I’ve never trusted people who gush about the joys of travel. As if that’s all there is to it. What about the thousand daily degradations? The indignities lurking around every Instagrammable corner? Aren’t these trials just as fundamental to our travels? Isn’t a journey at its best (or, at least, its funniest) when you can tie it together at the end with the string of small embarrassments you’ve suffered along the way?
Or is it just me? After all, humiliation is but a stepping stone — albeit a quick, painful one — to humility. And who among us couldn’t use a little more of that?
Right now, I’m staying in a village at the foot of the French Alps. I love it here because the views of the Mediterranean are stunning and no one’s heard of English yet. Every interaction is fraught with awkwardness.
Last week, a woman with a small dog said “Bonjour” to me.
“Je suis un cheval,” I replied, which means “I am a horse.” This is not what I meant to say. It’s just one of several phrases my language app makes me repeat a million times a day. I had been so afraid of accidentally blurting it at the wrong time that it was all but guaranteed to happen.
“I’m sorry,” I continued. “I like your horse.” I started to sweat. I could almost hear the whole village, including the dog, laughing at me. Still, I was determined: “Your dog. He’s a dog.”
“Au revoir,” she said kindly.
“Merci,” I replied, which, again, wasn’t the right word.
Having mangled this chat so spectacularly, I saw no choice but to continue.
“Pardon,” I called after her. She and the dog turned around. “My uncle,” I said — with near-perfect pronunciation, I might add — “he does not want this duck.”
The woman no longer bonjours me, which is understandable, although the dog seems to like me very much.
In Cairo a few months ago, I noticed that I was sporting the same scraggly, off-putting beard as the ayahuasca coach I met in my hostel the previous night. I stepped into a downtown barber shop that looked relatively clean and relatively like a barber shop.
“Can you cut just the beard?” I asked.
“Of course, my friend,” the barber said, slapping me on the back. “Just the beard.”
He then trimmed my beard, cut my hair, straight-shaved my neck and applied a metallic cream to my face before walking outside to smoke while the golden goo hardened. I looked at myself in the mirror and debated whether to freeze the mask in a smile or a frown. I settled on something in between.
After the mask, along with a layer of skin, was peeled from my face, I asked how much I owed.
“Hmmm,” he said, as if no one had ever put this question to him. “Six hundred pounds. For everything.” Thirty-five dollars, which felt mildly exorbitant, especially because I hadn’t wanted “everything.”
“Three,” I said.
“Five hundred,” he insisted.
“Fine.” I handed him three 200-pound notes, the smallest I had. He gave me exactly nothing back and turned his attention to the TV. And what did I do? I thanked him, saying “shukran” as if I hadn’t just had a slow one pulled on me. Then I asked whether I could use his bathroom (no) and I spent the rest of the day ashamed and amused that I’d been ever-so-slightly bilked for a couple of bucks by a friendly barber. In fairness, it was not a bad haircut and my skin, once it healed, glowed for days.
Several weeks later, a man vomited on me in a cafe in Latvia. I was hit by a motorcycle in Vietnam and was desperately lost less than 165 feet from my hostel in Russia. I’ve had public bouts of food poisoning on five continents. I’ve been bullied by children in more languages than I can count. I’ve been spat on by bats in Tel Aviv, pooped on by camels in Jordan and laughed at by monkeys on Gibraltar.
Sure, some of these things could happen to me at home, but they don’t. I guess I’m just unlucky like that.
Happiness is fleeting, but humiliation lasts a lifetime.
The great thing is that although travel offers daily occasions to embarrass yourself, it will also, time and again, send you home with a smaller head, thicker skin, better stories and with any luck, a little compassion. These are the things that matter because that is the real joy of travel. Right?