Travel’s Ugly Underbelly: When Other Travelers Aren’t Nice

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Picture this: You’re traveling abroad, your mind and eyes wide open and ready to take in new cultures and ways of thinking. You’ve just arrived in a new city, ready to explore. You begin chatting briefly with a hostel roommate, or a fellow traveler on a bus. And this person begins to say rude things about the place you’re in, or the people in it.

And I’m not talking about making remarks on the country’s politics, or casting aspersions on the region’s nightlife. I’m talking about downright bigoted or racist statements. How do you react? How do you respond?

I ran into this very scenario in a hostel in Sydney. I had just arrived on a sunny August morning, and was excited to get out and explore the iconic city. But, before hitting the pavement, I checked into my hostel to deposit my things.

In my room, an middle-aged British woman was sitting on her bed, knitting. We began chatting about all the usual things — where we were from (she was in the process of moving to Sydney permanently), what we did (she was trying to find full-time work), and what I was planning to do with my day in Sydney.

The conversation began innocently enough. But then the talk shifted toward politics. This was not a surprise, considering we were just months away from the 2008 Presidential election in the U.S. I had been getting asked about who I was supporting for months already — even a group of Malaysian students at Massey University in Wellington were following Obama’s campaign.

The woman I was talking to didn’t think Obama should be running for President, or that America should elect him. I was okay with her opinion; people are allowed to have opinions. My dad shared the very same opinion, in fact. But, it was the woman’s reasoning behind her opinion that rubbed me the wrong way.

Glancing around to make sure that Niko, our Japanese roommate, was not within earshot, the woman told me that, in her opinion, blacks and Asians were going to lead to the decline of the Western world.

It took me a second to register what she was saying. If she'd only included Jews, it would have been something right out of Nazi propaganda. She went on to give me her opinions on things like interracial marriage, and Western nations giving aid to Asian and African ones.

In short, this woman was offensive. Incredibly so.

I stopped her just as she was launching into a tirade about Aboriginals in Sydney to tell her — as politely as I could — that I was inclined to disagree with her, and that I really wanted to get out and see Sydney.

I left the room as quickly as possible, feeling slightly enraged. I wanted to argue with the woman; yell at her, even. I briefly contemplated asking for a bed in a different room, but decided to let myself calm down first.

Up until that point, I was used to meeting a different sort of traveler — the sort that is open-minded, tolerant, and willing to embrace “the other.” I hadn’t come across anyone like this woman before — or, if I had, they had never shared their offensive thoughts with me.

Meeting this woman was a stark reminder to me that ALL sorts of people travel. And not all of them are going to share my opinions or ideologies.

When I returned to the hostel that night, I had dinner with Niko in the lounge. She was a spunky girl who had just arrived in Sydney from Tokyo the previous day. She was planning to live and work there for a year; maybe even move there someday, she said.

We chatted for a while, me trying to decipher her broken English and both of us laughing at the slight communication barrier that existed between us. For me, this barrier — and finding ways to get past it — is one of the most rewarding things to tackle while traveling. It’s amazing how connections can be made, even when you don’t speak the same language.

It hurts me to know that some people don’t feel the same way.

In the end, I decided not to change rooms. After getting to know Niko a bit, I felt it would be unfair of me to leave her in a room with a woman who clearly didn't think she belonged in Australia. Instead, I made sure Niko and I went back into our room together, talking and laughing.

The British woman didn't talk to me again after that.

——

Have you ever run into people like this while traveling? How do you handle these sorts of awkward situations?

34 Comments

  • Ted Nelson says:

    Traveling is such an amazing eye opening horizon broadening experience. Unfortunate that a rare few are unaffected by this tonic.
    Ted Nelson recently posted..Traveling Ted aided by the good people of Haward- Wisconsin during the Birkebeiner

  • Annie says:

    I haven’t run into this exactly but I get a lot of complaints and slander towards Americans thrown at me. What I will say that I find strange, it seems somewhat relative; in Florence there are plenty of expats, most of which have come here or stayed here for a boyfriend/husband and most of them are SO NEGATIVE. It makes me want to scream at them “Why are you here then!!!???” I don’t understand why you would choose to live in a place that you hate? It makes no sense to me.

    I guess it’s not really the same thing you are talking about but it reminded me because in this woman’s case, why would she choose to move to a country that is so full of immigrants if she believes that immigrants are the “downfall” and doesn’t she realize how countries are born? It’s too bad that we can’t just all get along huh?
    Annie recently posted..Third Time’s a Charm… err Second

  • Andrew says:

    Every so often you run into those sort of people. Those that you look and wonder “Why exactly do you travel?” or sometimes “How do you keep your head from imploding?” I try to take such people in stride and avoid them as possible.
    I once had a hostel mate in Denmark that though danish seemed to loathe his own country, though none too friendly to the US as well. I was actually kind of afraid to go to sleep in the same room. In the end it was ok and he moved on the next morning.

    You can only hope that travel will broaden those people enough (even in very very tiny ways) to make a difference in their life. I imagine the prejudices come from someone else at home that do not have the travel experiences. So maybe tiny changes of one person going home help; like water freezing in the cracks of stones eventually causes it to break off.
    Andrew recently posted..Phototour – Ruins at Delphi

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Very, very well-said, Andrew. I try to avoid these sorts of negative people in all aspects of my life; I can’t stand people who complain just for the sake of complaining, or who spout their negative thoughts and hate to everyone, whether they’re willing to listen or not. But sometimes, it’s impossible to see this sort of thing coming.

