Traipser Rule of Thumb: One Soul Salutes Another

You cannot embark on any daily traipse for more than a few steps before engaging in a universal social ritual: the act of greeting.  Customary though it be, this practice, full of possibility, possesses enormous significance whether in encounter with neighbor, stranger or even stray dog.  Echoing the Hippocratic oath, the rule of thumb for travel or visit must be, “To do no harm, first master and extend the greeting.” And for no one more so than the ‘traipser’ uncertain of his or her place or welcome.

The anonymity of our cities, our sensitivities about privacy and the drive for efficiencies in daily life have driven the practice of greeting to near endangered, vestigial status.  When visitors come from the global South they remark on our barbarous habit of passing others without acknowledgement or speaking. And, by contrast, visitors to Asia and Africa are disbelieving at the lengthy and elegant pains taken to greet even strangers on the path.

So, it was providential, I think, that when decorating our cinderblock house along a dusty city street in Botswana, a batik scene figured prominently on our sitting room wall: an elephant raising its trunk as though in greeting.  This remained only an attractive piece of handiwork until I went solo to spend some weeks in the tiny Kalahari hamlet of ‘Lentswe le Tau’ (‘the-Rock-and-the-Lion’). I was hosted by a delightful family who had themselves fled there for refuge from a relative who they were certain possessed powers of sorcery.  They spoke not a word of English which was precisely the point. And they lived at the foot of a prominent outcrop (the ‘Lentswe’) though I never encountered the lion (the ‘Tau’). At least not the maned creature of the wild. As my adoptive family, they brought me with great ceremony to greet the village chief and elders, announcing with eloquence and proverbs that an ignorant outsider (‘lekgoa’) had arrived in the hopes of acquiring knowledge of language and custom.  With that, I was in.

So it was that I set out one afternoon to visit the local school in hope of learning from the indulgent and forgiving children.  Along the way, seated in the shade of a prized marula tree, I noticed an elderly gentleman apparently lost in reverie while gazing at the desert horizon.  I tiptoe’d by not wanting to disturb his dreamy moment and eventually found the school. The place was fairly rocking with dance and song and chanted recitation where I was received with laughter.  Toward evening, I set out for home on the crest of their excitement and humor and with a handful of new phrases.

Sweetness of greeting in the Ethiopian highlands.  Notice the woman on the right is quite western (sunglasses, hairstyle, jeans, backpack, contents of her shoulder bag) though she cuts no corners on affectionate greeting along the footpath.  On the left, a figure who is more traditional in attire, her gown featuring motifs akin to ancient rock paintings and using dyes that are most certainly local handiwork.  Even if they are barely acquaintances, such a greeting allows the two to establish sisterly bonds that undergird the harmony of a community, fostering trust and solidarity.  Two worlds greet, and kiss with pleasure and warmth.  photo credit: wikimedia commons

As I passed the marula tree, however, an angry summons drew me up short.  It was the old man. He approached me full of shouts and reproach. He demanded to know from what savage country I came where people would pass without offering even a single word or gesture of greeting.  As I began to stammer that I had meant no ill-will, children and passers-by began to gather to witness the tongue-lashing administered with such relish by the elderly neighbor. And, of course, there was the entertaining sight of a desolate foreigner who was being schooled, yes, scorched, for having fumbled the most elementary social cues.  I can hardly describe my shame in English, let alone in Tswana. ‘Eyewatering’ doesn’t even begin to tell it. If there had been any public transport in this village of donkey carts, thorn trees, open fires and carried water, I would have fled forthwith. But I was marooned. And that was a happy thing since it allowed me to reframe soberly who I was as ‘traipser’ in this amazing and mysterious corner of Africa.  The Tswana proverb says, as I later learned,

Fa e tlhodile molapo, ga e thlole e le tlou, ke tlotswana.    

            (When the elephant crossed the river, it discovered it was just a little calf.)

