Concerning Conversations

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

Before I begin discussing the trip itself, I want to talk a bit more about the idea of ‘conversation.’ My conceptualisation of ‘conversation’ is in rather broad terms: first, and more obviously, a conversation is any informal or formal interaction between people. This does not have to involve me, as in certain instances I will simply be the observer; and in other instances I will be an active partaker.

I am always interested to see the different ways in which people interact. Do people act a certain way around friends but then in a separate manner around strangers? How do people act when they are sat on a bus for 20 hours next to someone they would never usually connect with? Do they reach out, or close up? How do they act when they are 17 hours into that trip: low on sleep, grouchy, uncomfortable in the same goddamn chair with thin armrests and no leg space?

I am interested in the power dynamics at play. Those that dominate the conversation, those that nod and smile but never attempt to add anything of value to the discussion. Those that are quick to complain, those that are quick to anger. The overlap between opinions, beliefs, values, experience. The intensity of my whiteness. Those with inherent kindness, those that offer a hand, a smile, a helpful observation.

Essentially, what is the nature of people?

The ability to listen is of paramount importance in these undertakings. And, to be clear from the beginning: listening can be hard. I have often had the problem of trying to lead the conversations too much, interjecting in someone else’s story, over eager to add in my own comments and opinions. It’s reflective of the manner in which I have succumbed to my whiteness.

I have historically struggled to listen: at the time of the conversation itself, I would always be thinking of how this relates to me instead of actively and truthfully listening to what the other person is saying. Honest listening involves taking yourself out of the context of what they are saying and placing the other person before you; it is a form of ‘deliberate living,’ concentrating solely on what is in front of you, the task at hand. This also allows the kind of uncomfortable silence in which the other person may dig deeper beneath the surface of their stories. Only afterwards do you have the hindsight to take lessons relating to you from the conversation.

Observing conversations of which I am not a part of enables a more actively honest listening. On a place like a public bus, many of which we will take on this trip, strangers connect over a whole manner of things which subconsciously reflects their nature. It also reflects the power dynamics at play: for instance, who is leading the conversation, and who is the passive conversationalist. In turn, my observations of these connections will enable further understanding of the different manners in which people interact.

My active participation in these conversations will further enable these endeavours. I believe myself to be a sociable person: I have no trouble striking up a conversation with a stranger in any manner of settings. The ability to which I am actually able to listen honestly, though, is still hugely underdeveloped.

My trip from Cape Town to Cairo will involve many and varying interactions with strangers. I do have a travel companion in Benny, and much of what we discuss will reflect in my writing. Other than that, we are travelling on trains, buses, ferries, we are hitchhiking, we are aiming to get from A to B by whatever public means possible. When we get to these places, we are couchsurfing, or we are staying at backpackers, or simply staying on whatever means of public transportation we happen to be on. In that way we will meet and interact with many different people from vastly different backgrounds with extraordinarily different experiences; they will teach us, learn from us, sit with us, walk with us, laugh with us and cry with us. There will be a hugely valuable exchange of lessons about the nature of people, of culture, of places and of self.

A second conceptualisation of conversation involves conversations with myself. This is the conversation with the voice in my head, so to say, which comments on that which surrounds me. Naturally, this voice in my head disables the ability to honestly listen, such that it is detrimental in conversation with other people; however, when simply gazing out the window at the terrain flashing before me, the voice in my head enables conversations with myself, which I believe to be a hugely important part of travelling.

Travelling is a mechanism by which one can think. The unfamiliar plains, unfamiliar roads, and unfamiliar cities enable observations and reflections on that which is new and on that which is not yet understood. It enables thought on life, on culture, on beliefs, on morals.

Conversations with myself involve conversations with nature:

“McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul. He soon discovered, however, what Muir and Thoreau already knew: an extended stay in the wilderness inevitably directs one’s attention outward as much as inward, and it is impossible to live off the land without developing both a subtle understanding of, and a strong emotional bond with, that land and all it holds.”

Extract from Into the Wild – Jon Krackeur

What I took from this extract was that conversations with myself and conversations with nature are logically intertwined. One can take lessons from nature for one’s self. While we will not be living solely off the land at any point on this trip, we can still take lessons from the plains, landscapes and environments of the Africa that we pass through. As such, through conversations with nature that enable conversations with myself, I will be able to learn further about the deeper nuances of people, of culture, of places and of myself.

Through conversation, between other people, between Benny and myself, between us and the people that we meet, and between nature and myself, I wish to tell this travel story. I am in constant conversation with one of the above, encapsulated in ‘Conversations from the Road,’ through new and exciting places, such that the promise for growth and learning is exponential.