Hundreds of pairs of eyes watched me as I darted awkwardly through the crowded room. The music pulsed and voices clashed against each other, each striving to be heard above the roar. The sweet scent of fresh flowers fell over me like a wave.
I kept my head down, feeling incredibly out of place in my capri pants and blue cotton t-shirt, surrounded by women draped in beautiful silk saris and adorned with sparkling bangles. Following my guide, we wove through the crowded room and up to the podium, where I shyly greeted the bride and groom, conveying my good wishes in a well-meaning mixture of body language and English. At their gestured insistence, I took a photo with my first-generation digital camera. Then, my guide grasped the camera, and took another photo as I offered another round of congratulations. As quickly as I could, I darted away, back to the anonymity of my tuk-tuk. My driver laughed, and we drove on into the city.
Awkwardness is often a touchstone of travel. Certainly, it can be minimized, or even prevented.
But I’ve found that choosing to accept my awkwardness will often open the door to a greater authenticity of experience.
An acceptance of my foreignness, coupled with a smile and an open mind, has led to some of my most fulfilling travel experiences.
It’s so easy, anymore, to travel without discomfort. English is a lingua franca in much of the world; the ubiquity of hotel brands and rental cars and coffee shops allows a consistent experience in any number of global destinations. Between guided tours and restaurant chains and of course, the ever-present internet, a traveler could be surprised to look up and find herself in the midst of a foreign city. With very little effort, it’s possible to have a travel experience that could just as easily be achieved by watching a documentary or reading a memoir.
I certainly don’t criticize people who would adopt this strategy. I know people who like to travel this way; who know what they like, appreciate their routine, and try to maintain a sense of sameness even when visiting a foreign destination. I’d make the argument that, even if the traveler is somewhat detached from the unique feel and character of a place, and insulated by modernity, travel is always worth it. Authenticity will peek through in unanticipated ways, and there’s still incredible value in visiting the museums and monuments and tour-guide gold-starred destinations. After all, they are usually gold-starred for a reason. When it comes to better understanding the world, travel is always better than no travel.
But for me, it’s been on the edges of the expected, when I’m willing to open myself to the awkward experience and to the discomfort of being the stranger, that I’ve found the most meaningful and memorable experiences.
And an important distinction, particularly as a female who sometimes travels solo, is that the awkward, the unexpected, does not necessarily equate to risk.
I’ve been awkward in Hungary, during a musical tour with my hometown youth symphony. The local musicians invited me to join them in an impromptu performance. The stringed instrument was unfamiliar, but not dissimilar to a piano or a marimba or xylophone. I was hesitant, but we made music together, as we laughed, and smiled, and embraced the difference. I remember that meal and the smiles of the men and the reverberations of the stringed instrument more than any other element of the trip.
I was awkward in small-town Germany as a high schooler, venturing out with local kids to a bar and a basement hangout, practicing my language skills, appreciating their patience as I tried to find words and we listened to German rock music.
Awkwardness came easily as a tall, white woman traveling in southeast Asia, but as I received confused glances during a morning run along the red dirt back roads of Siem Reap, a young schoolboy kept pace, chirping at me in an unfamiliar language and waving as I snapped a quick photo. With a wave back and a smile, we were suddenly friends.
Another word for awkwardness might be vulnerability.
It’s making the choice to put yourself into a new, uncomfortable, and perhaps difficult to understand situation. The willingness to laugh at yourself, to acknowledge the discomfort and the sense of being off-balance.
In our modern American world, a lot of these are “bad” words. We don’t want to see ourselves as vulnerable, or ignorant, or out of balance. These are all things we typically seek to avoid in our everyday life. We instill routine, and boundaries, and surround ourselves with the familiar and the comfortable.