You would think that your most striking travel memories are that of your best travel experiences right? Right. Most often, they are. But sometimes, sometimes, the bad ones do leave an impression on one’s psyche; we don’t tell our friends about these, we barely acknowledge these happened, we go on with our travel, but these memories color our impression of the places we visit.
So, yeah here it is, this is an official acknowledgement, that sometimes bad things do happen while travelling – some really bad, some not so bad, some minor irritants – but they do happen.
I have been lucky. I have not been robbed or mugged nor faced any outright harassment. But that doesn’t mean that I only have golden memories. I have had my share…of hiccups, or well, rather cramps.
One of my worst travel memories was in Switzerland. A friend and me had gone to a supermarket in Grindelwald wanting to purchase a few groceries. We carried the things we wanted to buy and waited patiently in queue at the counter. Finally it was our turn, and my friend tried to use her credit card. Unfortunately, we didn’t know how to place the card correctly, and that’s where things got bad. The lady at the counter got really irritated with us, and kept asking us to do it correctly…in German. Of course this did not help, and the more she got annoyed, the more fluttered we got. By this time, there were a lot of people waiting behind us in the queue, and the lady kept talking to them…not very complimentary things, we imagined. We finally managed to pay up and walk out, but it was a horrible experience, one that I never really forgot. Switzerland was really beautiful, but people were not very friendly, and this experience just added to that impression, and I gave up on the country.
8 years later, I have a different perspective. With my brown skin, it was the easiest then to assume that there was a hint of racism in their behavior. With all the language constraints, I deemed the country to be un-friendly. As I said, 8 years later, and with lots of travel experience, things look a lot better now. So yeah, the lady was irritated when things took time – but that could be just impatience; it didn’t really have anything to do with racism, did it? Customer service in India is not exactly the best, so should I be as upset here? Yes, people didn’t speak English, and so not too many people came forward to make conversation, but really – when was it a requirement that every country should speak English? Go to the interiors of Karnataka, and we don’t expect the villagers to talk in English, do we?
Now that I look back, I realize that I didn’t make as much of an effort to be friendly either. And I had conveniently forgotten about the kindness that strangers did bestow on me – the guy who didn’t speak a word of English, but who lugged my suitcase up the stairs in the train station; the friendly receptionist at the youth hostel who helped us with all our queries. Why did I expect the place to open its arms to me, when I myself didn’t go with a totally open mind?
As I said, time brings about perspective. A whole lot of it.
This of course does not mean that I have reached a Zen like state, or that I don’t get bogged down or upset when somebody is rude, or when somebody is mean. It also doesn’t mean that I have not come across rude people in my travels since then. Of course I have. I still do. But I react to it differently. I let it go.
On my last trip to Croatia, I asked a shop keeper at the bus information for some information. It was something real simple, but the guy just glared at me and said “this is tobacco. Not information.” and walked away. I waited till he turned back to me, smiled, told him that I will get information at the counter, and then walked away. And then forgot about it.
The lady at the next shop was much more helpful, and she gave me much more information that I have even asked for. I was in a better place because the guy was rude, and while this is no self-improvement gyaan, I realized that things really work out for the better. Truly. And that I couldn’t keep away the good, because the bad had scared me.
As an Indian woman with brown skin travelling to all the developed (read that as white!) countries in the world, I did wonder about racism. It of course exists, it would be stupid to deny it. But I also realized that quite a lot of my fears came from my own insecurities, rather than any real attack on my identity. It was as intimidating for my middle class to step into a five star hotel, as it was to step into a foreign country, and be totally comfortable with myself.
And here’s where travel has really helped. It was never a conscious decision to be brave, it was never a conscious decision to let go. It just happened. I guess experiences happened. It taught me to focus on the good, to observe the kindness, to be grateful for the positive.
It also taught me that the bad is not so bad, that the bad will pass, that the bad was an experience as well. And that it needed to be treated with as much respect as any good experience. It needed to be treated with disdain. And thrown away 🙂