avoided people or situations that I may have perceived to be uncomfortable or awkward, I now lean into them understanding that they contain rich growth opportunities and I invite and welcome them all with an open heart and mind. So go on – touch my hair, please.