When I was eight years old, I got locked inside a toilet cubicle in a Japanese KFC.
I’d been eating fried chicken with my parents mere minutes before; my fingers were greasy, and the lock on the door was little more than a strip of jutting plastic with an indent so shallow that only a non-greasy thumb could slide it open. The door itself fitted seamlessly to the ceiling and the floor – a flawless example of Japanese design in 1997 – and once I realised I couldn’t get out, I immediately began to panic.
After what felt like hours, my screams finally attracted the attention of a lone Japanese woman who had wandered into the bathroom. Clearly concerned about the invisible sobbing foreigner who had zero Japanese speaking skills, she headed back out into the restaurant and announced to a crowd of people that:
“A little girl is stuck in the bathroom!”
It took a resourceful employee and a yen coin scraping against the ‘engaged’ panel on the outside of the door to deposit me successfully, albeit snot-stained and weeping, into my waiting mother’s arms.
That moment in KFC is probably the first time I felt truly scared abroad: although my mum and dad were only two doors and few hundred metres away, I knew I was ostensibly alone.
Yet a Japanese stranger helped me, even though she had no idea who I was or what had happened to me – and I’ve never forgotten the gesture.
Facing up to the horrors of the world
The last few weeks have made us acutely aware of what it means to be human, in all our goodness and our badness. Following the most recent onslaught of terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali and Baghdad, there’s been a palpable shift in people’s behaviour, and social media channels are filled with fervent emotional responses of every kind possible.
Life has become horribly frightening, and I’ve felt alternately vulnerable, helpless and numb.
For the days after November 13th, I barely left my flat. I kept bursting into tears without warning, and couldn’t help scrolling through Twitter, Facebook and every news channel, overloading myself with horrific details until I felt physically sick.
And then I spoke to my dad, who told me kindly but firmly to switch everything off.
A break from the online world
Getting away from social media allowed my mind to settle down, and I began to think for myself rather than absorbing other people’s opinions.
I thought about the awful objectives those terrorists must have had, making the active choice to spread hatred through fear and pain.
I thought about the inevitable ‘anti-foreigner’ rhetoric that has immediately grown more vehement: the right wing newspapers claiming that the bombers had been refugees; the US presidential candidate who wants a database to track Muslims. All these attitudes supporting an ‘us versus them’ mentality – which, as history has shown us repeatedly, never works out well.
And then I thought about the process that leads people to have these feelings against others. I simply can’t believe it’s an innate belief or a willing choice to hate somebody you’ve never met: my stubborn and fiercely empathetic self wants it to be as simple as a fear of the unknown, translated into aggression for the lack of something better.
Thinking back, I’ve definitely felt scared around strangers. I’ve been unsure about other religions. I’ve been outraged at a particular culture’s behaviour.
But those memories go hand in hand with never knowing what it’s like to navigate a foreign transit system with only a hostel address scribbled on my hand; to sleep in a dorm room with twenty other people of different nationalities; to conduct entire conversations with only hand gestures because we don’t share a common language; to eat foods I’d never seen before and couldn’t pronounce the names of if I tried.
Those fears and concerns about ‘the unknown’ were unfounded – and happily enough, they began to be proved wrong once I stepped off a plane and out of my comfort zone.
What travel means to me
That incident in a Japanese bathroom happened nearly twenty years ago, and apart from never being able to eat in KFC again (thanks, permanent mental scarring!), the experience taught me the importance of showing compassion for strangers.
It’s also one of hundreds of lessons I can take away from the situations that have happened during my travels.
In Mysore, India, I actively shed my fear of the ‘tourist-versus-local’ barrier by chatting to the stall holders at the Devraja market. From the man posing with his tomatoes to the quiet girl selling tikka dye who’d been attacked by a vicious husband with a vial of acid; from the children making flower garlands under their dad’s stall and teaching us songs to the man selling perfume oils in tiny glass bottles to the boy who showed me his photo album of the jasmine flower hair pieces he makes each day, telling me how much each one cost, their weight, meanings, purpose and their scents.
