Without a doubt, traveling has been one of my greatest passions in life; so much so that I consider it to be one of life’s necessities like food, oxygen and water. Especially now that our son is old enough to travel with my husband and I, discovering the world and being able to share experiences together have been one of the greatest joys in being a parent.
Nevertheless, after traveling the world for over two decades, I’ve realized that the joy of travel doesn’t come without hardships, and some of the difficulties I have faced while traveling or living abroad reflect deeper, more serious societal issues. However, they introduce us to different perspectives and teach us a greater lesson in life, to be more flexible, more open-minded and overall a person who looks at the big picture in life instead of sweating the small things.
As the novelist Pico Iyer poignantly said,
Travel in large part [is] search of hardship, both my own, which I want to feel, and others’, which I need to see. Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.
Dealing with unfriendly people
We’ve all heard the stereotype that Parisians are rude. However, rudeness in my opinion is highly subjective and also cultural.
For instance, after having numerous discussions with my friends and coworkers who have lived in Paris most of their lives, I’m always amazed at the difference of opinion on what constitutes rudeness, and of course, they don’t understand why their beloved city has such notorious reputation. They are accustomed to the curtness of their fellow Parisians, and they believe what we, the outsiders and the tourists, consider as being rude is simply a cultural difference; therefore, feel that when in Paris, we must accept what Parisians do.
However, when I talk to French expats in San Francisco or colleagues who live outside of France, they’re sentiments about Parisians are quite the opposite. They too have expressed that when they return home for the holidays, they find their countrymen arrogant … and yes, rude. So much so that a former coworker of mine who is a native Parisian once told me that she did not want to return to Paris after her contract ended, but instead wanted to look for a permanent residence in Silicon Valley, as she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to such unfriendly and depressing (her words, not mine) place.
Therefore, I believe that most people or cultures that we find unpleasant or rude is not necessarily because people are intrinsically odious or malicious but because their culture and environment dictate and accept certain behavior, which other cultures find unacceptable or intolerable.
On the contrast to most travelers who have had unpleasant experiences in Paris, I found … and still find Parisians to be quite friendly. Aside from few mishaps and misunderstandings, during most of my visits, I’ve experienced kindness and hospitality from the locals even in most restaurants.
Germans, on the other hand is a different story, and I must admit, out of all the countries I’ve traveled to in Europe and in most parts of the world, Germany happens to be one of the few places where I hesitate on visiting, as most encounters I had with the locals were truly unpleasant.
However, I believe, this too, is due to a cultural difference, as being from the US, I tend to be a stickler for customer service and customers being treated well when patronizing an establishment. The lack of service mentality in Germany is really difficult for me to handle. Even after living there, I’m still disappointed at the lack of care and consideration from the staff in the service industry, hotels, restaurants and shops, and I’m always surprised at how clueless Germans are about even the smallest gestures of courtesy like handing back the change instead of placing them on the counter.
When I lived there, I often wonder why they bother to have a person sitting in a job as a cashier or at the checkout counter when he or she showed about as much emotion or warmth as a machine. I mean, even in Paris, people will greet you when you enter and leave a place of business, but in Germany, it’s rare that a shopkeeper or employees at stores, restaurants or at hotels will make you feel like a customer much less acknowledge your presence.
Although I understand that every country, culture, and even region has its own customs and their own way of interacting with people, one of the most difficult aspect of traveling has been encountering unfriendly or rude people.
Taste in food like individual’s taste in anything is also highly subjective. It depends on what you’re accustomed to, and how your taste palate has developed.
While I was living abroad, I was always puzzled by the comment that American food is terrible. First of all, I was uncertain what defined “American” food, as America(n) after all is comprised of so many different cultures and ethnicity. Once I discovered that by “American”, most people mean hamburgers, hot dogs and pizzas, I had to laugh, as these supposedly American meals were nothing more than foods that were transported, and to some degree transformed, from different European nations. I mean, pizza … American … really?!?
After a further inquiry into this baffling perception, I realized that America food that the majority of the world refers to is from McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, and fast food is what most people consider American. Then, I began to understand their opinion of American food, and I agreed; it wasn’t the best thing for one’s palate.
However, most people who have actually visited the US knows that food in America is comprised of a wide variety of foods from all over the world, and there are plenty of options besides the fast food joints.
Unlike in most parts of Switzerland, option is not something that you have a lot of. Almost every meal I’ve had in Switzerland comprised of some sort of heavy cream or sauce. Even spaghetti Bolognese, which I enjoy in the US and in Italy, taste more like sauce made mostly out of sour cream than meat base.
