While research has its place, I want to have my own experience without worrying about what I am supposed to see and feel.
I almost always study up on places before I go, to have an idea of what my options are and special significance of what I might see. Sometimes I look things up later, to better understand what I saw, but when I am somewhere I am just there.
My best memories are about things I couldn’t have planned, because I didn’t know they existed.
I have traveled in places where I stand out, whether I want to or not, because I am Caucasian. But even in those places I have noticed that on days when I am dressed like the people around me there is less stiffness.
Some of that is what you wear:
The first time I went to France we took our bicycles and what we could carry in our panniers (this was long ago, when I was young, strong, and, we later learned, pregnant). I realized that there was no way I was going to compete with French women for elegance, especially with clothes that were being shoved into and dragged out of a bicycle pannier daily. I decided that I would go for trying not to stand out.
It worked well. For evenings I changed (after bathing) into a plain no wrinkle skirt and long sleeved knit shirt, along with a necklace or scarf. I didn’t stand out, in either direction, in a pizzeria or a nice restaurant.
Voila, my style was born, and a few month later so was my son .
The same strategy worked twelve years later when we took a walking trip in France carrying everything in a backpack.
Even when not traveling light there are advantages to a simple, unexciting wardrobe. When you are comfortable, not trying to show off, you wear your clothes, they don’t wear you. It makes it much easier to be fully present.
Braids and Khanga
Local ways are often practical for the environment in which you find yourself.
On my first trip to Africa we bought Khanga. These handkerchief weight rectangles of cotton are what everyone wore over there clothes. They let us wear shorts (frowned on in that conservative community) giving our legs both some air and shade from the sun.
On my second trip to Africa, several days into being in the village without running water, I broke down and had someone come and wash my hair. My hostess had done all of the communicating (and negotiating) and left. When she was done washing and rinsing this lady just started braiding my hair. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I had no idea how to tell her it wasn’t necessary.In the end I was really glad. The weather was toasty and braids were way cooler than using barrettes…and the Kenyan women really warmed to me having braids like they did.
Always wear socks (or stockings) in China!
On the other hand on my last visit to China I made the mistake of not wearing stockings on a warm day. Everybody was looking at my feet! Several people came up and communicated that I might catch cold (it was in the 70s!).
Now that I am focusing on photography, not standing out and having local people feel comfortable with me is even better. I am more able to capture the essence of a place if I am not drawing attention to myself.