      I do hope that living abroad will change this woman’s point of view. But, unfortunately, I highly doubt that it will.

  • Sasha says:

    I have unfortunately run into a lot of these people. I met one guy in Beijing who really pushed my buttons, I was getting so angry I went to another corner of the common room only to find that he followed to continue the conversation. I just ignored him, better that then get so angry and start shouting “U IGNORANT PRAT!!!”

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Haha maybe yelling would have made him go away! But, of course, you’re right — just ignoring something like that is probably the best course of action. After all, if this is someone you don’t know at all, who knows what could happen if you were to make them angry! Plus, if you have to stay in close quarters with the person, it probably isn’t a good idea to get into a shouting match.

      • Karen says:

        Sometimes ignoring comments such as these can appear to be agreement. I think you handled the situation well by simply expressing your disagreement, leaving and spending your time seeing Sydney then getting to know Niko. I doubt that saying much more to the woman, or arguing with her, would have changed her opinions whatsoever.

        • DangerousBiz says:

          Yeah, I’ve gotten into enough ideological arguments with people to know that even a well-reasoned, logical argument isn’t likely to change their minds. But I still wanted to yell at her…

  • Dawn says:

    A horrible experience and I’m sure it would have left you feeling a little deflated for awhile.

    As someone in an interracial marriage I know only to well how mentioning my married surname can see a change in my companions demeanor. It doesn’t happen often but just often enough to remind me that we still have some way to go towards racial tolerance.

    I think you handled it in best way by supporting your Japanese friend.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yeah, like you said, it just reminded me that we’re a long way off from racial and ethnic tolerance. Which is sad.

  • Scott says:

    Reminds me of my story of the girls in Rome who insulted people from the Midwest (hello, I just said I was from St. Louis) and then proceeded to literally pee on the Colosseum drunk that night. You have a great point about everyone traveling, and I think to an extent the hostel/budget travel line is getting blurred, so you do get some folks who normally wouldn’t be in what is by nature an “open minded” environment.
    Scott recently posted..Wear Next

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yikes, they peed ON the Colosseum? Well, that’s classy. Definitely proved their superiority to Midwesterners, I’m sure.

      And I agree that the hostel/budget travel line is getting blurred. Or, at least, maybe the line isn’t, but the fact that more people are being forced to travel a bit more frugally these days is making it seem that way.

  • ayngelina says:

    Unfortunately you meet all kinds when traveling. I was shocked to meet some people in Mexico who had such derogatory things to say about Mexicans in the US but I guess racism can cross borders.
    ayngelina recently posted..Why I broke my backpacking rule

  • Travelogged says:

    Yikes, sounds like that woman should have gotten a single room!
    Travelogged recently posted..Planning a Babymoon- Four Things Every Pregnant Traveler Should Consider

  • Dan Collins says:

    I’ve met a few people like this too! Although the worst one was when somebody started to make comments about me being British and how useless we were – then they expected me to help them out with a few things like nothing had happened. I couldn’t believe the cheek of the guy.
    Dan Collins recently posted..Sun- Sea and Straddie!

  • Candice says:

    Wow, I’ve totally never encountered someone like this before. You handled it incredibly well though, I’d have no idea what to say.
    Candice recently posted..Roadtrippin’ to Gros Morne

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I think the only reason I handled it so well was that it caught me completely off-guard! I mean, I’ve met some pretty prejudiced people, but none quite so rude as this woman. I really wanted to chew her out later, but decided it was probably better to hold my tongue.

  • Shane says:

    I get this quite a lot amongst the expat community where I live in Turkey. I realised my vehement and, at times, angry arguements against the prevailing view were probably making me quite unpopular so I pick and chose my fights now.

    It can be hard though to stifle a laugh or not point out the irony when people tell me they’ve left the UK and moved to a foreign country because of ‘all the immigrants’.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I think picking and choosing your battles is really the only way to go about it, especially if you encounter scenes like this frequently.

      The second part of your comment is so true, though. But, try and explain that irony, and it probably wouldn’t make any difference, let alone point out their glaring error in logic.

  • Rob says:

    You’re much more gentle a person than I. I’ll leave it at that.

  • Zoe says:

    Its so true, you see some really nasty stuff when travelling.

    I personally hate the “dumbed down” version of English that people employ when speaking to non-English speakers – not conjugating and not using plurals or articles and so on… I saw this a lot in Thailand from Western men when speaking to the Thai ladies.

    The sad part is that these women actually spoke perfectly good English. They were just being treated like morons by pompous white gits.
    Zoe recently posted..Feeding the Travel Bug

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yeah, the “dumbing down” is just a natural tendency, I think, when you’re afraid someone won’t understand you. I’ve been hearing it a lot here in Romania, too. But I don’t think most people are doing it on purpose.

  • This makes me think of some of the issues I had with a couple of other people in the hostel on my recent trip to Australia. While most of the people were friendly to me, I did experience some anti-semitism directed at me. :/
    MattWritesBlog recently posted..More Adventures in Australia

  • Thom says:

    I have just come across your website, and this was one of the first posts to come up. I just want to give you a virtual High 5 for taking the high road. I am afraid to say I wouldn’t have been so nice to someone so ignorant. Being from Sydney myself it upsets me that this happens here…
    You are a legend!

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