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#74 Symbolic Local Traditions

July 18, 2011

The best symbolic local traditions resemble something from Avatar.

It’s hard for Expat Aid Workers to feel that their time ‘in country’ is well worth it until they’ve shared a life-changing ritual with the people. The idea of a traditional wedding, a coming of age ceremony or a shamanistic healing rite will have the EAW salivating in anticipation. Oh the letters she can send to friends and relatives! The blogposts he can write for the folks back home! The one-upping stories for the next EAW dinner party!

If you are an EAW, non-touristy experiences prove that you’ve been in country long enough and/or that you’re well-connected enough to vibe with the locals and be welcomed and included. An invitation to partake in a symbolic local tradition or event proves that you are special and somehow better than a tourist or a run-of-the-mill anthropologist, philanthropist, scientist, researcher, journalist, adventure traveler or nomad. You are having real experiences of the kind these folks from other disciplines or the soft and fancy EAWs can only imagine.

It’s important to get the most out of your symbolic tradition, however, and as a good EAW, you’ll need a way to evaluate your experience. You may want to start with some of the following quantitative and qualitative measures to gauge authenticity —  a critical aspect of establishing field cred:

Who does the inviting. If another EAW invites you, don’t even bother bragging about it. What about a local co-worker from the management team? Meh. They are well educated and out of touch with their roots and probably don’t even understand local culture as well as you do. You’re looking for an invitation from some random dude you became buddies with on the side of the road after your Land Cruiser broke down 5 hours outside of Lima. Or better –  anyone who is dressed partially or fully in plant fiber and animal skins or all locally woven traditional cloth and some type of headdress.

Whether or not any other non-locals are present.  This type of event or ceremony is not worth the telling unless you are the only non-local present. Otherwise, the experience is not real or authentic. This requirement can sometimes be waived if you take along a spouse or partner, but not always (even if you’ve married a local, they may have assimilated some of your cultural habits, which detracts from the real experience). So if you are looking for a top-notch symbolic traditional experience, make sure you are the only non-local person there. You can ask ahead of time just to be sure it’s worth your time.

How far outside of the capital it takes place. Going to a local co-worker’s baby shower or quinceanera in a slum area in Guatemala or celebrating your driver’s engagement in his home community a few hours outside of Harare is one thing. I mean, great that you got invited, but not really a notable experience. Taking a 2-day trek to a remote village with local shamanistic guides you met during a field visit to do some spiritual cleansing or physical healing in an elaborate ritual involving smoke, substances, herbs, goat and chicken blood and some type of personal duress is quite another thing. The former events are just you being polite, and you probably got invited because of the size of the gift you will bring. The latter, however,  is a first step along the journey of finding yourself.

Length of time it goes on. Obviously a 3-day gig is cooler than a half-day gig. If you have to sleep outside and you are at risk of catching some kind of tropical disease or parasite or braving large insects, so much the better. You need to stay awhile to make this really an event to remember and tell about.

Your own customs play second-fiddle to the authentic customs of local people. Image from

Whether you are personally partaking in said rite or ritual. Observing is one thing, but partaking is totally another. Getting married to the dude you went native with in his village scores you way more points than merely attending a village wedding. Obviously. And foregoing all of your own local traditions (do most EAWs even have any?) to join in with those of your spouse and/or the community shows that you’re not fooling around. You are really one with the people.

Potential danger of the experience. EAWs are a brave bunch, so the bigger your personal risk by attending or participating in the ritual, rite, celebration or ceremony, the better. This danger can include but is not limited to: ingesting something you normally would not eat, drink, smoke or normally consume; any type of cutting, piercing, questionable massaging, bone re-setting or tattooing; travel to an unsafe area (eg., controlled by rebel forces, high crime rate, normally only visited by locals) or crossing mountains during the winter (compare yourself to Frodo and crew when you are retelling it) or rivers during flood season (preferably while pulling a skittish horse behind you); risk of tropical disease, acute gastrointestinal illness, or attack by wild animals; sanctions if the home office finds out; etc. (Note: when re-telling the experience, it’s important that the danger or risk aspect is obvious and present, but be sure to downplay its significance in true EAW fashion).

Whether you can take photos or not. You may be able to snap one or 2 unobtrusive photos on your phone, but if the locals allow you to pull out your professional sized lens during the event, there’s no point in bragging about it. Obviously this is not an Avatar first contact type moment if they’ve seen a camera before, and it’s not a secret ritual if you are allowed to document it. Move on to the next opportunity, and make sure you check in advance next time to be sure this is the real deal.

Let’s face it, partaking in symbolic traditions are a must if you want to fully live the EAW life, but not all symbolic traditional experiences are created equally. The savvy EAW will ensure that time and effort are spent to find the right kind of symbolic local traditional experience.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2011 9:17 am

    Very good. In my upcoming secondment I have a long list of things I will have to avoid doing.

  2. July 19, 2011 1:42 pm

    in Kenya I got invited to a wedding by some masais that were doing a show at the hotel, as I was the only one that showed up.

    in Cambodia I got invited to a wedding by my house owner (apparently it’s classy to have a a few whites around), but the I think the cherry on top is that i got invited to a funeral at the local village

    proud EAW bragging

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