Learning by observing. I wonder how well we do that? Some of you know that we spend quite a bit of time in Hawaii, mostly on Maui. Over the years I’ve watched cruise ship passengers get off, walk around Lahaina for a few hours, then line up to catch a tender back to the ship. Others board huge buses for a long day of hitting all the sights for at least a few minutes in each place. We shared a table at the Ulupalakua sandwich shop one day with a couple on tour from a ship. They were exhausted, but more telling, they did not know where they were or why they were there.
How, I arrogantly wondered, can anyone learn anything while being herded around on big buses for short stops here and there before being loaded back on the ship heading off to the next day’s port-of-call?
That was then. Now I have become one of them. A few years ago we took our first cruise, with all the tour stops, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Last fall we did the same thing in the Central and South Pacific. Last month we did it again, this time in South East Asia. I’ve learned a couple of things. One is that having brief encounters with significant sites in many lands and cultures is better than not having them at all. To be sure, it is only a sampler, but it can be an eye opening sampler that can inspire one to learn more, see more and experience more. The other thing I’ve learned is that one can learn a lot through disciplined, intentional observation, even on a bus going from point A to point B.
Roads, fields, houses, vehicles, animals, people, overhead wires, villages, ditches, waterways, outskirts of cities and throbbing city centers all have their stories to tell if one will just take the time to look, mentally record and reflect. As in a movie, one is always directed to pay attention to a central image in each scene as pointed out by the guides. They do that because the central image has importance, so pay attention. But the scene that surrounds it is also important. Who and what else is there? What are they doing? What can one learn by watching a troop of school children being ushered into the Rome’s Vatican or Naha’s Shuri Castle? What can the street vendors teach? What is going on down the ordinary streets and alleys that are not on the tour map? What is advertised on the billboards or displayed in non-tourist shop windows? What seems segregated and what integrated? What stands apart from the picturesque, whether old or new, that it is too easily overlooked, taken for granted. There’s an old saying in church work that the building trumps liturgy. What can one learn from a building, inside or out, that says something about the “liturgies” that fill it?
All of these things have stories to tell, and they can keep on telling them for a very long time. I wonder how well we learn by observing in our own home towns? Have they become so familiar to us that we fail to read the stories that are right in front of us? I suspect so.
For what it’s worth, I still don’t like being hauled around as one of fifty or sixty faceless, clueless tourists dutifully following a guide holding an umbrella. I hate being in crowds of any kind. I can get more than a little claustrophobic, or is it agoraphobic? In any case I’m willing to tolerate it for the joy of experiencing yet one more part of the world that is new to my eyes.