A couple of days ago, a friend of mine from Germany commented on a couple of pictures I had posted on Facebook five months ago. They showed me standing in front of the crater lake of Volcan Madera on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. She commented that they were gorgeous pictures. Now I’m pretty certain that she wasn’t referring to the image of me in those photos, but rather to the scenery that surrounded me. It was lush and green and you could see the circular rim of the volcano in the background. For her and for most Americans, volcanoes are pretty exotic. And, they can be exceptionally beautiful, in part because of their novelty.
For a Nicaraguan, however, volcanoes are pretty much an every day occurrence. In fact, Nicaragua is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes. The vast majority of the population lives within a radius of 50 miles or less of a volcano and most Nicaraguans see them every day of their lives. They consider them standard features on the horizon. Meanwhile, many North Americans (with the possible exception of westerners) and Europeans remain in awe by the spectacle of a perfectly conical mountain or one that’s blown its top and is filled with a lake or a steamy caldera.
These differing visions of the landscape make me realize that we make many assumptions about our environment based on where we grew up and live. We tend to assume that what we are familiar with is natural and universal, and we often take these concepts of what the world looks like for granted. It’s easy to overlook the fact that there are other paradigms out there. It’s not until we travel to, and even spend time living in, other countries that we begin to appreciate how our expectations of the environment affect our world view and our sensibilities.
A couple of examples of differing notions of common landscapes come to mind. Where I live in the outskirts of Washington, DC, the streets are tree-lined and yards are covered with grass, trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetable gardens. But, these features of residential neighborhoods aren’t universal. In South America, where I lived for five years, I saw few trees on city streets. In fact, when flying into major cities, it can take several minutes of looking out the window to locate a single tree, even in places once covered with forest. The trees that do exist are usually restricted to parks or to the residential neighborhoods of wealthy diplomats and Embassy officials. And, in the countryside, especially in tropical forest areas, many yards are completely devoid of vegetation. Instead, there is bare dirt, purposefully maintained to keep snakes away and/or to detect them if they approach the home. What a novel concept to many of us.
Something else that seems natural to us in temperate climes is the idea that we have four seasons. That may not sound very noteworthy, but the truth is that many people around the world have no real concept of what that’s like. I realized that when I pondered why so many South Americans that I met – on a bus, in the street, or through my work – would recite to me one of the things they knew about the U.S. “You have four seasons in your country, don’t you?” they’d comment. I’d affirm, and proceed to tell them about each one.
Now maybe they were just showing off their worldly knowledge to me, but the fact that I engaged in this conversation with so many people made me realize that many people in the tropics are truly fascinated by the concept of changing seasons. Sure, they have a rainy season and a drier season, but the changes are not so dramatic as what we have. In fact, on and around the equator, the temperature changes little from month to month. And, the idea that the leaves fall off virtually all of the trees at once or that there is a specific time of year when snow falls seems extremely exotic to those who have never witnessed such seasonal variation.
Sometimes a bit of simple knowledge about climate and geography can lead people astray. A number of years ago, I took a trip to the coast of Ecuador with a friend of mine from Maine. He had brought some photographs of his home, his children and the forests he lives near. One afternoon we befriended a local woman with her three young children. We conversed about where they live, how they make a living farming and fishing, and about family life. When the woman asked about our lives in the U.S., my friend pulled out his photographs.
When she saw the one of my friend’s teenage kids on cross-country skis, she said, “Oh, you must all have very strong lungs where you live.” I thought this was a strange thing to say, but then I realized the reason for her remark. She lives in the lowlands where the climate is always hot. In her country, the only place where there is snow is at altitudes of 13,000 feet or more. She reasoned that if there was snow in Maine, my friend and his family must live high up in the mountains. Smart, but limited, thinking on her part.
While I didn’t pose the question at the beginning of this story, the following will reveal it. What I love about travel is that it can change your weltanschauung, your view of the world and the ideologies that govern it. Like education, travel opens you up to an almost infinite number of perspectives and insights. And sometimes lands you on the top of some pretty spectacular volcanoes!