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    Valle d'Aosta

    Between Continents

    Even in an age of globalization, cultural appropriation, and carbon footprints, international travel can make us better.

    By Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

    November 4, 2022

    The local brew – dolo – tastes like apple juice but not quite as sweet. Tiny bubbles fizzle upward, forming a speckled white film on the surface and tickling the tongue. I am offered a plastic cup, but my host, Alain, insists on giving me a hollowed-out gourd, the traditional vessel for dolo. The texture and weight of the asymmetrical bowl in my hand is as delightful as the drink’s tart tang and uncertain alcohol content.

    We’re in the family compound of relatives of relatives on our return journey from Toma, a town on the edge of Burkina Faso’s Sahel, the semi-arid strip between the Sahara and the coastal rainforest. Chickens run freely around the yard of packed red earth; a cousin scoops up a pair, binds them by the feet and arranges them among our luggage in the trunk. Alain looks at me and laughs. “Fresher than the grocery store,” he says.

    The night before I’d been asking about local cuisine. Alain mentioned dolo, a homebrewed sorghum cider. “You must try it,” he insisted. “We will go tomorrow.” Though one could find dolo in the city, it would not taste as good.

    And, indeed, on a motley collection of plastic lawn chairs, in the rectangle of shade cast by the thatched awning, dolo is delicious – though I don’t imagine the beverage having much future on the export market: it really wouldn’t taste as good in the city. It’s one of those things that just aren’t the same unless you’re there.

    Anthony Lusvardi drinking dolo with friends in Burkina Faso

    Sampling dolo in Burkina Faso. All photographs courtesy of the author.

    American friends have just arrived in Rome. I am meeting them by the Spanish Steps for dinner. They are traveling with their two teenage boys. As we walk in the direction of the Trevi Fountain, the mother confides, “There’s a Chinese restaurant right across the street from our hotel, and the first thing the boys said when we got here was, ‘Let’s have Chinese!’”

    I chuckle but am not really surprised. This is the paradox of tourism today: the more cosmopolitan the locale, the more it becomes like everyplace else. Sushi in Budapest is the new normal. You can travel from cosmopolis to cosmopolis meeting people much like yourself in different accents and skin tones. In Rome the waiters are more often Indian or Filipino than Italian, and you will find the same in Prague. Venice, that most singular of cities, sees thirty million yearly visitors and is down to fifty-five thousand residents, making it rather like an older version of the Las Vegas hotel it inspired.

    A conversation overheard among traveling companions: an older Spanish man remarks to a Vietnamese student that if he didn’t spend so much time taking photos, he could spend it looking at the sights instead. The student explains that he doesn’t really care about the sights; he just wants to send pictures to his friends.

    Today we travel without leaving.

    The day before my introduction to dolo Alain and I had been in Dédougou, the regional capital, for his ordination to the priesthood. After the celebratory meal we’d taken off for Toma, the village where Alain had grown up.

    We pass through green and rust-colored fields studded with mud-brick houses and squat silos with pointy thatched roofs, some of these raised off the ground on wooden stilts. Alain lists the products grown in the fields – cotton, sesame, millet, sorghum, maize, groundnuts. The last are prized for the oil they produce, used in beauty products. Farmers work the ground with handheld hoes, as they have for centuries. In villages along the road goats, chickens, and the occasional donkey or hog wander freely. “They look lost, but in the village everybody knows who they belong to,” Alain reassures me.

    At Toma we stay in the parish guesthouse – I deduce that Toma does not get many guests. My room is stifling, there’s no pillow on the bed, the light doesn’t work, the water runs unpredictably, and dust coats a non-functional fan. Alain suggests a preemptive strike against what will otherwise be a restless night, and we head into town for beer.

    Outside the feel is entirely different, the air in the dark but lively streets abuzz with youthful energy. In the lights of idling cars, a group of boys chase a well-worn soccer ball through the street. “You see,” Alain says, his energy returning. “In Europe, everyone is old, and you have to go to the schools to find young people.” He is happy to be home.

    Alain reminisces about life in the village, where you can sleep under the stars when it’s too hot indoors and people take time to greet each other. We drink Brakina, the national beer. “When I was young I wanted to see the city streets: the cars, the buses, the restaurants.” He laughs. He has lived in Ouagadougou, Nairobi, Paris, and Rome – where we study together – and only now appreciates village life.

