A middle aged woman passing our table stopped for a moment. She looked down her heavily made-up nose at us haughtily; a group of English girls in an Ecuadorian coffee shop on a weekday evening, eagerly discussing our travelling plans for the next few months. Clearly the concept was not at all appealing to her, because she decided to chastise us for it.
“We are all citizens of the world,” she started, looking pointedly at each of us.
We smiled back, totally unaware of what she was about to say.
“However. Some of us like to keep quiet so others can be in peace. For the last hour we have heard you talking and we could not concentrate.”
She sniffed derisively, and turned smartly on her heel to exit the cafe. I presume she was expecting a hushed silence to descend upon our table, as we shamefully became aware of how disruptive we had been.
Sadly, no such luck. The second she was out of the door, we erupted into snorts of suppressed laughter.
“What on earth was she on about?!” A friend of mine said, clearly in disbelief. “We only came in here for brownies!”
But I knew what she’d been getting at. I’ve faced people like that woman before; and no doubt I’ll face them again. Sadly, it’s a common attitude – they pretend to be accepting of everyone, but make a fuss as soon as somebody begins to rock the boat. And god forbid if you’re the one doing the rocking.
Being self conscious
I have always been a bit of a self conscious traveller. It often means I’m more observant when it comes to noticing possible danger, but unfortunately it’s also the precursor to being acutely aware of every sidelong glance, every hidden smirk and hushed whisper, and every person, local or otherwise, who happens to be looking at me.
I always wonder what these people might be thinking; does my hair or face or clothes look ridiculous? Is there something on my bum? Have they noticed something woefully inappropriate about me?
This, in case you weren’t aware, is my achilles heel: a hefty bout of self-deprecation.
Luckily, this mentality usually only kicks in when I’m by myself. Too much alone time with my brain allows it to run off on these unnecessary tangents; but travelling with other people allows for conversation and general merriment to overtake.
There are, however, times when I still get self-conscious, even when I’m in a group. If we’re being too loud, too obvious, too (I hate to say it, but) embarrassing, then I start to notice the glances and the whispers again. And though I hate noticing, I simply, self-consciously can’t help it.
Standing my ground
But I will not accept someone managing to take offence when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with our outward appearance – even according to me. Like Ms. Haughty in the coffee shop, who decided that our enthusiasm for living in her country was too much when she was attempting to drink a cappuccino.
No matter that she could have told us how disturbing we were being when she first noticed us; apparently, she had to wait an hour until her dramatic departure to really try and make us feel bad.
I refuse to be apologetic in a situation like this. Funnily enough, when she first started talking, I expected her to give us tips on where best to travel to in Ecuador! I’m sure she felt she was justified in telling us to be quiet – and sure, we were probably being too loud.
But did she not consider how amazing it was that a group of foreigners were so excited about exploring the rest of her country that we were almost shouting? Did she even listen to what we were saying, or did she just dismiss it as white noise and manufacture an opinion about us with no further thought?
Being yourself when travelling
We’re often much too hasty to judge others based on immediate appearance; how they act and what they wear automatically tells us the type of person they represent. It happens a lot when travelling, too. In India, after days of not spying another foreigner, the sudden sighting of one made me stare.
“Woah, look at that Westerner! She looks like such a tourist!”
Forgetting, of course, that I looked exactly the same.
And that’s where the strangeness lies. A great deal of travellers will strive to not look like a tourist; buying traditional clothes, learning the language, befriending locals, keeping away from foreign hangout spots. It’s as if being earmarked as a tourist – as someone that doesn’t belong – is the worst possible bracket to be in.
But the fact of the matter is, you’ll always be obvious. It will always be visible to the locals that you’re not from their country. And where’s the harm, really? As long as you’re kind, friendly, and happy to adjust your mindset to the culture you’re travelling through, it seems strange to feel embarrassed for simply looking like yourself!
Learning the art of acceptance
In early March we boarded a bus for a weekend away, heading out to explore the green valleys of Vilcabamba, a few hours south of Cuenca. It was our first trip away since arriving in the city, and my fellow volunteers were understandably excited; talking loudly about what food they might eat and whether they should try and find more hippy trousers to buy.
A group of foreigners, all dreadlocks, tanned skin and complacent expressions, were sat at the back of the bus, grinning slightly at our behaviour. They looked smug, and whispered to each other from time to time – and I knew what they were thinking.
“Look at those kids trying to travel: they’ve got no idea what they’re doing.”
I bridled angrily at those expressions. My internal thought process went as follows:
“Why should they be staring so openly? So rudely? Why should they be allowed to have that opinion?? I’m proud to be with this group – these kids who’ve chosen to volunteer and teach for six months, who aren’t just drinking on a Thai beach for their year abroad – and I’m proud to be associated with them, to watch as they discover hostels and long bus rides and new communities for the very first time.
Because it’s a chance for me to relive how amazing those first feelings were.
So by all means, go ahead and mock – and think you’re better because you’ve travelled more, you look the part, you feel like a cool traveller. Big deal.
But you were one of these kids once.
You got on your first international flight, dealt with never being allowed to flush the toilet paper, wandered through fruit markets, tripped over stray dogs, navigated bus stations in a language you didn’t understand. These teenagers are full of wonder and honest appreciation for the things you’ve now deemed too lowly to notice. And I hope I never get as complacent at travelling as you clearly think yourself to be.”
Maybe they didn’t see us the way I thought they did. Maybe they didn’t even notice our little group of pale skin and hippy trousers,and my self-concious self imagined it all.
But nevertheless, I’m glad I thought about it.
An impromptu manifesto
Because here’s the thing. As a frequent traveller, it’s up to me to accept every person’s opinion as justified; I might not agree with it, but it’s their choice to think the way they do. By choosing to travel, you’re actively deciding to open up your mind and allow your opinions to be changed.
So this is my manifesto: to always look at people with open eyes and open minds. Whether I’m part of the group of well-travelled hippies, looking at a collection of loud, eager, fresh-faced teenagers backpacking for the first time – or the other way around.
And of course I will respect that others want to be at peace, but I will not be quiet. I simply don’t see the point.
So when I hit middle age, and a group of foreign kids are poring over guidebooks in a coffee shop, I won’t give them a lecture on being appropriate. I’ll tell them where they should go exploring, what sights they simply have to see – and with a wry smile (and just a trace of embarrassment at the cliche), mention that we’re all ‘citizens of the world’, and it’s up to us to help each other out from time to time.
Because what else does travelling teach us except the fact that we’re all the same, really? In England, in India, and in Ecuador, I’ve whiled away hours in coffee shops eating overly decadent foodstuffs and planning my travels. And that isn’t going to stop just because somebody closed-minded thinks I should.
In the world of travel, it’s more than possible to have your brownie and eat it, too.