When I returned to our home in town, upon entering the front door, I was confronted by that batik image of the elephant poised in greeting.  Now it became for me much more than clever artwork. It was a ‘sign’ – that central to who we are as creatures is our capacity to acknowledge, to honor, each other in greeting.  These encounters can never be incidental. They are moments when two souls salute one another. This was the civilizing gift to me – the lifelong gift – of an old man at the marula tree in Lentswe le Tau.

7 thoughts on “Traipser Rule of Thumb: One Soul Salutes Another

  1. Besides wishing you a Happy Birthday, my Twin, 😀😇, Hope that will earn some time for reflection of past days, years and special connections. Your traipse are always push and pull emotionally on the reader, and so also today. Perplexed by the uncouth behavior of the old koot that thinks breaking cultural practice in an effort to leave him dreaming comfortably is a shameful disregarded social custom???? Is his behavior acceptable social custom????? Sometimes social norms have to allow for softening springs under the machinery. I would have my doubts about his decorum.

    Buddy. By the way having turned 83 today, I completed an 83 mile traipse averaging 8@-13 miles a day. We celebrated with a nigh dozen friends with ice cream as the go between😍


    1. Happy Birthday – one day late, Buddy! It has been a wistful hope that one day I would cross paths with the old man to tell him how grateful I am! How striking that an outburst of ire would elicit insight and gratitude, once I’d recovered from my moment of disgrace. JPL


  2. Thank you for the reminder I do not live in Minnesota ‘nice’ anymore! Great article. You are a talented writer and I think it is your birthday so hope you had a great day!


    1. Hello, Lynette! How thoughtful and observant that you should notice the day! My family were lying in wait and pulled out all the stops. Including streamers and an extravagant meal. A kind of ‘greeting’ that counts as a rare gift. JPL


  3. Greetings Jonathan:

    I always enjoy your blog and today especially identified with the importance of greetings. I trace my need to greet everyone I meet on my early morning 90+/- minute 9 km walk/jog to the following: growing up in a small Ontario town; being an exchange student in a similarly small town in Germany; our early (2 weeks after our marriage) MCC TAP experience in Malawi. In each of these settings it was absolutely disrespectful to not at a minimum verbally greet anyone you passed, and in the case of Malawi and later Swaziland, needed to shake hands, ask about family well being and more.

    On my early morning sojourns now in a bigger city (Waterloo) there are many interesting experiences: students waiting for the school bus are too busy looking at their i-phones to talk to either their fellow students and often to return my greetings (“Good Morning. Have a good day.”) but little by little they get to look up and some smile or give a greeting; people walking dogs often seem bemused that a stranger would greet; if anyone greets and has an accent, I always respond with “I sense a little bit of an accent — where does it come from?” , and have had fascinating conversations that often lead to ongoing smiles/waves/comments over the ensuing weeks. Some of the more fascinating ones: after greeting a man slightly younger than me for months, I finally engaged him in conversation and discovered that he was from the same village in (then) Russia (now Ukraine) as my parents, only a generation later; an Iranian who was amazed that I had visited his home country; a number of Chinese older women who are amused at my few words of Chinese; and many more.

    We remember with appreciation the many different stories about your involvement in several places but particularly Botswana. Blessings on your tribe.


    PS Our youngest, son Mark and his family, leave for Accra in two weeks where his wife Sara will be the head of aid and deputy to the ambassador at the Canadian embassy. They are both civil servants. When we tell our friends we miss Mark and family they remind us that we did the same to our parents 55 years ago!


  4. Salutations, Ron! What writer can boast of such an interested, engaged and responsive reader?? I have a picture now of you wandering the streets and parks of Waterloo, waking even unsuspecting passersby to the goodness of the world with your greetings learned in the company of Chewa and Swati neighbors! How inspiring to know that savvy and compassionate folk like Mark and Sara are out and abroad in service of that same cause! JPL


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