The first time I went on the road to perform music, I went with my singing partner, Catherine and her girlfriend, Karen in a 1979 Ford Econoline Van that she’d recently bought from a friend. Catherine is a Mexican American woman, with a thick rope of shiny black hair and a complete lack of self-consciousness that makes her both a wonderful performer on stage and a heart breaker to susceptible members of either gender. She is a great lover of travel and in 1995 when she offered to take me across the country in her new old van, I couldn’t say no. We only had a couple of dates booked, The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York, a coffee shop in Waltham, Massachusetts, and a sprinkling of open mics along the way. It was, more than anything else, a chance to get away and explore.
We were excited to see some of the country and were particularly interested in music towns: Austin, Memphis, New Orleans, and oh yes, Lubbock, Texas, hometown of Buddy Holly. Our itinerary would take us through the South, and we had what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as a “single story” of the South, its history of racism, oppression and Jim Crow. On second thought, we had another story as well, the story of the music; and that was the story that drove our excitement and curiosity.
I can’t say that I was overly nervous about our trip, but I was aware that we might be reduced to a “single story” as well, based on our late model “hippie” van with a rainbow sticker on the back, and my two rather androgynous traveling companions of color, Catherine, who’s Hispanic, and Karen, a Korean American who had recently shaved her head.
Our first encounter with the “other” occurred on I-30 close to Dallas, Texas. We were stopped by a policeman and waited anxiously while he chatted with Catherine outside the van. Our anxiety was unfounded. He informed Catherine that she needed to slow down a little bit, but more importantly, “You gals need to fix that tail light first chance you get now, you hear?”
The rest of our journey through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee produced no story of racism or intolerance. It was a story of Southern hospitality on city streets, in small town diners, on the freeways and on the back roads, and while I know that racism exists and persists in America in both the North and the South, it did not rear its ugly head on that trip. That trip was another story.
After Catherine stopped touring with our band, The Mollys, she didn’t lose her love of the road and her passion for exploration. She and her wife limell’ have traveled to Prague, Vienna, Poland, Budapest, Spain, Morocco, Belize, Turkey, Greece, and most recently South Africa. I decided to have a chat with them on the notion of single and multiple stories. I sent them a link to Chamamanda Adichie’s TED talk and they arrived at my house two days later, presented me with a gift of digestive biscuits (a weakness of mine and hard to find in Tucson), and proceeded to tell me their “stories” of South Africa.
“We thought we’d talk about Africa because of all the places we went it has the most common single story, which would be poverty, war torn, dangerous and then nothing but wild animals,” Catherine told me. “Our travels started in Johannesburg, and as we were doing our research, we got a pretty consistent message about Johannesburg, and that is, ‘Don’t go there. It’s a hub for travelers, and yes, you have to fly in, but get out of there as soon as possible for the reason that it’s dangerous and there’s nothing there anyway.'”
“And it’s dirty,” added limell’ “It’s a big, dirty, dangerous African city, nothing to recommend it.”
“So we said, ‘Okay, were going!’ ” laughed Catherine. “And we found it to be lovely. It’s a big city, a dirty big city like any other dirty big city.”
“Pockets were dirty” added limell.
“And pockets were very nice, very cozy. You could walk around at night, neighborly, a lot of music, a lot of cafes,” said Catherine, “The inner city downtown area wasn’t nearly as overtly dirty or had a sense of danger like we were led to believe. I’m sure that late at night walking alone would not be a wise thing to do, but not so much that you should just avoid it altogether.”
“There are parts of Tucson where I wouldn’t do that either, parts of New York, Brooklyn,” said limell.
They went on to tell me about the people they met, of all races, who were “absolutely welcoming, energetic, and generous, consistently.”
“A lot of the people there are aware of the single story about South Africa. We were told over and over again to please tell people it is safe here, we want them to come here, we need them to come here and we will make sure they stay safe. We know the story about our country is not a good one.” limell explained.
This brings me to the role of the traveler and the travel writer as storytellers. Limell and Catherine were anxious to add to the lexicon of stories of South Africa, delighted to share their memories and create a diverse picture of a country that we in the United States tend to think of only in terms of racism, danger, violence and cool exotic animals. Chamamanda Adichie says, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” There is not just one story of any human or human endeavor, or country or region or culture. There are a number of stories. As individuals, we may be limited by our lone perspective, yet our perspective can add to a larger view of the world and humanity. David Spurr in The Rhetoric of Empire tells us that “Culture” is “an ongoing phenomenon in human relations.” Travel may serve to end our cultural isolation, but only if we, as travelers, can look beyond the limited “single story,” and bring that story home. In the end, cultural stereotypes separate us every bit as much as geography.