Daily Prompt: Stranger in a Strange Land

Yes, I know I blog about Polyamory kind of a lot. And yes, I know that a lot of the modern polyamory movement in America can trace its roots back to Robert Heinlein‘s depictions in his books, and very specifically to his novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Tim Zell, now called Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, was an avid reader and fan of Heinlein’s, exchanging letters with him and even going so far as to found a real-lifeChurch of All Worlds,” a Neopagan organization openly espousing Polyamory. His wife and fellow Neopagan, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, was the author of the Green Egg article “A Bouquet of Lovers,” which is commonly—and incorrectly—called the origin of the word “Polyamory.” While the word Polyamory is nowhere to be found in her article, the article is certainly about Polyamory, and it is one of the most well-known and influential discussions of Polyamorous relationships in modern times.

However, despite all this, and despite its title, this post has nothing to do with any of that. It is a response to today’s Daily Prompt, which asks bloggers to describe their “favorite part” of visiting a new place.

And here’s my answer: the sidewalks of Buenos Aires.

No, seriously. During my sophomore year, as I’ve mentioned before, I visited Buenos Aires during my spring break with a group of fellow students from my university. From the moment I arrived there, the thing that immediately caught my attention was the sidewalks. They looked as though they were made of bathroom tile! I thought that was the coolest, most random thing I’d ever seen. I thought it was so fascinating that, while everyone else on the trip was taking photos of the buildings, or the monuments, or (mostly) themselves in front of the buildings and the monuments, I was going around taking photos of the sidewalk. (Note: I have not included my own photos here, because they’re pretty crappy and there are much, much better ones available here.) Here’s where it got interesting: pretty much right away, I started noticing that the pattern changed as you walked down the block. The bathroom tile gave way to long, elegant slabs of marbled concrete, dotted with tiny little dark swirls.

As my fellow students and I walked around the city, all I would talk about was the sidewalks. They fascinated me. I couldn’t stop looking at them, noticing all the different variations, looking at where one ended and the other began. That was when it hit me: the different sidewalk patterns lined up with the property lines! Each building had a different pattern of sidewalk in front of it. I was ecstatic; I had figured it out! The sidewalk patterns were different because each property owner was responsible for maintaining the sidewalk in front of their own building! Having convinced myself of this, I insisted on explaining it to everyone else in the group, and feeling pretty chuffed about myself as a result. Sure enough, when we got back to our hotel and had access to the internet, I looked it up, and it turns out that I had it right: Buenos Aires does not have its sidewalks maintained by the government (except, of course, in front of government-owned buildings), but by individual citizens who own the properties adjacent to the sidewalk.

That, to me, is what travel is all about. You go somewhere you’ve never been, and you notice what they’re doing differently. Yes, you notice the large, obvious differences (“Durrr…they speak more Spanish!”), but what I find far more interesting are the little things. Like the sidewalk. You would never think twice about the sidewalk in your hometown. It’s such an everyday part of life, so familiar and unchanging, that you come to take it for granted. But then you go to somewhere like Buenos Aires, and suddenly you see that there is a different way of doing things. You see that the way sidewalks are in your hometown and the way in Buenos Aires are vastly different answers to a question you hadn’t even thought about before.

And it gets you thinking about that question. It gets you asking yourself, “Hang on, is my culture’s answer to this question the right one? Why do we do things this way? Are there downsides to the way we’re living that never occurred to us before?” I’m not saying Buenos Aires has it all figured out when it comes to sidewalks, and I know I would have had a hell of a time just getting from point A to point B if I were in a wheelchair, but the nonchalant beauty of the sidewalks, reminding us that diversity is just more satisfying than homogeneity, is something I’ve really come to miss ever since leaving that eclectic city. (And I was only there for a week!)

Traveling to new places, if you’re paying attention, gives you the chance to take something strange and make it familiar to you, but much more importantly, it gives you the chance to take something familiar and make it strange to you. And that’s why travel is so important, so exciting, for me: it gives me opportunities to think like an anthropologist. (Which is not just fun, but also kind of necessary, since Anthropology is one half of my double major. Fifty points to anyone who doesn’t know me personally and correctly guesses the other half.) It gives me a chance to see the culture I was raised in with new eyes, as though seeing it from the outside.

Which, strangely enough (everyone go ahead and groan in unison at the pun), brings me back to the title of today’s daily prompt. The title whose history I said had nothing to do with this post. Well, turns out I lied! It has everything to do with this post. Because if the best part of traveling to new places is thinking like an anthropologist…isn’t that just the same thing as being a Fair Witness?

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