What do you see in me?

When we travel, the image others have of who we are is so different that it can make us question our own image of ourselves.

I had some time off work last month, and devoted a bit of it to pop over to Sri Lanka. After a four hour flight that started at 11 p.m. on the Dubai side, and then ended at 5 a.m. on the Colombo side, I was a bit bleary-eyed coming into the arrival hall. Immediately I started to hear people calling out to me, asking if I wanted this kind of taxi or that kind of taxi and I thought to myself: “Put your bartering hat on – quick!”

I clearly did not get it on fast enough because the taxi ride from the airport to the train station was more than ten times the cost a bus would have been. Oh, well. I was tired, it was easy, and (compared to taxi prices in other areas of the world) it was still relatively cheap. So off I went.

You can’t always get what you want

Despite having indicated nothing beyond my desire to go to the train station, the 30 km ride there went from jovial to bizarrely awkward in a very short space of time. The driver kept insisting that it was better to travel to my final destination via his taxi rather than on the train that I had already booked. It seemed like there were some things I just couldn’t communicate to him, despite the fact that he understood English. For instance: I wanted to take the train ride, as part of the whole experience. I wanted to watch the country as I chugged along the shore, and not from a super-highway that was further inland and surrounded by nothing. The train ride passed through towns and villages, and stopped at stations with other trains jammed full of people going about their business. And frankly, spending over 50 dollars on a taxi ride was not something that I had budgeted for on this trip – especially considering the train ride was a tenth of that price. I was really tired after the flight, and after declining his offer a couple of times, I didn’t know what else to do so I just stopped responding. And for the entire subsequent train ride, I was really bothered by how weird things had gotten in the back of the taxi.

Traditional fishing stilts, Sri Lanka. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Traditional fishing stilts, Sri Lanka. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Finally, after a few hours on the train I got off at my stop and went to find a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the hotel. The driver named his price, and not having any standard to measure it against, I agreed and off we set toward the hotel. Once we got going, he started to list all the things I could see in the area while staying there. And then he asked if I wanted to go see them. Not right now, I explained: I felt really tired from the trip and just wanted to go to the hotel to get a nap in before exploring. The ride was very similar to the taxi ride earlier – the driver offering to take me to this place and that, and me refusing the offers until we finally reached where I wanted to go. When I got out of the tuk-tuk and paid the driver, he wasn’t irritated like the taxi driver had been. He was almost hurt as he asked me one last time, “You don’t want to see the turtles hatching?” I took his mobile number and promised to call him and only him if I did indeed wake up one morning with a deep ache to see turtles hatching.

But if you try, sometimes…

The week on the beach was amazing. Work had been really tough as of late. I’d (perhaps foolishly) signed on for a training course that was lumped into my already full teaching schedule. Paperwork and deadlines were constantly on my mind, and most times I was either dashing in with last minute entries or missing deadlines altogether. It was blissful to lie under a beach umbrella and listen to the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore. Once I had gotten some sleep, and had mental faculties resembling those of a human again, I thought a bit about the kinds of exchanges I had had with the people in this country thus far.

Buddha, Sri Lanka. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Buddha, Sri Lanka. Photo by Nancy Cater.

It can be a very jarring thing to see yourself through the eyes of someone else so clearly – especially when what they see is something you could never consider yourself to be. I was a tourist. I was vaguely European/American in appearance. Obviously tourists come to places to see things and, out of necessity and desire, to spend money. Despite not being anywhere near rich in my own country, or in places with similar costs of living, my paycheck far outweighs the paychecks of those trying to sell me things on my holiday. When I take holidays, it’s always based on the same spreadsheet: X amount of dollars for hotel, X amount for plane/train/bus tickets, X amount for food, and X amount for whatever souvenirs or things I want to buy. Putting that list in context can make me many things. From certain perspectives it makes me normal, from others it makes me extremely lucky, and in perhaps a few it makes me pathetic. I’m not bothered too much about which category I belong to, given that it isn’t going to change the amount of money I have to work with each month. What bothers me is when others see me as an opportunity for them to ease a bit of their daily struggle. And then, because I either can’t – or don’t want to – cooperate, I realize that I will fail in their expectations of me. To the lady who sold me some earrings: I couldn’t buy any more even though I would have loved to – I just didn’t have any money left. To the young man who followed me, promising to give me the best price on a tuk-tuk ride: I really didn’t want to go anywhere as I was wandering around taking pictures and looking at things. And to the scared young men with their fresh haircuts and new clothes, waiting in clusters to get on a plane that would take them to god-knows-where to do who-knows-what kind of work for what kind of pay… I didn’t know what to do.

So I got back on the plane, with my fond memories of the relaxing beaches and beautiful photos of sunsets behind palm trees. And back to work and everyday life, where I am seen by others in an image that is closer to the one I have of myself.

Whatever that may be.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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