As I prepared for my travel to Eastern Europe last month, I began looking for interesting places in Prague and Budapest. Searching travel blogs and reviews, I came across two unusual write-ups. They intrigued me sufficiently for me to decide that Vyserhad and Attila’s Mound were places I would definitely visit. Even as I was being influenced by these articles, I could not help but wonder as to how much weightage I should give to one writer’s opinion. It made me resolute to remain aware and open to whatever I encountered in my experience, without being overly biased by anyone else’s conclusions.
During the travel, I met several interesting people from diverse backgrounds. I also heard many animated conversations in cafes and parks. Listening to these, I realized that each traveler was going to return with a crisp summary of the local conditions. As they shared their experience, many others would come to view this destination through their eyes. So the tourist who got patient directions from a store assistant would return describing the locals as ‘friendly and helpful’. Whereas the lady who got a poor exchange rate would label the locals as ‘thieving opportunists’. In the first case, there probably would be no mention of the tourist’s own respectful and polite body language. Just as in the second case, there would be no mention of the warnings that there is no single fixed rate and tourists are repeatedly advised not to attempt to change cash on the streets but only at authorized sites, after making their own price comparisons.
These observations were further highlighted when I met with a person residing in Budapest for several years. I had only just reached the city and his unhappy description of the locals had me wondering how my next few days in this city would be. He said the language was extremely difficulty, the culture very closed and the people unfriendly. He used words like ‘dangerous’, ‘rude’ and with genuine concern, advised me to be most careful, especially as I was travelling alone. After he left, I had to remind myself of my resolution.
I reflected on my experiences thus far and this somewhat strange analogy came to mind – consider the making of a pie. Suppose it was to rotate as it was baked, but this failed to happen. Consequently, there may be a part that remains uncooked, a part that is burnt, but also a part that is cooked just right. Were you to taste a delicious slice of this pie, it would be understandable if you concluded that the entire pie was excellent and the cook talented. If you got the burnt or uncooked parts, you would probably warn people away from that bakery. And heaven help if you tried a piece when you were famished and in urgent need of nourishment for the body and soul. The crushing disappointment would undoubtedly pepper your review of the same.
The truth is that we rarely pause to consider if the slice determining our conclusion is representative of the whole pie.
Even rarer would be to factor in the degree of awareness with which the sampler tasted this slice of pie. In addition to personal conditioning, historical experience and mindset, the sampler’s state at that particular moment also contributes to their subjective experience and conclusion. A tired, confused and apprehensive person is going to bring a different energy to any situation and leave with a different opinion than perhaps someone in a fresh, alert and enthusiastic state. Our perceived reliability of the source should ideally be critical in deciding how much importance we give to that information. If the information is too dramatic, positive or negative, we tend to get distracted by that and forget to question the source.
We have an innate need to label and organize information into understandable frames of reference. Our hope for control over our environment and happiness compels us to classify people, places and things as desirable or undesirable, that too as quickly as possible. Further, we tend to authoritatively pass on our judgment in oversimplified, pithy labels, which far too often are based on singular slivers of experience.
Just as we are eager to explore as many destinations as we possibly can, we also seem eager to distribute our findings. So before we have returned home and assimilated our reflections, our snaps – and surmises – are up on social media. Prompting more friends to either add or remove a destination from their bucket list.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, we have further fueled the preference for haste over mindfulness, width over depth and conclusion over openness.
Now all this may be of little consequence when it comes to eating dessert, or of moderate importance in the context of choosing a vacation destination. However, it may be useful to remember that there can be far reaching implications when we fixate our understanding of people, communities, cultures, nations or their challenges by a similar process of extrapolation.
For my part, I am glad for my resolution. It reminded me to center myself and explore Budapest bearing in mind this person’s advice – without letting it weigh me down. Fortunately for me, I got to experience a rich slice of helpful, friendly Hungarian people, beautiful sights, delicious food and excellent wine. Not to forget, a better understanding of their complex and troubled history.
But if you see more of my snaps or read any of my other write-ups on the place – please do remember – this is just my opinion, based on one short stay!