Confronting Racism During Travel

It’s a fact: most people in Europe don’t interact much with Latin Americans.  Even as multicultural as Europe is today — with sizable immigrant and migrant populations from the Middle East, Africa, even the Far East – there are only tiny communities of people from places like Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica (for cultural and linguistic reasons, Spain is the obvious exception).  Many people in the ex-Communist countries can’t remember the last time they met someone from Latin America; many have never even heard the term “Hispanic.”  So what happens when you’re Latino and want to visit Eastern Europe?  Especially in the middle of Europe’s polarizing refugee crisis?

I was approached last month by Alissa and Alfredo Morales (who let me use their full names in this blog entry).  They’d lived in California since they were children; Alissa was born in El Salvador and Alfredo was from Mexico.  Racially… they looked Middle Eastern.  What would usually be a sensitive topic was laid out very bluntly over Skype.  On their honeymoon this August to Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, Alissa and Alfredo had repeatedly been mistaken for Syrian refugees, and the result was shameful and humiliating.  They were asked at a Hungarian train station how long they’d been on the road to Germany.  Alissa was repeatedly asked if she was pregnant.  Upon boarding a city bus in Cesky Krumlov, they were asked for their passports — for a journey that lasted five miles.  They’d been detained at a small train station at the Slovakian border for two hours while customs agents went through all their belongings – in “response to increased security concerns.”  They were kicked out of a department store in suburban Prague for a reason they still don’t know (the store manager spoke only Czech and German), but strongly believe had something to do with the fact that they resembled no one around them.

“Our honeymoon was ruined,” Alissa told me tearfully.  “What could we have done differently?”

I had to think about this for awhile.  Finally I told Alissa that there are two truths: 1) people’s natural curiosity about foreigners can often override their bias, and 2) deep down, people often want their worst thoughts about others to be proven wrong.   I had learned this while traveling in rural parts of Russia where, to say the least, people aren’t big fans of Americans.  Alissa and Alfredo were surprised by what I had to share, and I was equally surprised when they told me they wanted to “redo” their honeymoon by going back to Budapest in late October.

“We were so upset and distracted on our first trip that we didn’t get to see or do half the things we wanted to,” Alfredo told me.

Needless to say, it took exceptional bravery to want to go back, and we continued to work together.  I told them that no two individuals are going to change how frustrated Eastern Europeans feel about their tiny countries being “invaded” by migrants.  Alissa and Alfredo admitted that most of the time when they were out and about on their trip, they’d turned angry and bitter, and this probably hadn’t helped how they were perceived.  Alissa, I said, you’re going to have to smile.  Talk with strangers; go out of your way to do it.   They will know soon enough that you are an American.  Those bored train station attendants who look like they want to give you a hard time? Ask them if they can take a picture of you two.  Heck, they are already staring at you.  If you ask for a picture, you are most obviously a tourist, not someone who is there to claim asylum.  Make friends with the people who “have” to like you because you are buying their services: your hotel reception staff.  You can rely on them for help if you get “detained” in the city.  They know you are Hispanics, Americans, tourists.  Even the most biased people will help you in the interest of doing business.

Alissa and Alfredo always took great pride in being independent tourists and exploring on foot, but we agreed that the chance of them being stopped by bigoted police was lower if they were on the Hop-on Hop Off bus — and they agreed.   I told them  to spend a little extra money to take a taxi than a city bus, and to have their American passports ready to show at the train stations rather than having to rummage for them and give some restless Slovakian time to demand what’s in their bags.  The reality is, it’s a lot easier on a short trip to work around and avoid people’s suspicions than try to alter their stereotypes or worst fears.  I told them, You’ve been to Hungary before; you know what to expect.  The worst is over.  Now you just have to do it again – the difference is that this time, you’re going to enjoy it.

They took off on their “new” honeymoon on October 24, and I heard back from them a couple days ago.   They sounded relaxed and excited.  They were staying at a much smaller hotel this time where they had a great relationship with the husband and wife owners,  who gave them some pointers of their own and found them an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange.

“We’ve found the only Mexican restaurant in all of Budapest,” Alissa said.

“How is it?”  I asked.

“Well, the manager asked me to cook a dish for him,” she replied.  “I took it as a complement.”

Well done, Alissa.


How Your Vacation Can Change Your Beliefs and Attitudes in Unexpected (and Sometimes Stressful) Ways

What’s that rumbling sound you hear when you’re sitting on the tarmac of an airport thousands of miles from home as your trip draws to a close?  Sometimes it’s not just the plane engines firing up.  It’s your thoughts swirling, and perhaps even grinding, grating, and crashing right into beliefs you’ve had for years as you have a chance to put into perspective everything you saw and did on your trip — and what you discovered about how others live in another culture.  It may be hard to comprehend, but for something that lasted only about two or three weeks, a vacation can have a tremendous influence on some of your most long-standing and innate beliefs.

These are not necessarily things we feel comfortable thinking about, or discussing with others — which makes them all the more important since they can cause you stress if you ignore them.  Here are some deeper issues many travelers struggle with at the end of (and well after) their trip that can have a significant impact on their psyche.  Chances are you may grapple with some of the same thoughts.

About religion.  Every year thousands of people convert to a different religion — from Islam to Christianity, from Christianity to Islam, from Christianity or Islam to Buddhism, from any of the above to atheism or agnosticism, etc.  Many people make this conversion after visiting a country whose religious following is different from their own.  Does that mean you will?  Probably not, but that doesn’t mean you won’t experience a change in your thoughts about the afterlife after visiting a place like The Vatican, Tehran, Jerusalem, and any other number of places.

Having these feelings can cause you anxiety depending on your religious upbringing and the attitudes of your family members (and even your friends).  Acknowledging that you could have some significant doubts, inspirations, or personal questions after your trip can make it easier for you to address them in the coming weeks or months and move forward on your personal and spiritual journey.

About race.  Want to hear a sad story?  I had a friend who wasn’t racist until he started traveling.  Going from country to country, he said, and having what he perceived to be negative experiences in developing countries, helped him see “the bell curve” and people “in their proper place”, i.e., how important it was that people had their own culture within their own borders.  Is my friend still traveling?  More than ever — and I hope I don’t run into him somewhere.

Most people become even more tolerant after they’ve been abroad and seen other branches of the human family; very few become prejudiced, or more prejudiced.  The vast majority of us will spend some time thinking about how we’re all different, how and why there’s been so much racism in the past, and what the picture of racial harmony could like like in the future.

About the importance of money.  Did you travel through impoverished villages on your trip, and have the time of your life exploring and meeting the residents?  Alternatively, are you a middle-class traveler who lived like a king or queen for a couple weeks in a developing country, simply because you could afford it?  Doing either can significantly change your perspective on what’s in your wallet, how much you think you need to lead a happy life, and what you do with your finances in the future.

About the future.  Many people feel an overwhelming sense of hope and awe over the promise of the future after they’ve been abroad.  In so many ways, humanity leaps forward every year in terms of quality of life, tolerance, development, progression, and pure inspiration and creativity.

Depending on their travel experiences, others can dwell on the more negative aspects of the human race — yes, how greedy and self-absorbed we are, how much environmental damage we’re causing, how a major world war could be coming within our lifetime, how likely there is to be a major epidemic, etc.

You shouldn’t be surprised if you experience all of the above thoughts, hopes, and fears about the future on the same flight home.  We’re all constantly dealing with the balance of good and bad, hope and pessimism, and of course, change.  Travel is synonymous with change.  How it changes you is up to you — just don’t let it cause you a lot of stress. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

New perspectives don’t always come beautifully framed — but travel always helps us see life in a different light