IF YOU want to keep yourself to yourself, you could do a lot worse than live in Britain. Take a walk down a typical British street and you might end up sharing a brief exchange about the unseasonable weather or the lateness of a bus, but generally, nobody will poke their nose into your affairs.
In fact, for Londoners like me, this is true to an almost implausible degree. I reckon I could sit sobbing on a tube train in nothing but an ill-fitting, bloodstained dressing gown and the chances of anyone taking an open interest would still be no more than 50/50.
When you go abroad, you realise just how odd this is. Take a trip across the water, to Ireland or continental Europe, and people are suddenly interested in your opinions. Forget the lateness of buses. Get chatting with a stranger and you might find yourself talking art, religion or politics before you know what hit you.
Go further, to somewhere hot and unfamiliar, and things are cranked up a notch — especially if you look like a tourist. Forget keeping yourself to yourself. As you weave your way through the crowds, you’ll soon be called upon to explain where you’re from, who you are, where exactly you’re going and why you’re so unwilling to part with any money.
The more densely populated the country, the more notions of privacy are thrown out of the window. Go to any big city in India, for example, and take a look around you — there’ll be people absolutely everywhere, in every direction, in every available nook, at all times of day or night. And many of them will be staring at you.
Now if you really want to experiment with notions of personal space, take an overnight trip on an Indian train. In the morning, when you open your eyes, don’t be surprised to find 20 faces staring back at you, each ready to pose you a question: what’s your name, what do you do, how do you like India, is this your wife, how much do you earn, why no children, who’s your God, do you like cricket?
No one from modern-day Britain is really equipped to deal with this type of well-meaning interrogation. We’re just not used to the attention. And it’s not just the overt curiosity that puts us in a spin — it’s also the unblinking stares. I don’t know about you, but too much eye contact makes me nervous.
But what really wrong-foots me is not being able to dictate the nature of my own social interactions. In Britain, conversations rarely get going unless there are two thoroughly committed participants, yet in other countries they seem to spring up out of nowhere, without warning.
Back home, I can go all day without speaking to anyone if it so suits me. Abroad, it’s often someone else’s decision.
Withdrawing into your thoughts just won’t cut it in a Turkish souk. Drifting off into an hour-long daydream isn’t really an option on an African bus.
The semi-conscious stupor that serves you so well on your daily shuffle from your front door to the office doesn’t hold out
when you’re far from home.
But maybe this is no bad thing. Because while giving up a degree of privacy certainly requires adjustment, the chance to improve long-neglected social skills can ultimately be very fulfilling. And when your trip is over and you’re sat reflecting on your travels, that intense, awkward exchange with a group of locals might just turn out to be one of your most satisfying memories. After all, you probably got more insight from banter like that than from a day of stumbling around on your own with a guidebook.
I often hear people say they’re going travelling to reconnect with themselves and to spend some time with their thoughts. But travel doesn’t always work this way and that precious ‘me time’ is pretty thin on the ground in a sweaty hostel dorm, a crowded minibus or a claustrophobic trekking party.
Let’s be honest, there are few experiences more overrated than spending time with your own thoughts. What I want is a break from the bloody things. And if that means letting 20 Indian commuters give me the third degree on a night train to nowhere, then so be it.
Now if anyone has any questions, I’ll be in Coach C.
Published in May/Jun 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)