How to survive a trip to the most heartbreaking place on earth (and still have your heart broken)

Trust me. You will feel it.

You will feel guilt and sorrow and frustration. You will fool yourself into thinking that you feel empathy, too, but you don’t. Not really. Not truly. Because how could you know what it’s like? To be born into this. To be doomed from conception.

But you will grieve. You will grieve daily, hourly, from one moment to the next to the next. You will stop grieving for a moment, a fleeting respite, forgetting where you are for exactly one minute, and then you will encounter flocks of young children, tiny malnourished people, dressed in wisps of dirty rags, all orbiting around you, making that ubiquitous gesture: hand-mouth hand-mouth hand-mouth. Hungryhungryhungry. Help. Me. Us. We have nothing.

You will not forget to grieve again. You will, for the rest of the trip, be a hyper-vigilant griever.

And you’ll give money, small and medium and large bills (all denominations too small, no matter what), knowing that it won’t make you feel better, knowing that it won’t really truly make anyone feel better. They will always need more. But, of course, you know that not giving will make you feel worse. You will feel shitty for even thinking this. But you will also lament that the usual transaction, which assumes some emotional payoff for giving, doesn’t apply here. Give or don’t give—you will still feel guilty. Trust me.

You’ll get scammed, too, but that won’t really matter. You’ll totally know it. But you’ll also think to yourself, shit, I fucking deserve this. I am way too privileged not to be scammed. It is my destiny to be scammed. And in fact, it might make you feel better. You might actually think—man, thank God. Because you’ll understand that you are here to play your part as the clueless duped tourist, that the next batch of tourists will take her to the same little shop, with that same shopkeeper, to buy that same canister of dehydrated milk that you bought for her, which she will immediately return back to the shopkeeper and collect her (teenytinyalmostworthless) kickback. And the now-sated, now-sainted tourists will still go back to their vacation, to their ceaseless acquisition of knickknacks and gewgaws and extra-special memories, while the child goes back to her miserable, endless cycle of buying and returning. And these tourists will tell the story, over and over and over, about how they took some poor, destitute street urchin to a store and bought her real food. Oh, and just a reminder—those tourists are you.

You’ll ask a deity you stopped believing in long ago: how can so many resourceful, diligent people be so destitute? How does the world, the universe, YOU, motherfucker—how do you let this happen? How could anyone who witnesses this believe in you? Or, at least, not believe that you’re a totally sadistic asshole? And then you’ll realize that you, yourself, on some level—you have also allowed this to happen. And you continue to let it happen. Because, really, what are you doing to prevent it? You, too, are a sadistic asshole.

But, as a way of creating some distance from this all-too-real reality, you can use your fancy education to intellectualize all of it, reflecting on the way this scam, this whole third-world economy, mirrors that young child’s life: the same endless cycle of poverty, of recycling. Poverty begets poverty begets poverty. Neverending. This is her life. She will screw and get screwed. Always. They all will. But you can feel proud of yourself for reflecting so profoundly on this experience, for having something interesting to say to your traveling companions, but you should realize that your insights are trivial, meaningless, and completely egocentric. This is real life. Not fucking grad school. And starving kids don’t give a shit about your insights.

You will feel exhilarated, too, hypnotized by the manic energy, the vivid colors, overwhelmed by this wonderful senseless unworkable humming rushing hustling city. You will hop into tiny decrepit taxis that will sputter and careen through the streets, weaving through tangled knots of cars and people and (even!) cows and goats and oxen, all moving through a cacophony of horns bleating, incessantly, relentlessly, everyone staying true to the mantra of the road: horn OK please. You will stumble upon markets full of everything and anything, all of creation recycled and repurposed here, the seeming detritus of the first world, decades of hand-me-downs, all on display, all for sale, heaps of ancient and not-so-ancient baubles. You will eat like royalty, feasting while people starve mere steps away from you. You will lounge poolside and beachside, gulping down one delicious ice-cold Kingfisher beer after another.

And you will take hundreds of photos, aestheticizing the experience. You will think to yourself, hell, I’ve got a pretty good eye. And you will recognize—without really thinking it through—that you can turn others’ pain and poverty into second-rate art. You will not fully understand at the time that you are a vulture. That this is all grist for your Instagram and your cocktail party banter back home.