    “Here people listen to their grandmothers,” he says.

    field and village in Burkina Faso

    The Sahel, Burkina Faso

    I meet backpackers and they are … predictable. I turn the paradoxes over in my head because I’m not particularly different. Low budget, ex–Peace Corps volunteer, I was the one eating sushi in Budapest last winter. And I love to travel. For years I have seen doing so almost as a moral good, like education. Isn’t travel good precisely because it exposes you to different ways of thinking, immerses you in ways of life not your own? But what about when it just offers exotic background scenery for the same assumptions? I am told travel inculcates tolerance and diversity. But what happens when tolerance itself becomes a kind of universal solvent, bleaching out shades of thinking that are too bright or too dark, that do not conform to its pastel color scheme? When the black and white of the checkerboard drains into a single gray square and none of the pieces have any place left to move?

    Twenty years ago I was a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Kazakhstan, a world painted in the weathered hues of communism’s concrete blocks. The experience made me aware that the habitat in which I grew up was exceptional; the environmental equilibrium required to nurture such exotic fauna as tolerance and diversity is delicate, threatened by the very nature of the principles themselves. Too much of either one, or the wrong combination, or an overzealous strain, and the balance will be lost. Sun and rain are good for growth – until they parch the seedlings or wash away the soil. Amid the Soviet ruins, I saw the distended shapes into which human nature could be squeezed and pounded by the prophets of progress.

    The most fertile part of travel sometimes is the waiting. I spent the week before Burkina Faso in Ivory Coast for the ordination of another classmate. My friend recommended a day trip from Abidjan, the country’s largest city and commercial center, to Yamoussoukro, the provincial town that became the capital by virtue of being the birthplace of Felix Houphouët-Boigny, the country’s long-reigning strongman. In addition to government buildings surrounded by crocodile-filled moats, Yamoussoukro boasts a basilica large enough to fit Saint Peter’s dome inside, built by Houphouët-Boigny in the 1980s.

    The trip did not go as planned. Our departure “between eight and nine” became ten. Two days of downpours had turned Abidjan, a tangle of slums and skyscrapers sprawling along an inky blue lagoon, into something like an urbanized version of the Everglades. No paved road connected the bus station, located in one of the slums, to the Abidjan-Yamoussoukro highway. Brown-red rapids churned where drainage from the shantytowns emptied into the road; murky pools large enough to swallow a taxi yawned from the mud. It was noon by the time we exited the city, past six by the time we pulled into drowsy Yamoussoukro.

    I was accompanied by Yves, a cousin of my Jesuit friend. Yves demonstrated heroic patience throughout the excursion, not least because our communication was dependent on his English – a grammarless vocabulary of perhaps two hundred words. He used the word “hundred” to designate any large number, so when he said a bus ticket cost two hundred francs, it might just as well cost two thousand. He also knew only one pronoun, so when he said “I go” it could mean I, you, he, she, it, or they go – or already went, or might go eventually. And Yves’s English was better than my French, which consisted entirely of nodding a vigorous “oui” anytime I recognized an English cognate.

    I love to travel. For years I have seen doing so almost as a moral good.

    Thanks to Yves’s diligent efforts and several calls back to the Jesuits in Abidjan, a community of religious sisters took us in for dinner and found us lodging in a church guesthouse. Perhaps it was simply decompression after escaping the bus, but Yamoussoukro seemed an easygoing, friendly town, even by Africa’s generally hospitable standards. I wasn’t expecting an overnight and hadn’t come prepared, which was just as well – the mother superior put together a little travel bag with soap, toothbrush, and towel for me.

    I’ve become convinced that experiencing real diversity when traveling means trading the urban for the provincial, learning to savor the evening sunlight through the dust of village streets. Culture requires both abundance and privation – too much water makes a swamp – and diversity requires some degree of isolation. I think of the spiritual ancestors of the nuns who were hosting us and the role monasteries have played in culture’s fermentation, the silence of the cloister a necessary counterpoint to the music of the choir. Even dolo needs a day in the dark to get its bubbles.

