International traveler’s hostels are generally known for catering to young twenty-somethings seeking an authentic travel experience as opposed to the commercialization and fakeness of popular tourism.
It was only after my friend and I spent a night at a hostel in San Pedro, Guatemala, when I realized that hostels are concentrated cesspools of people who pride themselves on the “Othering” of cultures, which has very negative consequences.
As we wait to check in to the hostel we strike up a conversation with a young traveler behind us in line. He says he just spent the past two months teaching yoga in Mexico and starts telling stories of life changing ten day long silent retreats as I commence my personal eye roll Olympics.
When we get into a room there’s a really large guy sleeping on the bottom bunk with his stuff all over the floor. He groggily gets up and it’s clear he’s very hungover. The yoga teacher leaves to take a shower, my friend steps outside to make a phone call, leaving me alone in the room with this person.
“What time is it?” he asks.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from the US. And you?”
“Israel. Are you originally from India?”
“Are you originally from India?”
I never know how to answer this question, but rather than going on a long tirade about my insecurities and constant identity crisis of not really being Indian enough to be Indian and not being American enough to be American I simply reply, “Yes.” Also, I’m a little surprised he hasn’t asked what my name is, but of course at hostels where you’re from is more important than your name or who you are.
“Where about in India?”
He gives me a confused look. He clearly has never heard of it.
“Is that near Punjab?”
“A bit, yeah.”
I actually have no idea if Punjab is close to Uttar-Pradesh and am totally making up my answer, but it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t know where it is either. It is only while writing this that I look at a map and learn that my total guess was not false.
“I just spent six months in India. Man, I love your country, beautiful people, beautiful culture, great food and scenery.”
Is it my country? And I’m sure he does love it considering the shenanigans young Israelis are up to in India. In addition to the fact that Israeli security companies such as Elbit Systems, Verint Systems, and Magal are partnering with and being awarded contracts with the Indian Government who will then use this Israeli technology to continue oppressing Muslims in the most densely-militarized area of the world in Kashmir, many of whom don’t consider themselves to be Indian but are lumped together with us anyways.
“What were you doing there?” I ask.
“Traveling. I spent six months driving a motorcycle around the country.”
My new yoga teacher acquaintance comes back from his shower with a towel wrapped around his waist and his shirt off. He has a large “Om” tattoo on his chest. During my entire life I’ve only met one Indian person with the “Om” symbol tattooed on their body, meanwhile I’ve lost count of all the white people I’ve seen with “Om” tattoos.
“I’ve only met one Indian person with the ‘Om’ symbol tattooed on their body.”
Later that night at the hostel bar a guy walks up to us and starts flirting with my friend.
“Are you a yoga teacher?” he asks my friend.
“No, I’m an architect.” she replies.
“Aw that used to be up there like ten years ago man. Yoga teachers are where it’s at now!”
He leaves, because apparently yoga teachers now have more cultural capital than architects.
I never expected to be so “Othered” while traveling outside the U.S. I then thought about what I might say to people about Guatemala when I go back home. I could tell them about its beautiful people, scenery, culture, and food.
“I never expected to be so ‘Othered’ while traveling outside the U.S.”
Or I could tell them that the government is currently involved in the biggest corruption scandal in Guatemala’s history which led to the arrest of over 20 government officials including former president Perez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti. I could portray Guatemala as a violent place full of corruption, poverty, genocide and drug cartels.
Or could it be possible to have a more nuanced perception of the world and be able to critique and protest a place you know and love?
* * *
Ankur Singh is a student at Prescott College, in Prescott, Arizona, where he is the only South Asian student at a very hippy place. He is a filmmaker and the director of the documentary film LISTEN about education from the students’ perspective. Follow him on twitter @ankrsingh.