There must have been consciousness floating around in Salento’s misty air and truthfulness emanating from the mountains. I’m not sure what it was, but something about that little town seemed to fuel incredibly honest and thoughtful conversation among travelers.
It started on the day I arrived in Salento. After my travel partner and I found a place to stay, we had dinner and exchanged stories of past adventures, narrowing in on the destinations we had in common.
When we started talking about India, she cautiously asked me how I liked it there. I could tell from her tone and her expression that she was specifically asking what it was like to travel in India as a black woman. I explained that overall, it was rough traveling solo in India. There were high points at the Indian wedding I attended and low points most other times except for when I was at very touristy places like the Taj Mahal. I told her that I often felt like I was looked down upon because of my dark skin in a country obsessed with light skin.
She told me that she had studied abroad in India and she loved her experience there. Then carefully, yet candidly, she admitted that a large part of the reason why she enjoyed India was because of the privilege she received as a white person there.
It was a bold admittance and something I’ve yet to hear someone say so openly. I didn’t feel angry about her confession. I felt relieved that someone finally said this. I appreciated her awareness of colorism in India and willingness to talk about it truthfully. She was saying things that had been at the back of mind during many conversations I’d had about India.
Almost always when I tell people that I didn’t enjoy India, I encounter a smug chorus of, “You either love India or you hate it.” This chorus is entirely comprised of women of European descent and these words almost always imply that if you didn’t like it, you were just not able to “get swept up in India” as they were able to do.
I know from other experiences in chaotic, messy “developing nations” that I’m capable of getting swept up in places that intensely bear down on all of your senses. But some places aren’t exactly willing to embrace you as you attempt to do so. When that’s the case, you feel it viscerally, despite the prodding and feel good stories of people who don’t understand your experience.
Over my next few days in Salento, I kept bumping into a Chinese-British traveler. We bonded quickly, both being part of ethnically underrepresented groups in the Colombia backpacker scene and travel-loving offspring of immigrants. After telling me about her unique experiences traveling in China and having her identity constantly questioned by both locals and fellow travelers, we got on the subject of Colombian friendliness.
“I don’t think Colombians are very friendly,” she proclaimed one evening.
I was surprised to hear her say this. While I did have negative experiences in Cartagena, and I do think racism (and the inability to admit to it) is a major issue in Colombia, my personal interactions with locals were typically somewhere between neutral and friendly.
She explained that on numerous occasions, locals had pulled at the corner of their eyes in an attempt to make their eyes look like hers and had talked to her in mocking jibberish that they believed mimicked the sounds of Chinese.
We talked about how the first response from many travelers about situations like this is often, “They just aren’t used to seeing people like you!” or “They don’t mean anything by it!”
Regardless of that, and regardless of the fact that a traveler has made the decision to go to a place where they know they could be subjected to ignorance that’s beyond their control, it’s simply not okay. No one should have to silently bear little transgressions daily just because they decided to go somewhere where people “aren’t used to them.” Whether or not you shock someone with your presence, you have the right to be treated as human and not as a caricature to be mocked. I say this knowing that inevitably, it will happen in certain places. But it’s simply not justifiable.
Later that night, over drinks with the Irishman who was at my hostel on my first night in Salento, we continued this conversation. While the negative experiences the Chinese-British woman and I have had don’t define our travels and clearly haven’t stopped us from traveling, the Irishman struggled with the way some of our stories had no silver lining. He wanted to believe that there had to be a positive ending when sometimes, there wasn’t. We just keep moving. As a person “of color” in the Western world, I suppose it’s deeply implanted in you from an early age to just keep moving, even when you’re not convinced there’s going to be a silver lining.
Another day, I had lunch with the Chinese-British woman and a Canadian traveler. It was early July, and I mentioned that the United States’ Independence Day was coming up. The Canadian started asking me questions about the holiday and I explained it to her.
She was shocked to find out that the holiday celebrates the colonies gaining independence from the British because she always thought it celebrated the end of slavery. She asked me if there were any holidays commemorating the end of slavery, and she was even more appalled when I told her there weren’t. Yes, every year in the United States, we commemorate our emancipation from the British in a year when a significant portion of the population was enslaved. This has definitely been brought up by activists in the past, but the hypocrisy that was originally embedded the holiday is not often addressed today in schools or elsewhere.
As an African-American, this has not gone unnoticed by me, but to see such a strong reaction from an outsider really drove this reality home. Someone from the country next door — one that we Americans often incorrectly view as an extension of our own country — brought back the truth to something I’ve gotten used to not questioning.
It’s easy to be become complacent about your surroundings, kind of half seeing things until someone flips the switch and forces to you to look, simply by bringing a perspective that hasn’t been subjected to the same influences as yours. It’s equal parts disturbing and refreshing and 100 percent necessary for growth.
The topics that often worked their way into my Salento conversations aren’t fun, lighthearted things to talk about while gallivanting around the globe. They aren’t easy topics to write about when you get home. They are controversial. They may make people angry or uncomfortable. But they are important conversations to have, and the power of travel is that it can enliven and amplify the discussions with fresh perspectives garnered from new people and new places.