    A midwinter bull session with other Peace Corps volunteers stationed in the Kazakhstani village, borsch and tea bubbling on the apartment’s coal-burning stove, Parliament vodka fueling a philosophy seminar. We complain about our students’ cheating: shameless plagiarism, shouting answers across the room during tests; when copying becomes too cumbersome, bad students simply pass their papers to good students to fill in the answers. Local teachers are ambivalent about the cheating since, in the view of the Ministry of Education, low grades result only from bad teachers: everyone must pass. These ex-Soviets have a more collective sense of identity, one of the volunteers speculates, a more collaborative sense of achievement. Another volunteer, eloquent with vodka, proclaims general relativism the inevitable conclusion of our experience. I raise meta-objections to the relativist hypothesis – a general rule denying universal norms negates itself – but I have become less eloquent with vodka.

    Some would take this – relativism – as the lesson taught by travel, which seems to furnish exceptions to every rule. Kant thought truth-telling a categorical imperative; in Kazakhstan I am shocked at how often people lie without discernable motive or advantage. Survival under communism required an Orwellian two-step, I imagine, so truth came to be seen as a volatile commodity not to be exposed to strangers.

    The next day I am with the same volunteer at the bus station, and the taxi driver with whom we are negotiating is shamelessly attempting to rip us off. The rate for the trip to Almaty is fixed, so this particular driver is being gratuitously boorish. The incident is enough to get the other volunteer muttering as we walk away, “It’s just wrong, man. How can someone act like that?” Another comment suggests a genetic cause of the behavior, before he returns to the nobler refrain, “It’s just wrong, man.” The relativism of the night before is vanquished.

    In the end, I suspect, relativism is a belief that can only survive in a greenhouse, requiring a very particular post-Christian soil for cultivation, withering when exposed to harsher realities. I think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s long, cold internment on the Kazakh steppe, a few hundred miles north of where we stand, the stubborn flame of truth keeping him alive. Relativism is altogether domesticated by contrast, more fear of being wrong than positive belief. It couldn’t even stand up to a Kazakh cabbie.

    My downtime in Ivory Coast gives me the chance to reread Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, one of West Africa’s literary masterpieces. Literature works the same way as travel, stretching our minds with new experiences, with the added complexity of viewing those experiences through the stylized perspective of the author. In the novel, Achebe also turns over the paradoxes of cultural diversity. The heart of the story is the Ibo tribe’s encounter with British colonization, but even before the arrival of Europeans, the Ibo villagers struggle to make sense of cultural norms that seem arbitrary. The laws of a place must be obeyed, they agree, but they cannot help but notice that different villages maintain different customs: in the village of Umuofia males of the tribal aristocracy are forbidden to climb palm trees, but nobody remembers why; in certain villages dowries are determined by ritual, in others by haggling; cutting dog meat with a knife is taboo, but tearing it with one’s teeth is not; in some tribes children belong to the man, in others to the woman. “What is good in one place is bad in another place,” an elder observes.

    But Achebe’s novel also reveals the limits of this truism. Tolerance is easy when diversity means the perfectly balanced skin tones of a Benetton ad or a college admissions brochure. But if one travels far enough to encounter places kept off tourist maps, even sophisticated versions of “different strokes for different folks” won’t cut it. The tragic hero of Achebe’s novel is Okonkwo, a man both hard and hard-working, who embodies the Ibo warrior ideal. In the standard Hollywood plotline, the people living in the forest embody innocence and decency and the sweaty men getting off the boat are inevitably hypocritical and nasty, but Things Fall Apart doesn’t quite fit this template. To be sure, Achebe’s novel provides ammunition to criticize colonialism, but it does not romanticize the Ibo. Okonkwo can be cruel, murdering his adopted son Ikemefuna while he pleads, “My father!” Okonkwo kills the boy to appease his gods and maintain his social standing.

    I’ve become convinced that experiencing real diversity when traveling means trading the urban for the provincial, learning to savor the evening sunlight through the dust of village streets.

