Lesson 13: Life can be bad – Choose your response

Buenos Aires has a neighbourhood called La Boca, considered one of the more dangerous places in Buenos Aires. Over the years, many innocent tourists have had their possessions stolen by thieves. However, people love going there for the Boca Juniors Stadium and a colourful street called Caminito La Boca. Rest of the neighbourhood is out of bounds for the tourists, and the authorities advise visitors to not venture onto other streets.

There was a young American who was in the same dormitory in my Buenos Aires hostel. He was an ex-US Marine soldier and was on holiday in Argentina. He told me that he had met another American a few days back and both decided to head to La Boca. The other American, fearing that the hostel was not safe to leave behind his passport, carried it along.

After roaming around the tourist streets within La Boca, the two boys decided to venture into the other parts of the neighbourhood. Within minutes, a few men mugged them. They drew knives and stole everything. The second American lost his passport too. Fortunately, no one harmed them.

The incident is not reflective of Buenos Aires. Mugging can happen anywhere. The incident is reflective of the well-known fact that life indeed can be bad in places. One hears of many horror stories when one explores the world, but these incidents reflect life. Tourists are generally concerned with crime and safety within the developing world, but problems can arise anywhere.

During the same period, in London, one of the world’s premier cities, many people got their mobile phones stolen by men on motorbikes. These men would spray acid onto the innocent person and then seize the phone before speeding off. Quite a few people lost their phones and suffered acid burn injuries.

While it could be just me, I have always felt safer in developing nations than in some neighbourhoods in major cities such as London and New York. Having lived in London, I am well aware of how a district can determine one’s expected safety. Crime is much higher in specific areas than in others, with boroughs in some parts of East London tending to have a higher crime rate than other boroughs in North West London.

While visiting the United States, many of my friends advised me to avoid individual blocks within specific neighbourhoods. It is the same advice I get in cities of many developing nations. The point is that crime exists everywhere. The safety concern is valid, and one must genuinely take precautions in almost every part of the world. I don’t tend to go against local advice and explore beyond a limit. At La Boca, I stuck to the advised streets. I could not risk being mugged because I was curious about the other streets in the area. At the same time, I explored Manishyet Nayar in Cairo on foot, without ever feeling threatened.

I felt completely safe in Istanbul’s non-tourist parts, which I explored out of curiosity, where I stuck out from the local inhabitants. The Islamic area was strongly conservative. Almost all men had long flowing beards, and all the women were covered up. I am very familiar with Islamic culture. India has a sizeable Islamic population. You learn at a young age to be respectful. Photographing people, especially women, without their or the man’s permission in many cases, is not acceptable. Breaking this unwritten understanding could prove to be dangerous. I walked through that neighbourhood in Istanbul without any problems because I chose to respect the local sentiments. While travelling, things can get tricky or even dangerous. But I have learnt that respect and listening to locals can help mitigate potential problems one could encounter in unfamiliar lands. While one can take precautions, sometimes, things can go wrong. In those unfortunate times, it matters how one responds to the situation.

In the same Buenos Aires hostel, I met an American girl. On the very first day in the city, someone stole her iPhone. She had no other camera with her. She immediately went and bought a cheap phone so that she could take some pictures of her trip.

Her attitude was that she would not let the theft ruin her holidays. She had a very positive frame of mind where she actively chose to see the positive of her negative experience – she could still enjoy Buenos Aires even without her iPhone.

It was another simple insight. Life can be bad, but how you choose to respond can define your relationship with the experience.

Whenever I had episodes of depression or had severe anxiety issues, it was difficult to view anything as positive or as a learning opportunity. My response to events was always negative. It has taken a long time to develop a healthier approach, and even today, I fail at it a lot. But I know that my experiences, thoughts, and beliefs don’t matter if I choose to have a better relationship with my reaction.

There is a space between trigger and response, and here lies my power. I am paraphrasing Viktor Frankl’s insight from his memoir, Man’s search for meaning, which contains many lessons about leading a meaningful life. For Mr Frankl, meaning came from three sources: purposeful work, love and courage in the face of difficulty. While doing so, the ability to choose your response under any circumstances is quite profound and quite impossible at times to put into action. Great philosophers like the Stoics and the Buddha have espoused the same approach.

My travels have a lot of parallels with life. I could plan my itineraries. I could plan my activities. I could look forward to a meaningful trip a year from now. But something could go wrong. I could get mugged in a new city. An epidemic such as Covid 19, could stop travel for a year or possibly more. I could fall sick. A lot could go wrong. But I have a choice. Always. I have a choice on how to respond.

The American girl who had her iPhone stolen in Buenos Aires proved the learning that one always has a choice on how to respond.

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