Telling Stories in the Land of Faraway
A few weeks ago I was walking out of my friend’s flat in a little apartment building where I was living in Thimphu, Bhutan. It was a crystal clear, sharp blue freezing cold high mountain morning in this valley nestled impossibly in the heart of the Himalayas. Everyone walking past me was on their way to work or to school, men in colorful gho, women in beautiful kira (which are the traditional dress of Bhutan, and which people genuinely do wear every day). The many street dogs were positioned in all their usual spots for observing events. Toddlers in big sweatshirts with their grandmothers walked by on their way uphill to circumnavigate the neighborhood chorten, or stupa, hoping that this time their arms would finally be long enough to push the beautiful red and yellow prayer wheels. Indian truck drivers careened their amazing Tata trucks, wildly painted with extraordinary designs and with almond shaped eyes above the headlights, every kind of prayer bead and talisman swinging from the rear view mirror. Seven sikhs, their heads bared to their hair wraps, ran by in matching warm-up suits as they returned home to their barracks – next door to my flat in fact.
It was one of those moments that the realization flooded into me: here, everyone I was looking at, for them this is their real life, that they have lived here in this place for as long as they have been alive. The man in the gho rushing past me to work was likely once walking with his grandma to the chorten up the hill and one day would be bringing his own son there.
And so also with the beauty came the sadness that no matter what, I will always be an outsider to this.
I come from somewhere else, my experience until now is something completely and inexplicably different from the experiences of the people now in this snapshot moment I am describing.
This is now my job. I am undeniably a professional outsider.
So when people hear what I do, they often say things like: wow, that sounds so cool. I wish I could do that. What a great job. Which is all very true. I love what I do. But much of the time what I do can be really lonely.
And so, my first tip:
Just go ahead and accept that you are an outsider. Assume that you appear and act strange, that everyone has noticed you; they are thinking about you, sizing you up – don’t think for a minute they’re not. But what happens to you because you are an outsider is almost completely up to you and how you feel. Don’t try to take control of the situation. Let it wash over you and change you.
Enjoy your jetlag. Get the most out of the pliable time/space interplay that jet lag offers. Since you’re wide awake anyway, you might as well get up before sunrise and walk down to the river – bring your recorder, your camera. If you are in some tropical place, you’ll be surprised at the amount of life that goes on well before dawn, when the air is still cool.
If you’re awake in the middle of the night because it’s noon back at home and you don’t feel like going outside you might as well go ahead and call mom.
Bring a backup of everything, including money.
Get to know your neighbors. Live somewhere – even if it’s just for a few days. You are there as a journalist, a documentarian, a radio producer, or whatever, but also as a person. You begin to see a place new to you through the eyes of the people who not only live where you are, but who have birthed their children there, possibly built the house you’re staying in, or written the local noise ordinance for the new string of cafés which you frequent with your laptop. Even if you are just buying the English language newspaper from the same vendor every day, or ordering the same breakfast from the same woman at the corner shop, the act of simply engaging regularly and genuinely, helps to move how people see you from the extraordinary to the ordinary, and transform the fact of your being there from the equivalent of the moon landing, into the arrival of a new friend.
Before you even leave home sweet home, find a gatekeeper. This means, research the place, the history, the current events of where you’re going. Get to know the general attitude of the locale towards itself, its neighbors, and towards Americans. If you know the story you are going there hoping to do, find out who are the local experts on that, narrow it down to people who you’re really interested in and get in touch with them directly. Tell them about yourself and what you do. Tell them why you are so passionate about this story in their corner of the world that you’re willing to shell out thousands of dollars and fling yourself half way around the world to do it. Express your passion honestly, and be free to tell them what you don’t know. Then if they don’t write back, write them again, or call them. They don’t know you or why you would contact them, so gentle, personable persistence will prove to them that you’re not some internet scam. And remember, it’s an aberration pretty much exclusive to westerners to be punctual in responding to correspondence. In other places people aren’t necessarily online all day long.
A good gatekeeper who is in the know about what you are going there to learn about can fling open the doors to a place in ways you just cannot do on your own. Trust me on this one. They can offer you an insider perspective, and access to people and places, that is absolutely irreplaceable.
