We travel to discover, learn and be amazed. In a foreign land, the mundane becomes awesome, every experience is heightened. We do things we never imagined, see shapes and colours used in different ways. We spot differences and similarities. Our taste buds thank us for the brand new flavours and textures. It’s a feast for our senses and our intellect. We call ourselves travelers or tourists. The world is our playground and we try to fit in wherever we go. Nowadays, sites like Airbnb and Homeaway make it easier for us to live where the locals live, we get better at blending in. Or so we wish.
Locals spot us from a mile away. Our cameras, our slow pace and the wonderment that never leaves our faces give us up every single time. The colour of our skin, the texture of our hair, our height and built, are all things that will make us stick out in the crowd. We see the curiosity in their eyes. The inevitable “Where are you visiting us from?” is often a conversation starter. And sometimes, despite the many beautiful things that surround us, we become the attraction.
The silent observers
Day 1 in Buenos Aires. My husband and I were roaming the streets of San Telmo, soaking in the city’s vibe and energy. We didn’t really feel as though people were observing us closely until a kid pointed at us and mentioned something to the adult walking with him.
Before we departed to Argentina in 2014 (a couple weeks before the FIFA World Cup), there were talks about race issues. People were wondering why there wasn’t a single black player in their team. There were even talks of ethnic cleansing.
After the encounter with the kid, we decided to pay closer attention to how people reacted to us. While the pedestrians’ eyes lingered a bit, there was no animosity. Passengers on 3 different buses turned their heads to look at us; their faces were expressing curiosity, not disgust or hate.
Given that we encountered no more than 30 black people during our 10-day stay in Buenos Aires, we could understand how there were none in their team. To be noted, the majority of fellow melanin rich people we saw were from Brazil—we could easily tell, as they spoke Portuguese.
And, for the very first time, I did The Nod.
The timid photographers
I’ve been that tourist who discreetly snaps photos of people around me. People in traditional outfits, cute kids, candid shots of people leading their everyday lives. In these situation, discretion and stealth are key. Being at the other end of the camera can be quite an experience.
Manise and I were reveling in the beauty and foreignness of Tokyo. Val, who was walking a few steps behind us, was the first to notice them: two older Asian women, camera at the ready, discreetly trying to capture a photo of us girls. With the beautiful temple just around the corner, you’d think they’d find a better use for their camera than two random tourists. Well, it just so happens that we were not that random. In fact, we stuck out like a sore thumb.
People’s reaction to our presence is often the reason why we look for people who look like us. We welcome questions. In fact, one of the reasons some people travel is to connect with others. It’s the staring, whispering and sneaky photos (I know, I take them too!) that made us feel a bit uncomfortable at times.
And then, there are those who go as far as touching…
The hair grabbers
Blessed be the day I went into the barbershop and did the big chop for the nth time. My fro was meant to make my life easier when I travel. The idea was to make my hair a bit more manageable and to carry less hair care products (naturalistas know!). Little did I know that it would save me from the inquisitive hands of a couple of Chinese tourists.
My friends and I were sitting down in front of the Imperial Palace in Seoul, minding our own business. We were lost in our conversation and paid little care to the many tourists around us. A group of Chinese ladies interrupted us. One of them, let’s call her Rose, touched her hair and then pointed at Manise’s head. Since we had been asked over and over about her hair—she was sporting beautiful waist-length braids, we thought we knew exactly what the women were thinking. Is her hair real? The question was ever so common.
Before we could attempt to respond, another woman had her hands wrist-deep in Manise’s hair. She was touching and talking. She even motioned at Rose to come over and touch. For a minute, both Manise and I froze. It wasn’t my hair they were playing with, but I know how I don’t like it when strangers invade my personal space in that manner. Rose must have seen the look on our faces, because she actually waited for Manise to give her permission.
(Rose is wearing the stripped top in the photo.)
I must stress the fact that, while Manise may have allowed people to touch her hair, not everyone will. Some, including me, may find it impolite, offensive even.
An advice to the hair grabbers of this world: Be curious. Ask questions. Don't ask if you can touch one's hair; the person will offer if they are willing to let you do so. Most importantly, refrain from touching people’s hair.