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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Once the Forgetful, Self-Centered, American Traveler

 

My heart sank into sadness when a Facebook friend from an Afro-Mexican town I want to visit told me how valuable the experience will be and how cordial and receptive the people are, but admonished me to make sure that they themselves see a benefit in my visit. Many visitors, she tells me, come and go, and the residents are hurt because they never hear back from those who enjoyed their stay. It’s been my own experience and observation that many of us Americans have a very bad habit of enjoying our travels, and coming back home forgetting the people who helped to make our stay so pleasant.

In my younger years, while on liberty from my US naval vessel, I was also that typical forgetful, self-centered American. A family in Singapore took me in, fed me, gave me a bed, entertained me, and introduced me to family and members of the community. This was a real cultural exchange experience for me. They also requested repeatedly that I stay in touch because I am like family to them. When my ship sailed away, I received letters from them and never bothered to write back because I was young, dumb, and filled with that stereotypical sailor mentality.

Today, my attitude changed completely and I look back with self-disgust when I think of my Singaporean experience. Once I connect with locals during my travels, I stay in touch throughoccasional phone calls, especially on birthdays; make connections on Facebook, and deem them as lifetime friends. Especially to those who took the time to show the hospitality and love similar to what I experienced in Singapore.

In my blog post, The Cool Versus the Ugly American, I talked about my return from Cuba and how I made it my business to write and send gifts to everyone who accommodated me socially. A Cuban woman told me that I am one of the few Americans who even bother to stay in touch. I also noticed how I exchanged contact information with a fellow traveler while in Cuba, and upon my return to the US, I sent that person a short e-mail and never received a response.

About two weeks after returning from my first trip to the predominately Black District of El Carmen in Perú, the family that accommodated me was exhilarated to hear my voice. I don’t think they realized how exhilarated that I myself felt to have experienced such great hospitality from them. I am now considered like a son. In my second visit I tried to pay the mother for the food and accommodations, and she brushed me off with a sarcastic laugh.

To illustrate how hurt people can feel when a visitor does not follow up was during my fourth trip to Perú when another family in the nation’s capital, Lima, whom I met through a Peruvian friend living in Toronto, visited me while spending six days in a Lima hospital. When I returned to Perú the following year, I spent so much of my time in El Carmen, three hours South of Lima, that the only time I passed through Lima was to get to the airport to catch my flight to Caracas, Venezuela. My friend in Toronto contacted, and asked why I did not visit her family; I realized, again, how I dropped the ball being that forgetful, self-centered, American traveler. On a positive note, however, I still maintained contact with this family while in the US, and plan to throw a little dinner party for them on my next trip to Perú.

Those recent words of my Afro-Mexican friend touched me more than ever, and I want to remember all of those with whom I made positive connections during my travels, which so far are in 15 countries. And even those people with whom I connected through social media who live in countries where I plan to visit, I want to always stay in touch.