I WAS IN A MARKET IN CHENNAI, INDIA, and a little girl — maybe 5 years old — was aggressively begging for money. She wrapped herself around my leg while I stood, paralyzed, not knowing what to do. Before traveling to India, people told me to never give to the beggars. Child beggars especially were known to be exploited by thugs and human trafficking cartels, and often, the act of giving means you’ll be mobbed by others hoping for the same. But knowing that doesn’t prepare you for having a cute, clearly hungry 5-year-old wrapped around your leg, crying.
Finally, I realized that she wasn’t begging for money — she was reaching for my water bottle. I hesitated for a second, when a nearby street vendor walked over, pulled her off me, smacked her, and then gave me a big, ingratiating smile that seemed to say, “You’re welcome!”
As we drove away from the market, I saw children bathing in a nearby sewage pit. That’s what she drinks out of, I realized. When I got back to the ship I was staying on, I was instructed to pour the water out.
The worst moments stick with you the most.
I don’t think there’s a moment in my life I feel worse about than when I didn’t give that little girl a sip of clean water. It would have done me literally no harm, and she could’ve had at least some water that day that hadn’t been in contact with raw sewage.
Looking back on my decade and a half as a traveler, though, if I were to select the moments that have stuck with me the most, most of them would be the most negative experiences. This isn’t to say that I haven’t had any nice moments on my travels. There have been plenty of mountaintop sunrises, moments of kindness or connection between myself and a stranger, and thrilling bungee jumps, cliff dives, and zip lines. But these moments, while extremely enjoyable in the moment, weren’t formative in any true sense. They haven’t really defined me. The worst moments have.
I was in Valencia, Spain. I was 15, and I was sitting with my family at an outdoor cafe. I had recently bought a brand new camcorder off of months of summer job savings with the intent on building a portfolio that could get me into film school. I placed the bag with the camera next to me feet.
At some point, during the meal, a man approached us and asked us a question in Spanish. We tried to answer in the very little Spanish we had, and while we struggled, his partner snuck up behind me and grabbed my camera. When I saw what had happened, I burst into tears. Film school! Gone! Months of work to buy the camera! Wasted! Humiliated in a strange public place!
My older sister was mortified by my crying. My parents clearly felt terrible about it, but were also embarrassed, and didn’t really know what to do. The cafe owner, a kindly older man with a giant, curly mustache, walked out, saw me, asked what was wrong, and then put his arm around me.
“This is life,” he said, “You are okay. You are healthy. We lose things, but they are just things.”
I still feel vaguely uncomfortable about that day. I’d done a dumb thing, and I paid for it. And I still cringe thinking about my display of public vulnerability. But there was a man, a complete stranger who knew nothing of me, who was kind. So while I know now that there are thieves in the world, I also know there are kind old men with handlebar mustaches who will comfort a strange teenager.
You learn more from pain than from pleasure.
As a travel writer, I’m usually trying to articulate the pleasant parts of travel. There are only so many ways to describe how nice it is to sip a cocktail on a beach, and everyone I know has had the exact same nice experiences. My terrible experiences all have their own unique flavor, though. To misquote Leo Tolstoy, “All happy travel stories are alike, all unhappy travel stories are unhappy in their own way.”
And it’s these hard travel experiences that have changed me for the better. Pains of embarrassment or conscience stick with you far longer than fleeting moments of gratification. Pain is to be learned from, pleasure is to be merely enjoyed.
These days, I don’t carry a camera. I write instead. I owe that as much to the thieves as to the old man. And while I still know the dangers of giving to beggar children, I now support human rights campaigns and try, whenever I can, to make the world a place where children don’t have to beg. And whenever I get on a plane, I know I won’t seek out pain, but if I find it anyway, I’ll do my best to learn from it and turn it into something useful.