Traveling is a Privilege
Ahhh….how we love India and Sri Lanka. The people are incredible, the food is delicious, and the culture is vibrant. However, these countries are just as challenging as they are beautiful. It’s not always easy traveling long term and some countries are tougher to travel to than others. During this trip, we learned that traveling is a privilege and can be a challenging. Traveling to Southwest Asia helped us understand just how lucky we really are.
Living A Privileged Life in the United States
Karl and I grew up within middle class families in the Midwest, USA. While growing up, we never had to worry about our next meal or earning money to keep the electricity on. This might not seem like a privilege to some but it is to a lot of people around the world.
The fact that we’ve haven’t worked in 6 months and I’m typing this on a Mac computer in our air conditioned hotel room means we’re privileged. Don’t get me wrong, we worked hard and saved our hard earned money to get where we are today. I know no matter how much money or privilege you have there is no human life that is without difficulty and suffering. However, a reason for us having this opportunity to travel the world lies in the fact that we were born into privileges and we have rights that others just don’t have.
Privilege can sometimes shield us from acknowledging these inequalities. At the same time, we can choose to open our minds; traveling helps us do just that. Travel can open our minds so much that we realize just our lucky and grateful we truly are. This is exactly what happened to us in Sri Lanka.
Gratitude Found In Sri Lanka
During our twenty-one day trek through Sri Lanka, we never met one American (which is crazy because Americans are really missing out). We did, however, meet a lot of Sri Lankans (obviously). Sri Lankans are very friendly and curious people. They will often ask you, “where you are from?”
Once we tell them we are from the United States, their reaction is always priceless. They get really excited and yell “AMERICA! Yeah!”
We always follow up their question with “have you ever been to the United States?” The answer 100% of the time is always, “No.” I would follow up the question by asking if they would like to travel to the United States. The answer was always “yes.” After asking this questions many times I started to notice a trend that began to make me shutter with empathy. Each person would quickly lose their smile and would respond by eluding to the fact that they don’t have enough money and they know they never will have enough money to travel. This dream is not their reality.
These incidents got me thinking about how lucky we are to live in a democratic country with freedom and opportunities. Being from the US, we live in the wealthiest country in the world. Traveling through some countries makes us realize that half the world’s population lives off $1 per day. Some Americans have a hard time living off $50,000 per year.
Although, I realize not everyone in the U.S. is as privileged as Karl and I, traveling helps remind us of the things that we often forget in our busy Western-World lifestyles. Sri Lanka and India has reminded me to be grateful for my life and my privileges because it’s clear not everyone has these opportunities.
Being taken advantage of feels terrible. We should know, it happened to us A LOT while in India and Sri Lanka. For example, in India, we would agree on a price for a trip in a rickshaw prior to getting into their vehicle. But on multiple occasions, once we arrived at our destination, they would try to raise the price on us.
Also, the same rickshaw drivers would stop along the way and take you to shops, you have no desire to go to, just so they can get a commission once you go inside.
In another instance, we met a really nice local who offered to show us where the “local market” was located. After following him for nearly 30 mins, we realized he was just taking us to places where people would try to sell us more stuff we didn’t need or want. You can read more about that story here.
In Sri Lanka the exploitation was even more obvious than in India. For example, foreigners will pay sometimes 500 times more than locals do for the same activity. When we first realized this was happening, it was infuriating and in fact, we wanted to leave the country. At Sigiriya, the most famous tourist thing to see in Sri Lanka, we paid $45 USD /per person and Sri Lankans pay less than $1.
The funny thing is that we never showed our I.D. to prove we weren’t Sri Lankan. They assumed we weren’t based on the color of our skin.
The most infuriating story was on a visit to The Temple of the Tooth. It was a holiday weekend and the Temple was packed. We looked everywhere to find the ticket counter but were unsuccessful. Instead, we followed the herd of people cramming together to get inside. Among the hundreds of people packed together like sardines, the only people the guard stopped was us. Everyone else with brown skin was allowed to enter for free but since we were white, we needed to provide a ticket.
This was definitely racial profiling! This was the first time something like this has every happen to me. It felt terrible. We were singled out based solely on the color of our skin. I felt a mixture of resentment, anger, and yet understanding of the guard who was “just doing his job.”
Living a privileged life, I had never understood exactly what life was like for minorities. Now I completely and fully empathize with them. Although it was only for a short time, I now have a better understanding of what it truly feels like to be discriminated against.
We understand that these incidents are isolated; they happened in countries we chose to be in and we understand that there are far greater incidents of racial profiling around the globe. People are living these same encounters and dealing with the same shitty feelings everyday. We understand how lucky we are to have been born into a life of privileged. The Caste system in India tells a different story.
Caste System in India
There is a line from the children’s book The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde that reminds me so much of what we saw in India. It goes like this:
So the swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at their gates. He flew into dark lanes and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black street.
The saying ‘the rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer’ couldn’t be more true in India. The caste system associated with Hinduism has been such a difficult thing for me to grasp. It was originally intended as a way to organize people into groups but over the years it has morphed into everyday life.
It works like this, you are born into the caste of your parents. From that moment on, the caste largely dictates what you eat, your vocation, place of residency and choice of partner. Unfortunately your birth dictates whether you’re privileged or you’re not. There’s very little opportunity for upward movement.
This topic can be political and very controversial. I realize this is just touching the surface of the arguments associated with the system but the point is that privilege is real and can show up differently in all places around the world.
Sometimes privilege can make us blind to the social situation of others. We are fortunate enough, through travel, to have experiences that have reminded us and made us more sensitive to the experiences of others. I am thankful for the life I was given and I will never forget how lucky we really are.