    When missionaries arrive, Christianity takes root among the Ibo’s social outcasts: those ridiculed as weak by Okonkwo and the other men of note; mothers of twins, who according to Ibo custom must be abandoned in the forest after birth; and Okonkwo’s own son Nwoye, who recoils at Ikemefuna’s murder and never lives up to his father’s expectations. We may sympathize with Okonkwo – in certain ways his ethos resembles that of America’s Self-Made Man – but the world that he has fought so hard to master cannot survive. The novel ends with his suicide. Things Fall Apart is a tragedy, and something is definitely lost when the Ibo way of life breaks down. But not all value systems are equal. Okonkwo’s worldview is not spacious enough to accommodate the experiences engendered by the arrival of a new religion and new cultures. And as Ikemefuna’s cries and Nwoye’s conscience testify, “what is good in one place is bad in another” is not an adequate philosophy when confronting child sacrifice. Nwoye chooses the better part.

    In the Book of Exodus God warns the Israelites, “Neither shall you allege the example of the many as an excuse for doing wrong” (Exod. 23:2). Travel and literature put us in new places from which to see the world; they move the kaleidoscope, revealing different forms and colors of human life. Such knowledge can help to refine our sense of what is right and what is wrong and what is mere convention. But it does not negate right and wrong as meaningful categories. The behavior of certain British colonists in Things Fall Apart is as reprehensible as Okonkwo’s murder of Ikemefuna, and the fact that both are socially tolerated points to the need for a standard of judgment that stands over and above the fifty-one percent. Travel, with its way of throwing into relief the faults of home as well as of other places, ought to help us occasionally reach a higher vantage point.

    I am thinking about Okonkwo and Alain and Kazakhstan on my long plane ride back to Europe, the vast dark nothing of the Sahara below me in the night. I wonder if my assessment of travel’s value is not overly idealistic. I think of a conversation I overheard in Rome between a German and a Pole, both thirty-something, in which the German spoke of his summer holidays as if they were a human right of the highest order – as if he’d be willing to cede life and liberty to Eurocrats in Brussels in exchange for July in Cyprus – and passionately argued that such free movement was the glue cementing continental peace. The Pole was less rhapsodic.

    I too have gradually become less naïve about the good of travel. It sometimes means running away, and often comes at the expense of another category of goods, those that require rootedness and commitment, time and stability to nurture. Turn the kaleidoscope too fast and it becomes a blur; one gets a headache and loses interest.

    The relativist escape is something like this, a response to being overwhelmed by the avalanche of competing claims that characterizes postmodernity. The checkerboard suddenly became three-dimensional, and, since we are afraid of moving the pieces wrong, we squint until all the squares look gray. This fear is understandable. Despite ritual professions of tolerance, we live in an era in which mistakes, our own and those of the defenseless past, are subjected to the arbitrary justice of mobs, both virtual and real. So it is only natural that contemporary man is an anxious animal. Our professions of tolerance have often made us quicker to take offense than to show compassion.

    view of mountains in the Valle d'Aosta from helicopter

    View of the Valle d’Aosta from a helicopter

    A week after my return to Europe I am in the sky again. My dad, having taken up guiding tours in retirement, is leading a group through the Valle d’Aosta, Italy’s smallest region, where the locals still speak a Franco-Provençal dialect called Valdôtain. I’ve taken a break from studies to spend the weekend with my folks and their tour group. At the last minute one of the guests decides to skip the helicopter ride over Mont Blanc, so there’s an empty seat.

    A controlled terror – I’ve never ridden in a helicopter before – is part of the thrill. Our little glass orb, just big enough to sit four abreast, passes upward through multiple climatic zones in seconds. We seem to be heading for collision with a sheer cliff face before banking gently over the Mer de Glace, a blindingly magnificent sea of light and snow. The turbulence we feel in the gusts swirling between peaks is more like the bobbing of a boat than the lurching of an airliner.

    But the real thrill is the view. The day before, on the ground, we’d seen these peaks from different perspectives, as well as the slate-roofed villages nestled in between. From the helicopter these marvels – each one postcard beautiful in itself – hit you all at once.

    At its best traveling means grasping for that 360-degree view. From the ground we know such a view exists, even if we can’t reach it. The multiplicity of earthbound perspectives does not negate the existence of a singular aerial panorama. All those local vistas, in fact, help us better imagine what such a view would be like. The wonder of the total experience cannot really be anticipated, but there’s wonder along the way, too, in each of the moments that compose it – the craggy Alps, the chill of the Kazakh steppe, the rhythms of tribal languages, dolo on one’s tongue.

    Contributed By Anthony Lusvardi Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

    Anthony R. Lusvardi, SJ, teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

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