Citizens of the World: A Manifesto

“Excuse me.”

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.

 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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15 Responses to Citizens of the World: A Manifesto

  1. Janisse Larsson April 12, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Basic emotions are universal….you never know if that haughty woman had a very sick husband, and she was at the cafe to escape for awhile, and when she didn’t get the quiet she needed, she decided to be totally off the wall and abuse you….because she could. I’ve been there.

    • Flora April 25, 2013 at 2:43 am #

      Very true Janisse, thanks for pointing that out. I just took her comments at face value and drew my own conclusions, but I do wonder what her exact reasons were.

  2. Dan Bibb April 12, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    It is a shame that people react as they do, but we all are allowed our opinions and even as some express them in a poor way. However, these people are easily disarmed with a quick response asking for an apology and then advice, like: “I so sorry we were too loud, a bit over excited about visiting your country. By the way, where would you recommend us to go next? I love you input.”

    Random acts of kindness destroys outbursts of anger.

    • Flora April 25, 2013 at 2:44 am #

      Random acts of kindness are always the best course of action!

  3. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas April 12, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    I had a similar experience on a ferry in Croatia. I was chatting with another American who worked at the consulate in Bosnia on a near-empty boat. At the end of the one-hour trip, I was informed by one of the deckhands that I personified every American he had ever met – boisterous, haughty and rich. I was shocked at his words, but more so by the fact that he hadn’t moved to be out of earshot or said something

    I could have easily reminded him that tourism dollars has helped rebuild the country in the wake of the Balkans War, or that he had kept quiet the whole time, or that I made 700 euros a month at my teaching job and support myself…but I shut my mouth. I’m not going to change my American accent or the fact that my country is seen, on the whole, as a wealthy one, and I sure as hell won’t stop traveling.

    Live and let live, people.

    • Flora April 25, 2013 at 2:45 am #

      Live and let live indeed! Sometimes it’s best to just listen and congratulate yourself internally on not rising to the bait and reacting the way you know you want to.., plus it makes a great story later :p

  4. Karin-Marijke April 16, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    The attitude of that lady of course is not solely related to travel but to life in general. Having said that, I like your manifesto. Good attitude for travel, where I am concerned. Thanks for sharing.

    • Flora April 25, 2013 at 2:41 am #

      Agreed – but I decided to take her comments and weave it into my opinions about travelling and the ways in which we communicate within our differing cultures. Glad you enjoyed though!

  5. Julia April 22, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    I don’t know, I think the woman might’ve had a point. I’m American, and honestly we don’t often realize how loud we are – it’s normal in the US to speak at a certain volume, but a lot of other cultures are much quieter than us and find it aggressive or rude. There’s definitely value in keeping your culture with you, to share it with others, but I think that breaching local etiquette as an introductory move makes people less likely to be interested in learning about you…

  6. dave April 26, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Thanks for the interesting article, but surely this is exactly what travelling is all about.

    We go to experience different scenery, different languages and of course different cultures.

    This lady has her right to comment if she feels fit, but as you point out it is what we do with such encounters that counts. To travel is to experience and explore whatever is thrown our way and learn to deal with it and grow wiser and smarter.

  7. Ceri June 14, 2013 at 9:44 am #

    This is a great post, Flora. Just to pick up the point you made about the travellers mocking the teens – I hadn’t realised how much elitism there was in the travel community until I started backpacking. I wrote a bit about it on my blog when I went to Puerto Vallarta. It’s so interesting that travellers will go to different cultures and countries and be so open-minded about new experiences but really sneer and look down at other travellers or tourists.

    • Flora June 17, 2013 at 3:47 am #

      I know, it’s such a weird little hypocritical attitude. I’ve been guilty of it a few times myself but always catch myself in the act and make sure I stop it then and there! But it’s so easy to forget how you appear on the outside if you’ve started to feel like you’re blending in to a particular culture.

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