Then, there’s the cheese … lots and lots of it, and although I do enjoy an occasional bite or two of cheese fondue, I think it’s unbearable to make a whole meal out of a bucket of melted cheese and pieces of stale bread. And from the looks of a food challenge on Amazing Race, where the contestants had to eat a whole bucket of fondue and mostly fail to complete, I take it most people who aren’t Swiss would also have difficulties stomaching such a meal. Therefore, I must admit, the food was the least enjoyable part of my trips to Switzerland.
Witnessing economic inequalities between rich and poor
Economic inequalities exists all over the world. Even in the US, we only have to drive few minutes into or outside of our cities to be reminded how unequally the wealth of this nation is distributed.
However, in an underdeveloped nation like Cambodia and even in developing ones like Mexico and Thailand, poverty is palpable, and there’s nothing that makes me feel like an ugly tourist than sitting in a pricey restaurant or staying at a hotel that is too expensive for the locals.
The most important part of traveling for me is about being amongst the locals, and experiencing their culture through interacting with them. Although I understand all too well that in some countries where I do not speak the native language, it’s more difficult to obtain a meaningful interaction, but I find it unfulfilling when the whole travel experience is comprised of being confined to places where there are only foreign tourists.
For example, as much as I found Thailand to be a fascinating country and its beaches, especially in the southern coast, breathtakingly beautiful, my travel experience there was less than enjoyable, as it seems everywhere my husband and I went, we were isolated from the locals. Sitting at the beaches in Phuket or Kraby, I felt as if we were transported to the European Colonial days, except now, we were the imperialists from the developed nations. It was rare to see Thai families or couples in the hotels where we were staying and dining in the restaurants, we were surrounded by only tourists.
Although I understand that being among other tourists are inevitable when travel to a popular destination like Thailand, I feel that going half way around the world and not being able to experience the local culture defeats the whole purpose of traveling.
However, this unfortunately is the sad reality of the world that we live in, as the parity between the rich and poor nations grows. It’s no wonder that some locals in these nations see travel industry as a form of imperialism that allows travelers from the wealthy nations to take advantage of the underdeveloped countries. Especially, in a country like Thailand where the majority of ownership of hotels and high end restaurants are managed by foreign companies, it’s easy to understand why some locals view the industry as perpetuating such imperialistic structure.
Like most of life’s perplexities, traveling has always been paradoxical for me. However, as a world traveler and a global citizen, I believe that it’s important to be aware of the economic parities that exist in the world. Therefore, beyond returning home and being thankful that we don’t have to live in such impoverish conditions, the answer is not to let my guilt stop me from traveling and discovering that aspect of the world, but to better understand its causes and the effects our actions and our decisions, especially that of our government, have on these nations and people.
Going through airports in the US
Since September 11, 2001, going through the airports in the US has become a major hassle at best and a nightmarish experience at worst.
Even before getting to the airport, we must pack our bags in accordance with all the restrictions that airlines impose on us. Then, organizing and separating the items of our carryon bags, and keeping up with what we can or cannot bring on board is as difficult as keeping up with the Dow Jones average, latest nonsensical addition to the “can carry” list being “small knives with non-locking blades smaller than 2.36 inches and less than 1/2 inch in width”. Are you kidding me?!?
With all the insanity surrounding the packing list for carry-ons aside, half of your day is wasted trying to get to the airport on time to allow enough time for checking in and getting through the security, and once you’re there, you better be ready and take off all your jacket, sweater, shoes, belt, wallet, jewelry, and only-god-knows-what-else that might set off the metal detector or x-ray machine because once you get pull aside for carrying a “suspicious” item, you’ll have to go through the whole process all over again.
Therefore, whether we’re traveling domestically or internationally, we always allow ourselves at least 3 hours at the airport. Insane, I know. However, when you’re traveling with a child(ren), having an extra half hour can make all the difference in avoiding any unnecessary drama.
Case in point, when our little boy was about 15 months old, we decided to take a trip to Santa Fe. Being that it was a domestic flight, and a short one at that, we decided that being at the airport an hour before takeoff would give us plenty of time for checking in and going through the security. Little did we know, the check in process, even with an electronic ticket, would take almost half an hour.
Then, once we got to the security check, being in a frazzled state, I’d forgotten that our son was holding a cup of Cheerios while walking through the metal detector. Of course, a TSA agent immediately approached us and told us that the cup must be removed from his hand and be placed on the x-ray machine. However, when I tried to take the cup away from our son, he began to scream and cry, as it was the only thing that was comforting him in that foreign environment.
