We’ve all got the stories. One time I fell asleep on a bus and woke up with chickens in my lap since the pigs beneath my seat forced them out. One time I took a taxi whose “check engine” light had been on so long it was attracting bugs and whose fuel gauge must have broken since it started at empty and didn’t move. Once I was elated to find my hotel room came with a fan until I turned it on and it flung geckos everywhere. They had been hiding behind the blades.
Ask anyone who’s spent time in a country with a GDP below a certain threshold and they’ll tell you something similar. Real life horror stories. They may be told as entertainment, to evoke sympathy, or as a warning, but they usually all have the same point: “life in such-a-place was crazy and primitive, but I was strong enough to survive.”
There’s a certain amount of ego, ignorance, and not just a little ethnocentrism going into each of these stories. As if the other culture was unexpectedly backwards or savage, or too poor or too ignorant. As if it was chaotic and unaccommodating. This is judgmental, and I resent it.
But that doesn’t make the stories any less true.
These things actually do happen. Other countries, “3rd world” or not, will be different, and conditions may seem harshly unfamiliar. Sanitation may be at a different threshold. Systems of public service may be less organized. Locals are used to it, you are not, and they may not understand that. But you should.
It’s important to understand that you can tell these stories without judgment. Hell, I’m guilty of it most of all. I love telling these stories. Having surprise chickens in your lap is funny! But the butt of the joke isn’t the bus—it’s me. I was not prepared. And is something like this happens to you, laugh at yourself. Well, maybe later. It may not be funny at the time. But use the experience to toughen up, cultivate a little stoicism, and chalk it all up to a cultural learning experience.
Also, things can happen that are crazy by any standards. Or dangerous. I’ve seen drunk bus drivers as a cultural norm, and that’s not OK. I’ll be judgmental there. I’ve heard of people sharing rooms with venomous spiders or snakes. Again, not OK. If you’re in a place where guys catcall women, tell them to shove off. That’s not a cultural experience.
But if you travel, be learned, be practiced, and be flexible. Just leave usual expectations behind. And come back with a crazy story or two.