Traveling as an American comes with a lot of baggage (pun 100% intended!); I often felt as though we were starting in the hole whenever we interacted with others just because of what’s printed on our birth certificates, and that we needed to dig ourselves out by being the most polite, friendly, and humble travelers in order to be considered somewhat decent human beings, on par with fellow travelers from Europe, Asia, or Australia. The question of what it’s like to travel in relatively remote and very poor places as an American is something that was on the forefront of our minds all the time, although surprisingly, it hasn’t been a common question asked in the months since we’ve returned to the US from our travels. I’m currently reading The Lunatic Express, by DC native Carl Hoffman, who spent several months traveling around the world on some of the worst and most dangerous buses, trains, and ferries so that he could write about the experience. I came across the following passage from a chapter where Hoffman takes a local Indonesian ferry, and I think did a perfect job of describing what it is like to interact with people who have preconceived notions of Americans, to let go of your own fears and prejudices, and try not only to connect with people you meet, but to trust them and realize that the vast of majority of the time, you will be rewarded, not punished, for putting your faith in strangers.
…the more I gave myself to the world, the more I made myself vulnerable by putting myself completely at the the disposal of people and situations in which I had no control, the more people took care of me, looked out for me. At first I had thought they were taking pity on me. But over the days and weeks ahead I started to understand something else, something that had been sinking in gradually over the months. Being white American conferred on me an automatic status. I represented power. Affluence. Vast numbers of the world were poor, watched American television and films, listened to American music, but had no real contact with westerners, and if they did it was often as chambermaids, taxi drivers, waiters– none ever sat down in their slums or ate their food. [The] question — why wasn’t I flying?– said much. It was a question I heard over and over again. Why wasn’t I in first class?Why wasn’t I on an express bus? Why wasn’t I anywhere but here? My fellow travelers were right: I could have been flying. I could have been traveling in first class, in an air-conditioned cabin with a soft mattress and stewards. In silence and stillness. That I wasn’t was like a gift to them, a mysterious one they couldn’t fully understand but that they appreciated in a way I would never have imagined. And the more I shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, the more they embraced me. In the weeks ahead I would accelerate what had started gradually over the miles. I would do whatever my fellow travelers and hosts did. If they drank the tap water of Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangladesh, so would I. If they bought tea from the streetcorner vendor, so would I. If they ate with their fingers, even if I was given utensils, I ate with my fingers. Doing so prompted an outpouring of generosity and curiosity that never ceased to amaze me; it opened the door, made people take me in. That I shared their food, their discomfort, their danger, fascinated them and validated them in a powerful way. And as Lena waved away the cushion man and Mrs. Nova insisted I share her food, I realized I was in good hands, surrounded by women with eagle eyes. I could relax; murder or robbery was the last thing I had to worry about.
For Americans used to a certain level of comfort, cleanliness, personal space, and quiet while traveling, it takes more effort, and a determined willingness to come out of your comfort zone in order to experience transport “as the locals do”, but it’s also one of the only ways to really experience a country and its people as they go about their every day lives. Some of the memories I most cherish now (but didn’t quite cherish then!) are the crazy, hot, beyond crowded, and endless bus rides we took through Eastern Africa, for they provided a window into local life that we would never have seen otherwise, and I think we were also able to give the people we shared those rides with a positive impression of Americans, an impression that ultimately may have taken them by surprise. It is these sort of exchanges that make certain types of travel worth every day spent with a sore behind, dusty clothes, and aching back.