naked white


a brave minority

I climb off his motorbike at the taxi station and Mbouille shows me the palm of his hand;

“Stay here. If they see a white person, they will raise the price.”

So I hang back, look at my shoes, kick around the dirt and pretend that I am not the only white person between here and the horizons of dawn.

While I have enjoyed wearing skin of trendy and matching colors on most other continents, the melatonin in my skin hasn’t a shade of chance travelling incognito within this crowd; I wear my whiteness like nudity. And there is no darkness or distance that will hide my otherness.

But the truth is I love this. I grab onto it like a hammer. But it is not a power tool. It’s the same feeling as being caught and confronted for lying or stealing. It’s wanting to be punished for a crime I’ve been long guilty of committing. It’s the way the pain of a burn or cut sometimes feels good. It’s the comfort of walking to other side of the front line and slipping into the shoes of the “other” you were always suspicious of being “same.” It’s feeling the peculiarly pleasant littleness of being a minority. It is shame and it is understanding. It is relief. It’s humiliation. It’s deserving. It’s humbling.

Whatever it is. I grab onto it violently. And when I hold it, I discover it gives me strength. It fills me with a jittery energy that makes my step heavy with confidence and my back straighten with pride. Not white pride; I have only shame for the sinful history of white skins’ atrocities against shades darker. It is underdog pride; It’s going to battle without an army, advantage or defense and not caring for how I go down as much as how I walk in. As I feel out, for the first time, the bravery of being a minority, I wonder if I am tasting the same source of sustenance that has fed revolutionaries through history and around the world. At the end of this thought, I chuckle at the fairness of this flighty power that fuels only those under and flees the exact instant a minority becomes a majority; a karmic and cyclic system of check and balance that can not be corrupted. Few things give me greater satisfaction than evidence of the invisible hand that writes our shared story with equally admirable senses of wisdom and wit.

riding the circulatory system of culture

Left alone and no longer under Mbouille’s wing of protection, I brace myself with newly-minority-inspired bravery and lean aloof and careless against the side of the taxi.

If there is one thing that Americans do poorly (that a good portion of the rest of world has expertise in), it is waiting. I’m not sure when my anxious habits of toe-tapping and curt sighs wore off, but I am relieved, today, to be free of this Americanism. Now, when my plane is delayed for hours, I breathe long happy sighs of love for empty hours of inactivity devoid of all expectation aside from patience. And at this moment, I am especially happy to have a legit excuse to lean up against this taxi and do what I enjoy perhaps more than anything else on earth; be quiet and observe.

And the taxi (and bus) station is a candy store for the eyes. If there is ever a place where one is guaranteed a feast of cultural activity — it is the center of local transportation. While it may not be permis- or possible to visit or view the exact moment where life ends and/or begins in a particular culture, what you can count on, at least, is a chance to watch it pass by at this intersection of community and commerce. Local transportation is the blood of any country; ride it and you will find yourself on an authentic and adventurous journey circulating its very veins. It will never be comfortable — might even be painful and/or dangerous — but is one of the only experiences that locals, not out of courtesy but without choice, will let you share with them. So there’s one of my best travel tips: skip private taxis, cruises, priority class, and hired drivers and you will earn yourself a first-class ticket to as close to an authentic interaction as you can get with a country.

(to be continually continued)

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  1. Amber April 7, 2007 at 5:06 am

    Thanks for your beautiful words and when I read them it touches my soul.

  2. Beaver February 20, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Salaam Aleikum! Nanga def?

    I got the link to your webpage from a travelgroup on

    Anyway – in a somewhat different way then you, I’m a globetrotter too (I packed my bags in Sept. 2004 and started with Senegal). I am in love with your blog.

    Seldom does one take the time to write with such detail the cultural experiences and learnings of travelling.)

    I’m linking to you on my site – and you are welcome to check me out if you have any curiosity what so ever of who this travelling beaver person is.



  3. Roshan February 18, 2007 at 1:11 am

    Hi Solbeam,

    You won’t remember me, but I spoke to you a couple times wayyyyyy back when you were working at and you sat at your desk in front of your webcam. Back then I was a biology/poli.sci. major a short time away from graduating, and now I’m a med student who is once again a short time away from graduating.

    I remember you were about to leave for south america, and over the past several years, I’ve logged on to your website a couple times briefly when I racked my brain thinking of websites to look up, and I see you’ve trotted all over this globe in that interim.

    I’m Canadian but of Indian heritage, so I’ve visited India a few times as well, and plan to visit Europe this summer. You take beautiful photographs and write beautifully as well. You’ve done things that most people tell themselves they would like to do eventually when they reach a certain stage in their life, but with no certainty that they will ever do them. That must give you an enormous amount of inner peace, because having done those things, the rest of your life is gravy. Icing on the cake. It takes care of itself.

    Hey, I just want to wish you the best on your continued journey.


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