So, there I was in the middle of a standoff between my 15 month old toddler and a TSA agent, neither willing to let go of the cup of Cheerios that posed such imminent danger to our national security. Needless to say, the TSA agent got her way, even if our son cried and screamed as if a beloved friend had just passed away.
Ever since then, not only do we leave our snacks in our bags until we get through the security check, but we also get to the airport with plenty of time to spare for unforeseeable drama. Consequently, for a short domestic flight like the ones to Albuquerque, we end up spending more time at the airport than flying.
Even as a frequent traveler, I find that the least enjoyable part of traveling is going through the airports in the US, and I’m afraid this is the reality that we’ll always have to deal with.
Racism & discrimination
For me, the most difficult aspect of traveling and living abroad has been encountering racism and discrimination.
After all these years of travel, one thing that I’ve learned and am certain of is that racism is an integral part of the world, and unfortunately, I have yet to find a place where the detrimental effect of 500 years of colonialism seizes to exist.
However, as the world becomes more global and modernized, people around the world are becoming more cognizant of racial inequality, and in some countries, there have been valiant efforts to achieve a higher level of awareness in attempt to eradicate racism.
Unfortunately, for most people of color, these efforts do little to console us if and when we experience racism, as these experiences are just as demeaning and dehumanizing at home as they are when we confront them thousand miles away.
The tragic aspect of racism is that it’s perhaps the most uncomfortable topic to discuss; hence, it certainly doesn’t sell a lot of books and is rarely made into Hollywood movies. Therefore, there’s a very little conversation or dialogue about it. Although encountering racism is as prevalent as staying at a hotel while traveling, there’s hardly any discussions or tips in travel guides, and it’s rarely discussed even in the travel forums.
Then again, if you’re spending thousands of dollars planning a trip to see the world, do you really want to hear about the bigotry and discrimination you’re about to encounter? Most people travel to get away from the realities of life hoping to have a enjoyable experience, and racism just doesn’t fit the bill.
Therefore, most people (of color) go on trips with false idea of what the place or the travel experience will be like … I would like to see a movie version of “Eat, Pray, Love” from the perspective of an Asian or a Hispanic woman. If so, the first half of the movie would go something like this.
Asian Julia Roberts (AJR): Bonjourno! My name is Lisa, and I’m new in town.
Italian shopkeeper (IS): Bonjourno! Where are you from, Lisa?
AJR: I’m from the US.
IS: Oh, but where are you really from?
AJR: I’m from the US.
IS: But where were you born?
AJR: I was born the US.
IS: But where do your parents live?
AJR: in Texas
IS: Oh … (after few minutes of silence) your English is very good.
As you can see, this would hardly make an interesting movie, as the majority of Lisa’s encounters with the locals would resemble moments such as this, where she is forced to retrace and defend her roots.
Setting humor aside, sadly, this is the reality for the most people of color, especially when traveling or living in Europe. Most Europeans I’ve encountered have difficulties accepting people of color as being Americans, as they have difficulties accepting ethnic minorities in their own countries as their countrymen. Recently, I’ve read an email which has been circulating among the Swiss expats that said, “You know you’ve been in Switzerland too long when … you assume that all blacks are foreigners and all Asians are refugees.”
Sadly, the disconcerting aspect of such discriminatory attitudes and racial bigotry is that travel experiences in certain parts of the world can be quite different for people of color, and in some regions, even pose unforeseeable dangers that are unfamiliar to most white travelers.
I remember how uncomfortable I’d felt when I was traveling in the Eastern part of Germany. Especially, in the cities that recently received rave reviews from all the well-known travel magazines as being the “hotspots” and “up and coming” places such as Dresden or Leipzig, I’d encountered nothing but hostile stares and locals who made me feel as if I wasn’t welcomed in their cities.
Tragically, during 2006 FIFA World Cup, when people from all over the world descended upon Germany, we would find out the extent and gravity their animosity towards ethnic minorities, as racially motivated attacks began surfacing in the various cities and towns. Since then, human rights organizations such as the Africa Council and the International League of Human Rights have issued travel advisories to black and Asian tourists to avoid certain areas of eastern Germany.
Although we are well aware of the warnings about Americans traveling to regions that are conflict ridden and where there are imminent dangers to our security, racially motivated treatments and attacks against people of color are rare discussed and even acknowledged among travelers. The only way we find out is through firsthand experience and under the most harrowing circumstances.
From Russia to Denmark and Austria, and from France to Australia, people of color (tourists and average citizens alike) are facing increasing trends in racism, and as unpleasant and unpopular as the topic may be, as world travelers, we must be aware and be cognizant of it, if not for anything, to know that we are not alone in encountering these experiences.