by Marc Escanuelas
Travel forces you into contact with a myriad of different cultures and personalities. Occasionally, you’ll meet someone who complements you in a way you didn’t think was possible. Conversely, sometimes you meet someone who is your polar opposite and whose every word makes your blood boil.
Recently, on an overnight train from Bucharest to Sofia, I had the displeasure of not being given an actual bed to sleep on. There were at least a dozen people in my train car who, like me, would be forced to spend all night trying to doze upright. None of us was pleased with the situation but only one of us spoke up about it. Every time I tried to close my eyes and will sleep to come, a loud voice would pipe up about how ridiculous this all was. Even though I agreed; I didn’t see any point in repeating it over and over to people who already knew this.
When morning did come, I checked my phone to get a rough idea of how to get to the hostel I’d booked. As we all tried to shake off the previous night, we did a quick poll to see who was at which hostel. Unfortunately, the Loudmouth was headed to the same hostel. Reflexively, I offered to walk with him.
We stepped out into a bright Bulgarian morning and made our way into the center of town. Even though I was exhausted, arriving at a new place often makes me giddy as I daydream of what I might see, who I might meet and most importantly: what new foods I’m going to try.
The Loudmouth shared none of my enthusiasm. He apparently had spent all six days of his stay in Bucharest in the hostel, venturing out only to eat at either Subway or KFC. I stared off into the distance and waited for him to say “just kidding” but he didn’t. I told him I’d really liked Bucharest and found its architecture fascinating, lamenting that it had obviously been a beautiful city at one point and I hoped its best days weren’t behind it. He rolled his eyes and said it was a shithole. I’ve included pictures of a few of the things he missed in this post.
It made me wonder how someone like that views the world and how someone could be such a living contradiction, eagerly crossing their own physical boundaries by leaving home but actively maintaining their mental boundaries. After talking to him, I came to realize that the only reason the Loudmouth traveled was to collect stamps on his passport. He added that he only eats at Subway or KFC in every country that he’s ever been in. My head nearly exploded since food is such a pivotal part of my experience of a place.
I’ve seen this many times among other travelers in varying degrees but I think this was the first time I met someone who refused to engage on all levels. He never even left the hostel! In truth, there are places that I found dull but never have I intensely disliked a place. For years, I pointed at my experience in Burma as being the worst. It was the first country I was excited to leave. I realized afterwards though that it was also the part of that particular trip that I talked about the most. I came to realize that on some level I enjoyed it. In fact, now that I know what to expect, I want to return there.
My point is that travel does indeed force you into contact with different peoples and places but at the end of the day, it’s up to you to be open to them. To go somewhere is to throw yourself head first into another culture and another reality. Keep your eyes open and if a place turns you off, take a walk and try to find something that engages you. If you’re truly just not feeling a place, move on knowing that you at least made the effort.
Hunting down and obsessively documenting street art is one of my favorite activities while traveling. Once you start looking for it, you find yourself privy to a conversation that is both global and local. Famous street artists make cameos all over the world and running into one of their pieces is akin to meeting a celebrity. Conversely, some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had have been with locals after I’ve asked them the meaning of a specific tag or stencil only to be informed about some local issue I had no idea existed.
It amazes me how two people can look at the same situation and see something completely different. Where you and I may have only noticed a metal chain on a wall, the artist was reminded of a bull. It’s an impressive skill to be able to take your environment and tweak it to wrest a different meaning or visual allegory from it.