All I wanted to do was read my book. It was over a hundred degrees, I was tired from cycling, and I looked forward to getting lost into a novel for a few hours. While bicycling across Central Asia, my travel buddy Morgan and I had taken to waiting out the scorching afternoons in the shade. This time we found ourselves in Baysun, a dusty town in eastern Uzbekistan near the border with Tajikistan. The ice cream parlor near the central bazaar seemed as good a spot as any to lay low until temperatures cooled enough to ride. I settled into a booth and opened my book.
“What country?” an accented voice suddenly demanded.
Please. I thought. Not now.
I answered the accented voice without putting my book down, hoping its owner would get the clue I was busy.
“What is your name?”
I was determined to hold the course, keeping my gaze upon the book. But I already knew I was fighting a losing battle; I heard sounds of more footsteps approaching.
“Ah! What country??”
I laid my book down in surrender. Five Uzbeks surrounded me, and I knew exactly how the next couple of hours would progress. After all, I’d had the same conversation thousands of times before. The questions flow in an almost comically predicable order – country, name, age, brothers and sisters, and marriage status. Then, every time a new person arrives, they repeat. With rare surprises, I’ve simply learned to give up the notion of such conversations being a two-way street. In Uzbekistan, after 18 months of travel, I was tired of it.
But here’s the thing: that doesn’t mean I won’t stop what I’m doing to have it. Not only do I oftentimes enjoy the outcomes, but more importantly I feel responsible to have the conversation. All I have to do is remember what happened to me in India.
India was where I lost patience with the conversation. Part of it was the stress. Part of it was the duration. I had never traveled for so long before, and at right about the six month mark, I grew irritable at answering the same series of questions with poor English speakers.
The frequency and predictability of the interactions overwhelmed me. Within seconds, I guessed how far a conversation would go, judging by the clarity and flow of a local’s English. Usually I was right, and that didn’t help my prejudice.
In cities, the conversation seemed to bombard from all angles. “Where you from?” I’d hear shouted from a window. “Where you from?” the tea vendor next door would cry. “Where you from?” barked the taxi driver at the corner.
If you think answering one question would suffice, you’re wrong. It’s a trap. Brother’s name, father’s name, sister’s name, mother’s name questions would then flow as if from an unpopped cork, repeating in endless cycles until you broke away. At least that’s how I looked at it until the day I lost my temper.
It happened one morning when I was riding my bike along a rural road near Bangalore. A motorized scooter pulled up alongside me. The “Where you from?” was yelled through a mustache.
I snapped. The mustached man was the sixth person to ask me that in an hour (even on the bicycle I couldn’t escape).
“AMERICA! CHRIS! 24 YEARS! ONE SISTER! NOT MARRIED!”
“…NOW FUCK OFF!”
The driver looked at me in shock, visibly shaken. He turned his head sadly before slamming down the throttle and racing off. It was the pain in his expression that stayed with me.
At that moment, I could hardly believe how low I’d gone. The man probably didn’t see many foreigners, and now his only experience with an American might be my colorful words. Even more striking was that I had ceased to care. It was like I was seeing through people unless I deemed them important enough to deserve my empathy. Or more like, if they spoke good enough English. After six months, I had closed myself off from the very reason we travel: to connect. Locals around me were making efforts to reach out, and I wasn’t reciprocating unless I could predict some benefit. I was viewing people as objectives, and many simple conversations as chores.
The India episode was a turning point for me. I realize now that most of the people I talk to on this trip will never see me again, and that’s an opportunity neither of us should waste. So what if they ask me the same questions I answer all the time? It’s oftentimes tiring, yes — but at the same time I’ve met so many kind and endearing people. Feeling that connection is among the biggest rewards of travel.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” The five Uzbek men beamed, grabbing our hands one by one as we departed the ice cream parlor.
It had been a lovely afternoon. The conversation had been simple after all, revolving mostly around the five questions, but Morgan and I laughed about the insistent and over-the-top exchange we’d just had. We were so loaded with ice cream that the Uzbeks bought for us that it was hard to get back on our bicycles.