Humans, by nature, tend to settle in groups with similar characteristics. We live among these ‘similar’ people and make a mental model of how the world should be like. How people should be, and in what way they should behave. And subjective to our upbringings, we make a boundary around us. Delineating a right way of doing things from the wrong way.
I had such strong convictions about the world, this narrow lens through which I judged the entire humanity of seven billion souls. For twenty years I lived seeing the world through this lens. And I would have continued living with this way of thinking only had I not got the opportunity to travel. And it was on one of the travels like this, that I realized how farther from the truth I was. How closed my mind had been about culture and humanity.
I was twenty-one when I first traveled abroad (to South Korea for work.)
Before that, I hadn’t even gone to my relative’s place (even in the same city) without my parents accompanying me. So you can imagine a sense of reluctance, a sense of fear growing within me about traveling alone. Especially to a country with a culture and language vastly different from mine.
My young heart feared with the prospect of confronting this change. I got scared and almost decided to back out of the project. (Thankfully I couldn’t – I was the only one available to make that visit. And manager didn’t even gave me an opportunity to back out. My Visa Papers were filed on the same day.)
But as I lived in this new country for two months, walked on this land of cherry blossoms and Buddhist temples, surrounded by craggy mountains and dense forests, and interacted with the people who were so different than me in the way they ate and clothed and talked, I realized the fact that how limited my perspective about humanity had been. How much difference existed in this world. And along with this, I also realized that even in these differences, we are so alike. And one of the most important lesson a child should be taught is embrace these differences. Become more open minded.
On the third evening of my time in Seoul, I was strolling in the neon-bathed streets of a busy section of the city. Fascinated by the newness of the whole experience, I forgot to keep track of my bearings and soon entered into unfamiliar section of the market. It was two thousand and nine and I didn’t have luxury of GPS enabled smartphones that we take for granted these days.
I got scared.
Even though the road was filled with people, I couldn’t talk to anyone. Couldn’t ask for the right direction. (I’d forgotten to keep the hotel card bearing its address.) Even on that busy road I felt alone. I ran around frantically at first, and then with resignation, as the fact of being lost dawned over me. I cursed myself for being careless and looked at the brightly lit arcade absently.
My looks must have betrayed my quandary for someone tapped on my shoulder. I turned around and found two beautiful young girls standing behind me. The taller one asked something in Korean, of which I didn’t understand even a single word. The other one then smiled at me and stuttered in broken English. “You.. Know.. English?”, to which I promptly replied yes.
“Which… place..umm.. your.. hotel.. name?” she continued asking me. I knew the hotel name by heart and said it out loud in one sentence…. She smiled and said, “Yes.. Go straight..and.. reach.. signal.. take right..and…walk ten minutes.. your hotel .. there.”
She then took out a notepad and jotted details on a paper and told me to show it to anyone if I find it difficult to reach the destination. I thanked both of them to the point they must have thought that I am nuts. The taller one who was quiet this whole time asked me something in Korean. The other one smiled and translated, “What.. your.. Work.. in Seoul?”
I told them about my job in simplest of the words, using my hands to describe my work to the best of my capacity. They listened to me attentively even though I was sure they must have understood very little of what I said. They punctuated my monologue with the right “hmms” and nod of their heads. Then realizing I have been speaking for a long time I paused and asked, “What you do?”
The girl stopped and smiled. “I .. study now.. work..before…mechunbu,” the girl replied before realizing that I don’t know Korean. Then she stopped, rolled her eyes above as if thinking hard head before blurting out, “I.. work..escort.. city.”
Her answer took me by surprise.
Of all the things that I could have guessed about her profession, prostitution would have never come to my mind. I looked at her again. She was in the most ordinary of the clothes. A white Graffiti T-Shirt over a blue denim. She looked ordinary, just like everyone else. It didn’t make sense.
Then it hit me. I was so used to a particular portrayal of Prostitutes in my country, that I couldn’t fathom crossing path with one in a ‘normal’ setting. It was unimaginable for me to meet an escort in such an ordinary place in a market full of ordinary people and telling me about her as if she was a nurse or an accountant.
She realized the hesitation in mind. So she just smiled and said, “I.. do.. Before.. Now I study college.,”
I stopped and wondered at this situation. In my country prostitution is a death-hole from which no girl can come out and start a life over. But here, a girl has not only come out of it, she has also started her life again – from a blank slate. Moreover, she is not ashamed to tell this to a stranger.
She told me more about her life. She was doing graduation in psychology and wanted to travel to the United States. For that, she was learning English. Also, she loved plants and told me her one-room flat is a Jungle. We started talking more and more and we decided to sit down at a restaurant to have dinner.
A month back if someone had told me that I would be talking to an ex-escort, forget about having dinner, I would have scoffed at them. But now I was sharing the life anecdotes with one. Talking to her I realized how perfectly normal she is – a girl with goals and aspirations and dreams. Just like me. Just like anyone else. This opportunity would not have come had I not traveled to this country.
Travelling opens our mind to different viewpoints. We are in the habit of thinking keeping ‘ourselves’ at the center and the whole world around us, thinking about everything with our own perspective that we stop understanding other people’s viewpoint. And I think this is the source of most of the hatred and evils of this world. And as I’d traveled more and met more people, I have become sure about this fact.
In Amsterdam, I saw two girls kissing in a metro station and not one person took notice of them. In London, a Pakistani family invited me to their home for dinner and showered me with love even though we were practically strangers. And in spite of the fact that our respective countries have been locking horns in a perpetual war.
And it was in Barcelona that I saw the famous structure of Sagrada Familia. It is a breathtaking structure totally different looking when viewed from different sides. From one side it is a group of minaret rising high into the sky, all about symmetry. But look at it from the other side and it is wayward, unsymmetrical – a creation of a madman. But when the structure is looked in totality, it looks amazing, powerful, breathtaking. It perfectly signifies our world, so different, yet so alike.
That’s what travel does. It shows you the real world. Its infinite diversity. Sometimes in its stark nakedness and at others covered in the garb of languages and cultures. But all this while you realize, all of these differences are part of a bigger whole. Just like that monument I saw in Barcelona.
These experiences has made me more tolerant about the differences around me. More Open-minded.
It made me more accepting about how people are – their histories, their culture. The travel teaches you all that. You can’t help but learn it. It opens you up to this diversity and makes you realize that people can wear different clothes, can have different colored skins, but in their hearts, they are all craving the same – love, respect, and friendship. And realizing this universal truth is the biggest of the travel inspiration. To become open minded. To love the world.