By Stanislav Nachev
If you’re making your way down to Texas or any other place you’ve never been to, don’t be just a tourist. Instead engage the local culture. Often in a place there is more than meets the eye. I was pressed for choice on what part of my journey made the biggest impression to me. Prior to departure, I set a goal to see how people live, what they eat, and how they like to have fun. I even told my travel companion, Clayton, that my mantra when travelling is “engage the culture”.
On our way to Texas there was a lot that I saw that reminded me of the times we live in and what defines them. Post Modernism is about a beat up 1980s S-class Mercedes with a surf board strapped to the roof being piloted by a bunch of college kids. “Old money no more” – we both thought. Then I realized, the deeper south we drove into the States, the more being American became not a matter of owning an American passport but rather about how American the everyday person feels. It is a national identity defined not by a country’s borders but how strongly its people feel towards their cultural identity.
It would be a mistake to see Texas just as another state, as a part of a whole. Texas is a whole itself. It is one distinct culture, which defines what is to be a Texan. From the Montrose neighborhood of Houston and its ritzy restaurants, the swanky residences to the beaches of the nearby town of Galveston. From the scourging heat and blistering winds of Midland to the small towns and villages in between. Texas is full cultural nuances. I got to see some of it even though it was briefly and briskly as our truck was blasting along the highway and we only ever stopped for two days at a time.
During my first year of undergrad I learned the phrase, cultural bias. I was told then that I will always be culturally biased towards my own views of others. I was told that I will always see things through my own cultural lens. However, when I travel I like to take on the challenge to change that and to redefine my own deeply embedded biases of other cultures. This journey was an opportunity to meet new people and to continue to change as a culturally aware being.
In Texas, it is obligatory to shake hands twice before parting ways. I found it strange at first but I was told that was the Texan way and so I embraced it the same way I embraced the hands of the many Texans I met for the first time. Southern hospitality seemed like just a catchy phrase that I had heard from a food channel when watching comfort food recipes being made. Until I realized that every person whom Clayton and I stayed with offered us that same comfort food and a bed for the night, in fact sometimes multiple nights.
A local Texan told us the name ‘Texas’ comes from the Native American word ‘tejas’, meaning ‘friendly’ or an ‘ally’. It helped dispel some my bias towards the Texans and proved that politeness and hospitality are not just Canadian values. Before coming to Texas I had assumed that people here are quite the opposite in fact. Indeed, they carry guns and have accepted shooting as a leisure activity the same way people go to the golf course. However, they are also hospitable towards their guests and are willing to share their culture with strangers.
At the shooting range, a score sheet was given to us on our way in to keep track of our shots. It reminded of a bowling game, except the pins were skeet, orange painted discs. Despite making it clear to my friends that I will shoot only once and no more, as I found it discomforting. They insisted I try a few times at least. Little did I know, however, that the sensation of the rifle kicking back and the loud bang associated with the firing of the gun would trigger an emotional roller coaster within me leaving me pondering for days afterwards, why did I enjoy this. However, not only did I enjoy it but I also continued to shoot at the clay discs only to become better and better at my aim. It is incredible to think that something so small zooming above and sometimes over your head can be so appealing to the senses. Chasing after it was addictive.
The dynamic of our journey changed in scenery yet a common thread unified everything. The skeet were not the only objects we had to look up and out for during our trip. There were also the giant pump jacks. Their pivoting arms going up and down ever so smoothly and so slowly. It had occurred to me that I was like Don Quixote travelling through a field of pump jacks instead of wind mills. My trustworthy companion ‘Sancho’ Clayton, like Cervantes’ novel, was more aware of the reality of things and often reminded me of where we actually were. However, I grew to seeing Texas differently not due to the change in landscape but rather due to its vastness.
Previously, I had tried to capture everything with my small camera without realizing it was all in vain. I couldn’t capture the enormity of everything. Whether it was looking up towards the sky scrapers in Houston or the tall pump jacks. I had realized that Texas is too vast not just for the eye of the camera but also for human eye to take all in.
After many hours of driving we had turned from travelers into wanderers as we reached a point of being utterly lost, both figuratively and physically. What we thought was the right way led us through myriads of small towns and villages. The night grew darker and my friend conked out on the passenger seat of our trusty chariot, the pickup truck. What is this journey really about? It wasn’t till then that I was able to answer that question to myself.
Traveling is not about the destination itself. It is about how you can discover yourself through the journey you take on, even if quixotic eyes are necessary to do so. As long as you make the first step there is no stopping you from redefining yourself every step of the way from there on. One cannot simply observe a culture without being involved in it and inevitably becoming part of it. Allowing that culture to change us is what distinguishes us, wanderers, from tourists. A map is not always necessary but getting lost is a requirement.