Many of you who know me know that I quit my job at Apple in April of 2018 and traveled through Colombia and Brasil, only coming back to the USA at the end of December 2018. It was a trip of a lifetime. I met amazing people, learned new languages, connected with Mother Nature, and had some crazy experiences that I will not recount here. Although my trip came with many positives, there were times when my identity as a brown woman was challenged. Here I will talk about the challenging experiences I had traveling as a South Asian - American woman.
When I first told my family that I was going to travel abroad, the reactions ranged from those of doubt to tears to yelling. Many people could not comprehend why I would leave my job at Apple to be unemployed and travel alone through South America - which already has a pretty bad reputation - with only a backpack. People thought I was going to legit die and tried to persuade me against my own dream with fear, telling me that I needed to be with other people, preferably a dude who could protect me if anything were to happen to me. The stubborn person I am said ‘challenge accepted’ and took it as a goal to prove that I was capable of embarking on this journey on my own. Plus, I only told my family after I bought my ticket anyways so there was nothing anyone could do about it (hehe).
Before I embarked on my expedition, I expected to be immersed in diversity while traveling. I mean I would be in Latin countries anyways. To my surprise, I found myself surrounded by white people the majority of the time. I soon realized that most of the foreign travelers within the travel community were white.
Given the amount of doubt that my South Asian community had letting me travel, it made sense why I didn’t see as many South Asian or Asian people traveling. One of the South-Asian girls I met traveling lied to her parents and told them she was on a school trip for 2 months, when she was actually getting hammered every night in Colombia.
When I did meet a fellow traveler of color or a South Asian traveler (which happened 2 times within 8 months), I felt super connected to them. We would bond over how confusing our identity was to those around us (white people thought we were locals, and local people were just confused because they had never seen a South Asian before). Most of the time, I felt really out of place and was super aware of my color. This usually happened in hostels recommended by Lonely Planet, and other mainstream travel books. In order to avoid this, I started staying in hostels that were recommended by local people and tourists of color. This way I could feel less ‘different’ and more accepted. I also was able to improve my Spanish and Portuguese skills because I was mostly surrounded by local tourists.
Another time I felt out of place was when I was volunteering at a hostel in Rio de Janeiro called Aquarela do Leme. The hostel was run by a white Swedish woman and her French-Brasilian boyfriend - Marielle and Thibault. They had two kids together, and the entire family lived in the hostel, with three Brasilians who helped with the kids and the hostel maintenance. An important thing to mention about this hostel is that it is located in a favela called Babilonia. It is a strong knit community, and although there was regular military intervention, I felt pretty safe staying here. Anyways, if you know anything about favelas, you know that they are predominately black, low-income communities.
Anyways, this hostel was one of the more expensive hostels in Rio de Janeiro and if you stayed there you could see why. The breakfast was amazing, there was always fresh homemade bread, pancakes, 5 types of fruit and strong coffee and everything was clean and perfectly organized. The ugly side of this hostel was that it reeked of Neo-colonialism.
Within the first 10 minutes of my volunteer orientation, the owner Marielle informed me that I should call her ‘Master’. I do not care if this is a joke. You are a white woman living in huge house in a country that is known for being one of the last to outlaw slavery telling me, a brown woman, to call you master? I am sorry, but fuck off. This was all before she showed me where I would be sleeping - in an underground space in the hostel with 10 other people in a room she called ‘The Dungeon’. Could this be more of a power trip?
Anyways throughout the 3 long weeks that I stayed volunteering at this place, I noticed a bunch of things that really pissed me off. The family had no relationship with the Babilonia community. They advertised how their hostel was situated in a Favela, giving their guests a unique experience, but never once did I see the family interact with anyone from the community itself. Members of the favela were never invited into the hostel and the only time the owner left the hostel was to attend her regular Krav Maga class. The children never played outside and were confined to the walls of hostel all day. Many times I heard the male partner, Thibault, complaining about how the Brasilians were the worst guests and how they preferred tourists from France and Europe. In the volunteer orientation binder, there was a rule that said that no Brasilians were allowed to check in after 11pm. For some reason Marielle thought her time was more valuable than mine. It was not unusual to work longer than my designated shifts. All of this, plus the fact that I was one of the only volunteers of color made me feel super uncomfortable in this environment - I had to leave early. I did not come to Brasil to be treated like some sort of indentured servant. After talking to some of the other white volunteers about this, it seemed like I was the only one that felt this way, and noticed these things. The French volunteers saw no problem and ended up staying longer than expected.
Although there were some negative experiences that resulted from being a traveler of color, I would not ask for anything else. My brown skin helped me blend in with the locals, and because of this I was able to feel more at home and accepted. My number one thing when traveling is to feel like I can assimilate into the culture, and my brown skin really helped with that. After learning Portuguese many people thought I Brasilian…what an amazing compliment. I felt safer in my skin than I would have if I were white.
Having a dual identity also helped me in other ways. If Trump said something dumb that day (probably likely), I would say that I was from India to spare myself embarrassment. I viewed this as a privilege. Interestingly, Brasil was one of the countries that I went to where I felt like I was the only Indian there. Saying that I was Indian was a great way to start conversation and make friends. I don’t know how ethical this is given that I have never lived in India, but I did make it an effort to share my Indian culture with others. I cooked my Brasilian roommates Indian food, showed off my spices that I brought from home, and shared pictures of my trips to India. I also took on the responsibility of squashishing any stereotypes about India that people would ask me about (ex: All Indians are poor and have multiple wives, Indians are ugly (This one was easily squashed 🙃), and that we all wear really thick eyeliner (true in my teens)).
I hope that my experience can inspire more South Asians to travel and break stereotypes. Not only is it important for you to see the world, but it also important for the world to see you. Many people around the world have preconceived notions of what it means to be American, Indian, Pakistani, etc. and there is no better way to defy these stereotypes than by representation.
Have you felt the same way while traveling before? Do you think what I am saying is BS? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.