My mum has often told me about the time that she came to my play school for the end of year ceremony. When my name was called, I sprung joyfully out of my seat and skipped towards the teacher. “Anna! Go back to your seat and walk properly!” was the response from the teacher. I was three years old.
In Form 2, aged five, I was told by Mrs Coyle to stand on my chair for the rest of the lesson, after I broke my ruler by mistake. I could give countless other examples from primary school and the terror that reigned due to one teacher in particular, Mrs Williams, later Robertson. Even my poor mother was dragged in on more than one occasion: “Then we’ll just agreeeee to disagreeeee, Mrs Lundberg.”
Perhaps it’s reflective of the strict British educational system, but it wasn’t just the system. I was teased by my classmates for being Swedish, for being young for my year, and, in a secondary school that now markets itself as “building confidence, integrity and excellence”, I was teased for doing well (I studied less and less, up to the point that my report card gave me top marks for achievement, bottom for effort). Luckily I left to do the International Baccalaureate at an American school where being smart was admired, being non-English the norm. But even there, the school counsellor was far from supportive – once when I had misunderstood something, I forget what, he sneered at me, “I guess I should have said it in Swedish for you to understand.”
Now let’s not be overly dramatic. The bitterness and regret that was in the back of my mind for many years is gone now. But I still grieve for that little girl who was so full of confidence, self-belief and dreams for the future.
I guess the reason why these stories are surfacing right now is that travelling is the exact opposite experience. One of the things I love most about travelling is the openness of the people you meet, and the hugely diverse things they are doing with their lives. British/Kiwi Olivia was the classic 18 year old taking a gap year before starting university. Eddie from California, having finished his medical studies, is taking a break before starting his practice, applying his skill in the Peruvian jungle for six months. Eva and Lukas quit their jobs in Germany and are driving their Toyota through North and South America over a period of two years. Max opened and now runs a crèperie in Cusco, popular with the French expat community. Jeff is retired and has lived with his wife in Copacabana, Bolivia, for two years, sponsored by the Methodist Church to build greenhouses for the local communities. And my favourite, the American girl who sat behind me at dinner with her boyfriend last night and wished she was the kind of person who read The Economist every week because she “just can’t keep straight the difference between the Shi’ites and the Shia”. NO JUDGING.
Not to mention the locals, worlds apart from our privileged lives: the porters on the Inca Trail, who spend their days carrying 28kg worth of luggage up to Machu Picchu, only to race back down to repeat the effort again five days later; my taxi driver from Ollantaytambo, whose wife died after giving birth to twins because of a retained placenta, and now struggles to earn enough to care for his daughters as a single father; the men on the streets of La Paz who will shine your shoes for less than a dollar.
The people you meet while travelling have all sorts of backgrounds, they’re young, they’re old, they’re married, they’re single, they’re on an expensive holiday from a well-paid job, they’re unemployed. It opens your eyes to different ways of life, and gives you confidence that there is no one right answer. Sometimes you even forget to ask the other person’s name, you’re simply enjoying each other’s company and sharing in whatever moment you’re currently experiencing. It’s liberating. The world is full of possibilities, and the little girl inside me is skipping once again.