Find a great translator. This means someone who not only speaks both languages well, but who gets your intentions and believes in your politics. That way there’s more accuracy and depth in their translations – they won’t hold back on information or ideas that they are afraid you might not like, or that they don’t want you to know. The local official UN translator can end up being far less useful than someone’s mechanic brother who lived in Chicago for ten years. And pay your translator.
Be ready to not have any idea at all what you are doing, and to have to do all kinds of things you had no idea you were going to have to do just to get some tape and to get a lot less/more tape than you thought and to get a completely different story than you thought.
Bring cards. You’ll need them at restaurants where food is actually made to order – sometimes truly including harvesting the chicken you just ordered. In general, in the rest of the non-geared up world, get ready to move more slowly. You don’t have to be OK about that. But you might as well be OK about it, because there’s really nothing you can do about it. I remember one hot afternoon during monsoon season in Luang Prabang, Laos, the air so humid it was made of water. We had finished lunch at a bakery, but it was raining so hard we would have had to swim back to the hotel. So we took naps there at our table for a good chunk of the afternoon. But then you get the rewards, partly because slowing down also means really giving your ears a chance to hear what else is going on besides what you’re trying to hear. That night the most beautiful sensual thunderclaps rolled through the clouds. It’s still our best thunder tape.
Bring extra batteries cause the ones you get in the non-western world are different and don’t last as long.
Be honest. Give away as much information as you’re asking for – this will give people a chance to trust you. It’s not normal human behavior to hold one-sided conversations in the United States. As far as I can tell that’s true pretty much everywhere.
Be kind, even to the person who cuts in line in front of you when you’ve been waiting for an hour at the airline ticket counter. Smile at them and make a joke with them. It seems hard at first but it will make your travels a lot more like a river than a rock.
Don’t be willing to sell people down the river. If they trust you with information – be trustworthy. Don’t take advantage of someone in order to get a great scoop. Just don’t do it. It’s not good human behavior. Find other ways to tell the story.
Log Tape. It can be hard to pull yourself out of the day. In a new place your mind works overtime learning new stuff, which makes it hard to extract yourself and go back to being the American that came here to do a story. But as much as you can, log tape every day. It will help you remember what you came there for and stack up where you are with the story you’re writing.
It will be as awesome as you thought, but just different.
18-hour plane rides are for: hacking away at your transcripts, sleeping, listening to huge piles of ambi backlogs.
Listen. I was walking down a Bangkok alleyway with my son Jasper. We hadn’t planned on being in Bangkok, but here we were, and we were staying for we didn’t know how long while we waited for our visas to clear to go back to Bhutan. So we were walking, lost in our own thoughts, in a mood. Hot. Waiting. Passing a big apartment building we both turned to the sound of someone playing a violin, and a bird with a raucous call, each unexpected in this sea of downtown Bangkok. We looked at each other and said, “That was great sound.” I realized then that I had raised my kid to hear, which was nice to know. And that sound –– those particular sounds and being aware of them –– was a relief to us both. Listening is a kind of comfort when you don’t know what’s going on around you, when you don’t speak the language, when you’re way too tall and too white to ever possibly blend in. Sound is a leveling instrument. You can tune into it and be deeply connected to where you are, even if all the regular human interactions are completely muddled. You can identify the sounds, love and absorb them without any need for translation. It can be a big relief to stay nestled in sound.
Stephanie Guyer-Stevens created Outer Voices as a way to document stories of women leaders living in remote parts of the world. To do this she has hiked the jungles of northern Laos, sailed across the Solomon Islands, travelled illegally into refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border, and most recently, trekked into southeastern Bhutan with Her Majesty the Queen Mother of Bhutan. Stephanie’s docs and features have been broadcast on over 600 public and community radio stations across the United States and internationally; rebroadcast by the National Film Board of Canada, The Nature Conservancy Podcast and multiple other podcasters. She has presented her work venues in The New School for Social Research, San Francisco State University, Third Coast Festival, Open Society Institute, The Foreign Correspondents’ Club Thailand and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Gracie Allen Award for Outstanding Documentary. What she thought would take a year and would help her get a job she is still doing now, almost ten years later.