I’ve always turned to overseas travel for new lenses through which to see my life, but it was an encounter with foreigners close to my home that provided my clearest self-viewing.
On a balmy winter morning in Los Angeles, my friend and I tossed our cross-country skis and clothes into the back of my car, opened its top and drove to Palm Springs. We wore T-shirts and shorts. We sped by downtown skyscrapers, and within two hours had to roll shut our windows and put up the roof to keep out blowing sand. Instead of buildings, we saw cacti and tumbleweeds.
Stark mountains formed an imposing escarpment that met the desert at an almost right angle. We headed for the base of these peaks and the aerial tram that ascends one of them, Mt. San Jacinto.
Parking, we changed into ski clothes. I wore skin-tight leggings with an eye-popping black and white Op-Art design. To this I added a purple turtleneck under a hot-pink vest. There was no chance I’d be lost in the woods; even someone poolside at a desert spa would be able to spot me 6,000 feet (1828 m) above them on the mountainside.
Entering the tram we began a dramatic ascent over jagged brown and gray rock that eventually became a terrain of glistening white snow dotted with green pines. We stepped out of the tram, strapped on our skis and headed off on a freshly groomed trail. Several hours later we returned to the area for lunch.
As I took off my skis, three people wearing jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers approached me; their slender frames, shiny black hair and burnished mahogany-colored skin bespoke their Indonesian nationality. I’d visited Bali and Java previously and returned home with many photographs of myself amidst local people wearing a colorful array of casual and ceremonial dress. Colorful Native shots are a staple of any traveler’s photo collection.
“Would you – picture?” one of the visiting Indonesians asked, as he held his camera up towards us.
“Of course,” I replied and reached for the camera. Instead, the man indicated he’d like my friend to take the photo as he and his friends gathered around me. Oh, I was to be in the shot.
“First time – snow!” the man said with a big grin.
“How exciting for you!” I said, smiling back. This would be a novelty for them, and I tried to imagine seeing nature’s frozen white wonder through his eyes.
That’s when I saw it — how he saw me. My dress, half disco dancer and half space traveler, coupled with the foreign element of snow had rendered me the Colorful Native! I burst into laughter as my friend took our photo.
Soon these Indonesians would return to their tropical homes and show their friends photos of themselves with their arms around me in my vibrant garb. I felt a shift, a loss of power from being the camera’s operator to being its subject. It humbled me, this being explored instead of doing the exploring.
The visitors departed, camera in hand. We returned to skiing and descended the mountain at the end of the day. Getting back into my shorts, I knew that more than my clothes had changed. The Indonesians’ view of me as exotic had taught me that my habits and culture are as odd, or as normal, as any other on earth.