I realised that every person I get the chance to meet has a story and a passion.
In the deserts and cities of Syria, I traipsed around Roman ruins with three devout Christian girls from New Zealand, and even as I realised how differently they saw the country by looking through the prism of religion, I also saw how differently we were all treated by the Syrians once we wore scarves over our heads in the searing heat.
I understood what it is to be a woman in a country with wildly different attitudes to my own.
On a long haul bus ride in Bolivia, I watched my fellow passengers quietly disembark in the middle of a highway and start dragging their cases towards the city, dozens of kilometres away. A city-wide transport strike had rendered the roads impassable, and there was no other option but to walk.
I learned to temper my internal frustration and my aching feet with a certain amount of patience when I knew this was a one-off experience for me – yet it’s a regular occurrence for so many.
And that month in Japan also opened my eyes to poverty and homelessness for the first time, when my dad took me to a cardboard city at the underpass of a train station.
I was open-mouthed to see all these people living amongst the boxes like it was normal: Dad had passed through this station daily for months and decided his daughter needed to see how different someone else’s life could be, in a country so far away from my own.
Integrating travel experiences into ‘normal’ life
I didn’t realise these moments were forming my outlook and opinions on life when they were happening. Still, now I find myself cherrypicking the origins of each belief I have and tracing it back to an experience; a moment of education and revelation.
I’ve learnt so much from travel. That cultural differences have the power to highlight our similarities. That creativity is crucial. That staying within your niche and comfort zone often isn’t enough; that we have to be ever-present, ever-willing to learn and absorb the lessons that we’re given, learning to recognise them whenever they appear.
When I hesitantly came back to the internet, I chose to keep the negativity to a minimum, and instead focused on the messages of positivity in the wake of terrorism – and the more responses I see that are positive, thoughtful and loving, the more buoyed up I feel.
Like the Frenchman who told his son that terrorists might have guns, but we have flowers. Like the Italian Prime Minister who plans to spend a euro on culture for every euro spent on security. Like the travel bloggers urging their readers to keep travelling if that’s what they love.
I also asked people on my Facebook page what they thought travel meant to them, and loved the flurry of heartfelt responses I received.
Love, peace, compassion – and action.
On November 13th I was in Gibraltar at the territory’s annual Literary Festival, and when I flew back to London a few days later I was undeniably nervous.
The faces around me at the airport all looked vulnerable and open. We were all more nervous than we’d been a week before. A black plastic bag had been left on the airport concourse; when the disembodied tannoy voice announced it, people around me shuffled.
On the plane, a large man with a greasy black beard pulled a huge case from the overhead lockers and rearranged his camera equipment on the empty seat beside me, aware that people were surreptitiously peering at the gear inside. His hands were shaking.
But I also noticed that everyone on the airport was more open to conversation. By talking to each other we were closing down the nerves, calming each other and simultaneously breaking a barrier.
Love, peace, compassion and action: now, more than ever, we need an absolute ton of these four elements in our lives. It’s not important what specific situation brings this truth home to you. All that matters is that you realise it, and spread positivity as far as you can.
For me, travel has always meant trying to behave with understanding and compassion over judgement and aggression for any and every person I meet, because we’re all the same in the end.
And I plan to never stop believing that.
Choosing to embrace my fears
So although I can’t choose not to feel afraid about the state the world is in now, I do get to choose how I manage that fear.
Right now, I am here. Right now, I am happy and safe and confident. Right now, I have a choice.
I choose to think of Paris as a city where I travelled with the first man I ever loved and made sandwiches from baguettes on the banks of the Seine like a stupidly romantic couple; where I recently spent a weekend with my best friend, eating macarons in the sunshine and pretending to hug graffiti.
I choose to remember the moments and memories from experiences all over the world that make me who I am.
These moments and memories are what makes travel real and cements its importance in our lives. So now I’d like to ask you a question.
What are the ways in which travel has shaped and changed your perspectives on life? Did something subtly shift for you when you spoke to a shopkeeper in Guatemala? How did you think differently when you tasted a French croissant for the first time?