Playing house by myself here in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Population of San Juan: c. 400,000.) My host is gone a lot, so I’m the Lady of the House for a few days. It’s wonderful to have this freedom now and then while I’m traveling, and I really appreciate having my hosts’ trust. It’s an affirmation of who I am; hosts can read about me on my Couchsurfing profile and then, when they meet me, they can go with their gut feelings about me. I love and need this personal element during my travels among “strangers” in new places around the world.
I am definitely a Gypsy, probably not genetically related to Roma or any other Gypsies with SE Indian origins (but then again, perhaps I am). Wherever my genetic inheritance comes from in the distant past, my most recent heritage is English (English Gypsies, I believe), Scottish and Irish.
There are many things I really dislike about the traditions and the present living situations of many Roma. First, so many Gypsies have stopped traveling and have settled down (despite the prejudice from the native citizens around them and the terrible living conditions they endure). I know that money is an issue. (I have a guaranteed monthly income, so sometimes it’s easy for me to be thoughtless and critical. I apologize.)
Second, the role of women in the Romany culture is circumscribed and subordinate to men; a Romany woman, even today, is expected to live a life that I would loathe. For this reason alone, I would not want to be part of the Rom.
Third, a low value is placed on education. I understand that in order to get a good education, a family must settle down and conform to the larger culture(or at least appear to conform). Travelling Gypsies are freedom-loving people, and assimilation and conformity are not valued. This is true of me and of every Traveller I’ve ever known.
I was raised as a social outsider, but I loved school. School is brain-washing to the extent that it teaches only what the culture and society consider important. Hierarchies based on social values are imposed upon both students and teachers. School systems are disgusting in these (and other) ways, but the information I got in school was stupendously wonderful. And I learned the fundamentals of becoming an individual. Becoming aware of myself as an individual, understanding my right to assert myself, and learning how to express myself have been the greatest joys of my life. This is what makes me truly happy and allows me to relate to others from my soul. In college I was encouraged to develop my individuality, and that was the key to unlocking the secrets of my true self; then, I could share myself and my love with others.
My goal is not to imitate or follow the Roma (or any other group of Gypsies). But I learned a lot from reading about them and other nomadic people (like the Tuareg in North Africa and Asian nomads on the steppes).
Whenever anyone decides to wander away from their society’s values, beliefs and mores to explore alternative ways of living, the “social enforcers” come down hard on them. These figures are people use any means to try to turn people against the one who is not complying with the rules of the society. Gossip has always been an effective, though informal, tool for either bringing the rebel back into the fold or excluded him or her from it.
Most mavericks want to be ignored by and excluded from the society we find ourselves in. We don’t WANT to fit in. The gossips and other “authority figures” have just made it easier for us to be among them but not part of them (which is the traditional role of nomads among sedentary people). This can be a dangerous position, but nomads learn the rules quickly: how to hide, just how much to blend in, getting what you need, determining what you can find or scrounge (borrow), and knowing what you don’t need. If a person is not born into this kind of life, it can take years to learn the ropes.
It was an extremely challenging process for me to become a Gypsy and live the travelling life. Now I’ve fully transitioned to the Travelling life, and the struggle of those earlier years is behind me. I was in the process of leaving sedentary society from the age of twenty-seven to about 50. I’d do it all again, just to get to where I am now: Home, my heart’s home.
Here in Puerto Rico, I’ve learned how much of an outsider I am. I am very obviously an American, as Ricardo Pacheco told me during our tour of Old Town San Juan today. I have very white skin, dress in an American style (most notably my big, old, heavy, unfeminine shoes), and I “act American” (in my gestures and mannerisms). Of course, once I open my mouth, it’s all over. This is interesting (to say the least) in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and so many other places where the USA has been heavy-handed in its desire to acquire land. Puerto Rico and Hawaii are both strategic locations for a large US military presence to guard our borders. Many Native Puerto Ricans and Native Hawaiians would prefer the US to leave and let them assert their independence; people like Ricardo (who is Puerto Rican, Jamaican, and Mexican) have grown up with the benefits of the US presence and would prefer that the US stay in Puerto Rico.
I don’t even try to defend my country. I am a US citizen; I benefit, financially and in many other ways, from the wealth and power of the USA. I have lived in the US for my whole life. I know the good and bad parts of the country; I prefer to see the US as the LAND and not the government, but we can’t ignore the reality of the role the United States has played in world politics for over a century (is that right? how much time exactly?).
I am so familiar with the role of the outsider, and it’s always an interesting position to be in. The outsider-observers know the people they observe better than those social insiders know themselves. They see what the insiders try to hide even from themselves. This was true of the African slaves in the Americas, who silently observed their white masters, and it’s true of us Travellers today.