How travel tests you

Beggar in central Athens

Santorini in the sunshineWhen I do real travel (as opposed to a lazy beach jaunt) I go a long way only to come face to face with myself. Real travel should slap you about a bit. It’s not all sunshine and gorgeousness. It challenges courage, resilience, tolerance and mocks your comfort zones. And not because of the jet lag, n’est pas?

This is how travel tests you. Or, at least, me, and Delaine, a young Greek/Canadian friend.

India: A country I had long wanted to explore, but which, in reality, often left me feeling rattled. I marvelled at its colour, history and beauty, managed to avoid Delhi Belly, and gawped at its inequalities. One morning as I whizzed along a roaring main road in a minibus towards the exotic sights of Rajasthan, I saw two little boys aged not more than seven, dressed only in shorts, curled up together and fast asleep in a median strip. I wanted to say: Stop the bus!! In Mumbai at India’s Gate, I swatted away aggressive beggars as if they were flies. What else could I do? There were too many for the contents of my wallet. I ended up sponsoring two lovely little girls in an orphanage run by the Catholic Church. (Don’t get me started on the riches of the Vatican and where its money could be better spent. This post is long enough.)

Indian women and tourists at the Taj Mahal

My travel reality checks

The US: A cosy New York diner at 6am one day (so jet lagged I couldn’t sleep), where I tucked into cawffee and a stack of pancakes, and glanced out the window at snow falling onto a still blackened street. From out of the subway murk a man appeared as an apparition dressed head to foot in black plastic rubbish bags with one jauntily tied as a turban around his head. He stomped his bag-clad feet to keep warm, begged for change from early passersby just two metres and a window pane from where I sat, then retreated into the steamy depth of the train station just as I thought about going outside and offering him a hot drink.

Greece: Always a mixed bag. I love the country to bits, but there are places I refuse to go because I can’t bear the sight of emaciated cats, mad with starvation, scrounging for scraps, even crusts of bread, at tavernas. I want to rip up every schmaltzy tourist calendar of Greek cats with blue and white islands as a backdrop. Animals are poisoned, abandoned and treated with abject indifference. If I eat out, it’s half for me and half for the animals. On the other hand, stray dogs which inhabit the centre of Athens and Piraeus now wear collars, tags and look well fed. An improvement on decades past.

Street dogs in the port of Piraeus
Street dogs in the port of Piraeus
Beds of the homeless in Athens
Beds of the homeless behind a hospital in the inner Athens suburb of Kolonaki

Some of my Greek relatives and friends are doing it really tough due to the malingering economic crisis – the worst Greece has faced since WWII. They don’t have the luxury of travel, of being able to get away from their problems. For my own sanity, I mostly manage to compartmentalise my shock and discomfort. Occasionally I rage. Homeless people dumpster dive and sleep rough in central Athens. A man with stumps for legs, manoeuvres himself in his wheelchair between traffic at an intersection on Alimos Avenue in the coastal suburbs, begging for money. Like many Athenians, I have coins in the car to dole out to beggars at traffic lights.  I do what I can. It is what it is. I’m there part-time and and dust some worries off at the airport when I leave. But not all.

Beggar in central Athens
A man begs for food and change in Syntagma Square, Athens

Delaine’s dilemmas

For Greek/Canadian Delaine who did six way-out-of-her-comfort-zone months in Ethiopia and then recently found her way to Athens to visit family, there was no easy respite, either. She got off the plane, travel weary and looking forward to some home comforts. She was embraced by relatives and at the same time felt enveloped by their suffering in the financial crisis which eviscerates the most vulnerable. 

“In Ethiopia there was all kinds of challenge for me psychically but I was never concerned that I’d be living on the street or unable to feed myself. I also chose to accept a job there after being fortunate enough to be hired, and was then paid for my entire stay. I paid $5000 from my work stipend for airfare, vaccines, travel insurance, and other preparatory stuff just to get there, and I think about how fucking fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to do that. Here there is just not chance of anything like that. Travel, new cultural experience, those wonderful things that really broaden one’s perspective and teach all these great skills and improve interpersonal relationship building etc., that stuff is out of the question for my family here in Greece. So when I fly here and say I’m tired from being in transit for a few weeks and being stressed for a few months, I really don’t know shit, ” Delaine writes on her blog, Ethiopd.

Delaine with her friends in Ethiopia
Delaine with her friends in Ethiopia

“But we love the shit out of each other” 

“When I first arrived I came downstairs after dropping my luggage and my grandmother, smaller than she was before and looking older and with much more sadness in her eyes, was inspecting this massive potato that had, like, a cave of rot inside it, and trying to see if she could salvage any part of it. The house is freezing and they can’t afford oil so they’ve got these cheap little stoves going and they’re walking around in big sweaters, as I am too, and I just had this moment of realization when I saw her there looking calmly at this potato with focus and concentration. And it sounds so silly or cheesy but it makes me want to cry just writing about it now. But I had this moment where I just really tapped in to the essence of her and felt, cumulatively, all the things she’s been through — growing up through a war, falling in love with my grandfather, the love of her life, and then losing him 10 years ago, spending every single day of her life in this same house, watching my brother, mother and me leave for Canada and then being here alone with her daughter, my aunt, every day, with nothing to do, and just feeling sad and alone.

“And that’s why it’s hard for me to be here. Because there’s nothing I am capable of doing to ease that pain. When I visit I can go downstairs and talk to her. I can buy them another stove so that they have a bit of heat in their bedrooms at night to sleep. But I can’t afford anything beyond that and I can’t fix the Greek political system and I can’t move them to Canada (nor would they want to move to Canada). It breaks my heart into a million pieces because it’s like watching them stuck in a hole and being incapable of pulling them out. But it’s not about me.”

She also writes about how they “love the shit out of each other”, no matter what.

I’ve no snappy little phrase to wrap up this post, except to say:  Travel with an open heart. It might get bruised, but that’s life. A bit more shared compassion and love ain’t a bad thing. And thanks for sharing your experience, Delaine.

Beggar in central Athens




2 thoughts on “How travel tests you

  1. Thought provoking. It’s not a downside of travel, but it’s a kind of reality that can;t be escaped. Real travel should push the boundaries and it shouldn’t always be comfortable. With so many more cross-cultural families feeling their destinies and hearts divided between two worlds, it was poignant to read of Delaine’s experience. Thank you for sharing it.


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