“YOU DANCE LIKE AN ANIMAL!” he growled at me through gold teeth and an accent heavy as lead. At first I smiled, a dumb wide-eyed gape, thinking he meant it in a primordial, ferocious way. Like I danced like a goddamn tiger would if it was bipedal and moved by the sounds of Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning.”
He shook his head, clasped my shoulder, and laughed, “No, no, you dance like shit!” And just like that the confident winds and homemade wine that had pushed me onto the stage of an Eastern Bloc nightclub rolled back, replaced with the sobering flush of shame.
Through the smoke machines, bodycon dresses, and defiantly superior Soviet cheekbones, I was reduced to feeling like a terminally uncool American tourist with a cheap halter top and no rhythm. It was not the first nor would it be the last time I found myself fortunate enough to be invited but not quite cool enough to belong.
When I was younger, the main source of my international insecurity came from fellow travelers. In youth hostels and bars, the conversation would always dissolve into something akin to a dick-measuring contest. Who has been the furthest and suffered the strangest: I hitchhiked from Cape Town to Cairo with nothing but chewing gum and steely resolve, I invented dubstep with a deflecting Buddhist monk I met in Bristol, I lost my virginity to Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, the ONLY way to see Vietnam is on the back of a vintage hand-built Indian motorcycle, yeah my necklace was made for me by a local shaman using the teeth of his enemies, Poland is the new Prague, this tattoo is Sanskrit for “be here now”…and so on in a loop of one-upmanship anchored by snot-nosed rich kids trading passport stamps like baseball cards, smoking clove cigarettes, experimenting with alternative hair and life styles.
I’d be lying if I told you these perennial boner wars didn’t cause me my fair share of self-doubt. The question was always where are you going and where have you been, and I came up short on both lists. Slowly though, through enough miles and subjugation to terrible expat bars and even more terrible expats, I realized that if I wanted to hear obnoxious people talk about their own exploits, I didn’t have to leave home to do it.
Nowadays I am unmoved that Malcolm from South Africa has swallowed a cobra heart and been to more countries than me. I just pray I don’t sound like him. My fear now is in the way I’m perceived by the people who belong to the places I visit, my insecurities as a traveler just a hyper-realized version of my standard uncertainty. I’m worried I appear unworldly, over-privileged, uncouth, and white to a vulgar degree.
Watching cliff jumpers in Brazil, I have never felt paler or less graceful. How do people even look like that? So elegant, sinuous, and sun bleached like a mermaid gave live sea-foam birth to them. In a gypsy orphanage outside Prague, I listened to a girl with crooked teeth like tarot cards play the piano in the asbestos bones of a living room. It sounded like turning wheels and when all the visitors clapped, I hoped she knew mine was from awe not pity.
In the Kibera slum of Nairobi, I wanted to choke on the price of the sunglasses hanging around my neck. In Nicaragua, watching field after field of cattle, blinds of bone pushing through their skin, I felt my own stomach sick full with a 2-star continental breakfast. In Rome, I was turned away from St. Peter’s for showing too much skin and had to buy a shawl from a scowling nun. Same halter top. In a favela in Rio, under the veins of electrical wires and corrugated roofs, clothes lynched and pulled like unanswered prayer flags, I thought of my Pinterest board dedicated to interior design, cheekily titled Rustic Rooms, and wanted to punch myself in the face.
I felt the warm bloom of shame in a crumbling Argentine graveyard; a woman in black shook her hand at my camera and yelled in fast angry Spanish that these were not my ghosts. In Saigon, after a sobering lesson in alternative history at what was once called the Museum of American War Crimes, I wanted everyone I met to know that I knew, that I wasn’t another thoughtless tourist eating pho and posting artful pictures of amputees on mopeds and the weathered faces of old women to my fucking Instagram.
The more I travel, the less I care about the story I could tell about a place, and the more and more about the one they would tell about me.