To state the obvious, visiting Petra in Jordan is amazing. It is breathtaking, mind-expanding, magnificent and unforgettable in a way that only a few other places are in this world. And while nothing can take away from your time spent there, I found a few hurtful words can overshadow that experience if you let them.
On a trip to Israel earlier this year, I booked a side trip to visit Petra in Jordan. After seeing images of this historic site in glossy magazines and on travel TV programs, I knew I had to get there. I was traveling with a good friend who, I’m happy to say, was equally as exited about a side trip to Jordan. He and I signed up with an overnight group tour that would take us and about 15 other travelers from Jerusalem to the border with Jordan, then on to a bedouin camp where we would spend the night before heading to Petra in the morning.
Through long drives along winding roads and group meals of delicious Jordanian food, we got to know the other people on the group tour. There were travelers from the UK, Spain, Holland and the US in our van and we all seemed to be fairly experienced travelers with a number of stamps in our passports. The ages ranged from early twenties up through 60’s and 70’s, but even with that age difference, everyone seemed to get on rather well. And we all lucked out by having the best tour guide in all of Jordan leading our group (shout out to, Ayman!!).
After a full day of visiting Petra and seeing so many of the famous carved formations up close, we headed out of the site for a late lunch before we hit the road again for a rather lengthy trip back to Jerusalem. As you can imagine, after 2 days of walking under the warm Jordan sun and a full buffet lunch, it wasn’t long before I dozed off on the van ride. A full stomach and a warm van will cure any bouts with insomnia for me!
I have no idea how long I was asleep, but when I woke, I stirred just enough to adjusted myself a bit to watch the scenery roll by outside the window. With my head rested against the warm van window, I managed to catch a conversation that some of the other travelers had launched into over seat backs and across the van aisle.
The conversation was about dating and experiences they each had earlier in their lives (this was mostly the 40 and older crowd that had joined in on this conversation). The married couples joked about past dating mistakes they had made before they found each other. The single folks talked about recent breakups that left them better off than they were before. Everyone was laughing and in a rather good mood.
Among our group was a Spanish mother and daughter traveling together. The daughter was probably in her late-thirties and her mother somewhere in her seventies. During our time at Petra, I had struck up a conversation with the daughter who had traveled extensively. She told me about her interest in other cultures and about the time she spent living abroad in India. She spoke modestly about a book she was in the process of writing about her experiences. I hadn’t spoken to her mother as much, but I spent a little time walking beside her as she sometimes fell behind the rest of the group or needed to rest.
As I continued to enjoy the tales of dating woes while staring lazily out the window, the Spanish mother starts to tell stories about her daughter’s dating history. She lamented how her daughter kept dating men who were not from Spain. She listed the men by nationality and confessed her concern that they would one day whisk her daughter off to their home country, leaving her all alone. I suppose she finally stopped worrying and made peace with the fact her daughter was interested in men from all over the world. She then finished off her story with a line that quickly shook me out of my half-doze.
She said “I told my daughter to date whoever you want, just so long as he’s not Black.”
Wait, what? Did I just hear that correctly? I froze in my seat. While I was not actively participating in the conversation, this woman was speaking at full volume and I was only a couple of seats away from her. And while I may not be the darkest skinned person you’ve ever met, there’s no denying that at least one of my parents (and in my case both of my parents) are Black and that a comment like that was a direct insult.
I am old enough and experienced enough to know that I should never be shocked to hear racist (or homophobic, or anti-feminine, or any small minded) comments come out of someone’s mouth. Still, I do expect a little more from people who spend their hard earned time and money to go out and see the world and experience new cultures.
After Spanish granny had her say, I noticed a brief second of uncomfortable silence. Had the only Black person on the van overheard the comment that came loud and clear from just a few seats away? Then just as quickly, without any acknowledgement of the comment, the conversation continued.
And what did I do? In my surprise, I unfortunately just kept looking out of the window. I would like to think that if I were participating in the conversation I would have said something. That I would have replied with “why would having a Black boyfriend be a problem”? or “what did you mean by that”? But the truth is if I had been part of the conversation, Spanish granny likely wouldn’t have made that comment. Though who knows – oftentimes other cultures are more direct than polite Americans who think twice before saying what they are really thinking to avoid an awkward moment.
Instead I stayed in my seat and thought about what I could say…what I should say… until it was too late. Did I really want to challenge this older lady in front of a group of people I’d only just met? Did I want to be the cause of tension on this small van for the next few hours? Was anything I said going to change this lady’s mind at this point in her life? Probably not. Anyone who knows me knows that I normally avoid conflict – I am always the diplomat and rarely the warmonger. Not something that always serves me well, but that’s the nature of my being. So instead I let her words sink in and I realized that they bothered me more than I thought they would.
The rest of the way back to the Jerusalem, I was quieter than I had been on the earlier part of the trip. I wanted to avoid any conversation with Spanish granny, so I kept my headphones in on the van. At rest stops I sat alone, deep in thought with her words echoing in my head. I am proud of who I am as a Black woman and I don’t wish to be White or Asian or Latina or any other race. But when I hear comments like Spanish granny made, I do feel a sense of sadness and disappointment.
At the end of the night, as we got dropped off in Jerusalem, we all said our good-byes. Lots of hugs, email addresses and Facebook accounts circulated among the group. Spanish granny will probably never know why I gave her a wide berth and avoided any further contact. And likely she didn’t even care. For me, the memory stays in my head. Partially for what she said and partially for what I did… which was nothing. I only hope that next time I’m confronted by bigoted people – because I have no doubt that they exist in all corners of the globe – I speak up in an honest and heartfelt way.
Have you ever experienced racist or otherwise disparaging remarks when in a foreign country? How did you react? Did you engage or instead just chalk it up to experience and move on?