In the capital city of a nerve-wracked coun-try some years ago, nearly everybody I met was trying to make a living off dollar-stuffed tourists. Educated, surprisingly informed old men sold polished coins or worn books, or simply begged. Smart young men offered to guide us to restaurants or find us rooms for a cut of the takings. Kids just asked for spare change. And if seeing all this around us wasn’t dismaying enough, we could always take a look at the young women, invariably encased in scarily scanty clothes.
In a bar on our last night there, I was propositioned on behalf of a woman who sat across from me at a table. She stared at me unsettlingly, with rock-hard eyes that never blinked, while her pimp explained why I should “dance” with her. Of course I knew what this was about; I explained that I was not interested. He said I could “learn.” I said I was not interested. Please dance with her, he nearly beseeched me. No, I said, and anyway I’m with my wife who will be here any minute. We went back and forth for some time before I managed to persuade him that I was not going to honor his offer, no matter what.
That’s when he finally relaxed and began to talk to me. Not pimp-to-potential client talk, but—never has being a tourist troubled me so much—husband-to-husband talk. And she spoke to my wife. Yes, she was his wife. They had three children. Pimping her was the only way to make enough money to feed the family.
So he said, at any rate, but even in the saying this was so sad. In any case, on that last night, in that particular country, I could believe him. That was one of the truths about Country XYZ that I brought home with and have filed, along with my photographs and diaries.
Travel to see the sights. Of course. But travel enough, and you’re looking beyond the Eiffels and Grand Canyons and Meenakshi temples. You almost want to, because sights have a tendency—let’s be frank—to get boring. So you find yourself doing other things, and quickly bumping up against the seamy, even tragic, side to tourism. I have done my fair share of traveling, and I don’t recall a more depressing moment through it all than on that night, in that bar, in that capital city. I felt painfully close to what tourism can do.
All those grand ideas about travel—the sights, the mingling of cultures, the broadening of the mind—crumbled in the face of the little truth I learned there. I was welcome in the country, sure. But to so many, too many, I was welcome solely because I had dollars to burn. That, to them, meant food in their bellies. I found the romantic and picturesque pictures from the guides, sure; often enough I took my own as well. I also found sadness and troubles.
And yet, and yet … it seems to me that in these post-WTC times when, more than ever, we live in fear of random and shadowy “others”—maybe those full-bearded “others”?—it is also more important than ever to travel. To travel so we can understand, know, learn—yes, learn even sadness. What are other human beings like? What are their fears, concerns, joys, motives? Can we find some common humanity with them? Are they like me?
Why is this important? Because too often, too many of us swallow and carry about impressions about sets of people we don’t, or rarely, meet. Tick off how many of these sound familiar: The average American is ignorant about the outside world. Pakistanis are religious fanatics who hate all Indians. Biharis are lazy and casteist. Blacks anywhere are dangerous. Germans are mindless automatons and that’s why they fell so hard for Hitler. Muslims are terrorists.
I think of the several times I’ve read stories in Indian papers in which some earnest traveler will expound on how he was terrified—ooh!—to be on a bus in NYC that was—ooh some more!—”filled with blacks.”
We hold so tight to such images that they become little rules of life, not so different from “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” or “Look before you leap.” So when we actually meet a black man, or a Bihari, or a Pakistani, we apply the appropriate rule: just as we might metaphorically look before we metaphorically leap. We react to these strangers just as if they hated us, or were murderous terrorists.
After all, think how would you react if you met someone you were certain was intent on robbing you. Or killing you.
How much of the tension and hatred in this world can we explain, even if partly, by the prevalence of such impressions? (Note that I say “explain,” not “justify”—there being a goodly difference). The troubles in Ireland? The genocide in Rwanda? Our hostile stand-off with Pakistan? The horrible massacres in Gujarat in 2002? Are we willing to even think of it? Even terrorism like 9/11 itself?
How much blood do we shed because we assume, because we don’t know?
Travel does many things. Today, I value it for what it teaches me, what it can teach us all, about others. Undoubtedly it is expensive, whether it’s the U.S. or Bihar that’s the destination. Yet I believe those of us who can afford it must do it, more and more. So we can know. So we can find the exceptions to those rules we like to cling to. So we will understand that the exceptions, just maybe, overturn the rules. So we can discover that those others are, just maybe, much like us. Much like me.
How easy can it be to shed blood that I know, that I’ve learned, that I can assume, is much like mine? How easy can it be to shed blood when that other guy is a person, a human being? Not an assumed fanatic?
I have done my share of traveling, true, and I feel privileged for it. I know now that travel abounds in strange experiences, unanswered questions, intriguing people, mixed emotions, and without doubt, stunning sights. Yet most of all, it is full of lessons about the world, about myself. It took me a long time to realize it, but that, curiously enough, is why I travel at all. Now more than ever.