I felt ashamed for a moment, like I was in the wrong place, like my presence itself was some sort of hollow boast.
It was a crisp March in Istanbul. The sky was leaden and my breath drifted from my lips in gentle, elegant wisps. I sat in a park outside Topkapi Palace, watching oil tankers drift idly down the Bosphorus. Having sprung for a samovar at a nearby cafe, my tea was still hot—and I was thankful for that. I had committed the most basic error a traveler can, and failed to pack appropriate clothes.
And by way of forgetting the chill, I took to chatting with my neighbor. He was a man of about 50; his head was bald and polished up top, with a horseshoe of black hair ringing around the back. He wore a Bill Cosby sweater, and sported an impressive mustache under an even more impressive nose. He asked me how I liked his country. “Just fine,” I replied, rubbing my hands together. We stared out at the tankers.
He continued: “I can ask you how you like Turkey, but you cannot ask me how I like the United States.” I smiled uncomfortably, and looked down. “You must be rich,” he said glumly. “It must be nice.”
I was a student then, and certainly didn’t feel rich. I was too concerned about money to buy a jacket; I was traveling with three changes of underwear, and two pairs of pants; I lived off kebabs, cheap Turkish pizza, and fish sandwiches (boney and made with whatever the fishermen caught that day). I bought wine in economy size bottles. There was no way I could be lumped in with the suits quaffing champagne and caviar at the Four Seasons. They were rich, I was…I was…rich, too, I realized. Just less so. And only relatively.
It’s not saying anything profound to note that, in life, there are moments of clarity: when you grasp things that are obvious to others, but that have so far escaped your attention. For me, at that moment, I realized that there was an immense gulf between how I viewed what I was doing, and how it was viewed by others. I thought I was roughing it, my interlocutor thought otherwise. And he was right.
Our televisions would have us believe that the word “luxury” only applies to leather seats and climate controlled environments. That’s nonsense.
Travel, even of the most lowdown, dirty, yellow fever and dengue dodging sorts, is a luxury good. For travelers, there is luxury even in the world’s slums, if only because we have the luxury of escaping them.
When we are on the hoof, we are, whether we like it or not, purveyors of the Western consumerist lifestyle. It’s unavoidable. The ease and modes of contemporary travel are themselves outgrowths of it, but when we are abroad, we don’t always go to places that are easily compatible with it. Wherever we wind up, we expose people to different ideas; we challenge their assumptions about how the world works and what it has to offer them.
And sometimes, we are reminders of what they’ve been denied.
When it comes to the challenging of ideas, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Nobody has a right to live their life free of uncomfortable thoughts or existential doubts. As a general principle, it’s better to err on the side of expanding horizons instead of constricting them. But as far as the latter goes, travelers must struggle with the uncomfortable fact that the global economy has developed in an extraordinarily uneven manner, and in such a way that cannot be justified in strictly moral terms. Travel, then, as an activity accessible only to a relatively small group of people, can lead to complicated feelings between those who partake in it and the people they encounter along with way.
My Turkish friend and I sat in silence. The call to prayer sounded from two dozen locations, echoing subtly off the stone walls of the palace. He lit a cigarette.
I felt ashamed for a moment, like I was in the wrong place, like my presence itself was some sort of hollow boast. I’m guessing he sensed my agita, and he assured me that he’d be doing the same thing if he were in my shoes. Fiddling absentmindedly with a hole in his sweater, he told me that the important thing was for people to accept their fortunes and misfortunes with grace. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat; I saw the wisdom in his words, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by them. I’m not sure he was either.
I realized then that both our reactions were natural in such circumstances—and that that was okay. The world is complicated. I could feel guilty about the privileges I’ve enjoyed as a result of circumstances beyond my control, and he could feel a sense of aggrievement over the same. However, I sensed that as long as we could sit side-by-side and talk, that things would be okay for us—and maybe even for humanity as a whole.
I asked him for a smoke. We watched the tankers drift idly by.
Thomas DeVito has a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has traveled to over 30 different countries and spent 2011 living and teaching in Panama. Thomas also writes at Mission.tv.
Editor: Evan Livesay
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