Since reading The Lost Girls' post on their trials and tribulations in northern Vietnam (especially the part about the cab ride from hell), I started to reflect on my own experiences, and the few times I felt threatened abroad (at least that I can remember). The experience that stands out the most in my mind was during my 2-day stay on the French Riviera…
Nice, France, August 1998
The French Riviera sounded rich and exotic, so I made it a must-see on my European tour. Rock, rather than sand beaches aside, it was a pretty city, and I was halfway through my trip and feeling as though I had the swing of independent travel. Early on my first full day, I came across a plaza as I was exploring. It was rather large, and seemingly popular and well trafficked by locals and tourists. I remember it because I saw a bunch of skateboarders working some ledges. I sat down on a bench on the edge of the park to observe, trying to figure out how good they were. I was a skater myself at the time so I enjoyed secretly rating the skills of others. I got the impression they were a group of friends.
Later that evening, I decided to walk along the plaza side of the street on my way to dinner. I was carrying my standard 1.5 liter of bottled water, though it was only half full. As I walked past the plaza, one of the older locals among the group I saw earlier motioned to me to give him my water. I immediately got the feeling the guy was on an arrogant power trip, perhaps showing off to the others. At the least I found it intrusive – certainly not something I'd ever encountered in the States, New York City, or Washington, DC. I could've said “no” for a variety of reasons running through my head, including the fact that it was gross to think I would then drink from the same bottle afterwords, or some random dude is cheating me of the water I paid for and fully intended on drinking that night (thus forcing me to buy more while I was on a tight budget). I was in no position to say “no” though, being vastly outnumbered by a group (I'm willing to say gang even) of kids hanging out all day in a public park in the Summer heat. If you've seen the movie Kids, then you know the thoughts running through my head about getting beat-up for no particular reason other than you've insulted a kid trying to prove himself. So I gave him my water. I then turned to find someone offering me drugs (which I declined). I turned back and saw some woman gulping my water. After she sucked it down, they returned the near-empty bottle to me.
I remember walking away pissed, and feeling belittled. I knew it was the right thing to do, I just didn't like the way it made me feel. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. You give the person your water because you don't know if they're drunk, on drugs, or looking for an excuse to fight.
The traveler is always at a disadvantage, whether it be knowledge of the locale, language, or local customs and culture. Learning to let go of one's pride is not an easy task. Buddhists subscribe to the belief that something so seemingly simple can truly take infinite lifetimes to achieve. The good news is it gets easier with practice. It's my hope that by acquiescing quickly and easily when I feel threatened or in danger on the road, I skirt the escalation of events such as occurred with the 3 Lost Girls, when their refusal to pay a small cab fare which was potentially inflated, based on principal, lead to a yelling, spitting cabbie who felt just as wronged as them.