Eventually, you will go home and eat yellowtail belly shipped in from Japan and drink $6 artisanal shade-grown free-trade coffee from the local hipster coffeeshop and clickety-clack away on your fucking MacBook Pro and listen to well-reviewed indie rock on your vintage turntable and drift off to sleep, full-bellied, on your pillowtop mattress resting atop your mid-century modern bed. You will think about recent heartbreak and about how you need to repair your relationship with one of your dearest friends and about how you need to exercise more and eat better and about how it sucks that your vacation is almost over. And you won’t really think too much about how fortunate you are, how trivial your problems are, nor how complicit you are in enabling the first world to take advantage of the third world.

Trust me, though, you will realize all of this later, when you write an essay about it.

But thankfully, mercifully, after a bit of time passes, you won’t feel it anymore, that pain, that fleeting-faux-empathy, that desire to fucking do something about this Goddamn Injustice. Isn’t it funny how that works? You can, once again, focus completely on yourself. Besides, doesn’t it all just seem too taxing, too impossible? You can forget about all of the suffering you witnessed and choose to remember only how splendid your trip was and how you can’t wait to plan the next one.

This, too, shall pass. Trust me. You’ll not only survive it; you won’t feel a thing, after all.


11 responses to “How to survive a trip to the most heartbreaking place on earth (and still have your heart broken)”

  1. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Oh, this really is so heart-breaking. Thanks for such a careful post-mortem of all these sick complicated emotions. It’s beautiful writing as always. And it’s hard to read. I’m having a difficult time thinking or saying anything that doesn’t focus on the subject matter here, but I’ll step into the other room so I can say this: welcome back here Jeremy! (back pat) I’ve really missed your voice and presence here. Hope you have more to write about in the coming weeks…

  2. Bryan says:

    Pictures or it didn’t happen. Oh, wait.

  3. Bryan says:

    Also, this was perfect.

  4. j wood says:

    whoa. thanks for the honesty. I really appreciate hearing your unfiltered feelings.

    Is there a name for this kind of experience/trip? We use the word “vacation,” but it seems inappropriate (even contradictory) here. I feel like stories such as yours often go unexpressed, in part because we have no word-concept for the event; at least none I can think of. here I go intellectualizing it!

  5. T-Mo says:

    I love the tangled mess of emotions here. You totally nailed it. Sigh.

  6. Autumn says:

    What a sublime story and your honest recapitulation is thoroughly engaging.

    I agree with JW…what do we call it?

    Reminds me of a trip to Mexico with my family when I was young when my brother burst into tears in the middle of the marketplace as we walked around trying to decide what each of us would spend our five dollars on. He wanted no souvenir and just gave his $5 away saying to my Mom & Dad that it would never be enough. I don’t remember anything from this trip but his tears.

  7. jeremy says:

    Hmmm… Melancholiday?

    (And thanks, all! It’s time I got up and writing more regularly again.)

  8. Lavanya says:

    Jeremy, this was really beautiful. It actually reminded me of the unsettling emotional hurricane that swung around inside me when I lived in India. Out of all the countries I’ve explored, India is the most confusing, scary, and…amazing. It’s a rough country, for sure. But it’s also gorgeous and inspiring, and it’s the pendulum swinging hard between the two worlds that made me conscious of how wonderful people can be. How kind and creative and beautiful. While the poverty and illness in India is hard to bear (as is the gross disparity in opportunity between the very poor and the very rich) it’s just one aspect of a country that offers a lot more.

    My second response is probably rooted in the fact that I was born in the so-called third world but grew up in America…And obviously everyone is theoretically aware of this, but there is a lot of disturbing poverty, illness, and inequality in the West. We just don’t talk about it. I don’t know what the current numbers are, but when I was in law school the infant mortality rate in parts of New York was *greater* than many countries in Africa. But that narrative isn’t part of the American mythology, so we don’t do anything about it. So while I think India can and will break your heart a little bit, so does America. Maybe that’s the thing with humans – that’s what we do.

  9. Bryan says:

    Word. #8 nails it.

  10. Bryan says:

    Including why I can’t stop thinking about going back.

  11. TimHusom says:

    superb writing Jeremy.