It was 11:00am and I wanted to leave.
Stuart was smoking. “We’re not in a rush, are we?”
“Umm, no, we’re not in a rush.” How could I say we were? We weren’t. But I wanted to go. I didn’t want to “chill out” and “slow down”. I wanted to go, go, go. I had a town to see. Sights to explore. An environment to take in.
I could feel myself getting fractious. Irritable.
How did I navigate this?
Suddenly I felt bogged down. Like someone was stopping me from moving. Like I’d had all this freedom but now I was trapped.
“Why don’t I go on without you, and you catch me up?”
“OK. Keep your data on. Check your messages.”
That sentence. This feeling.
I packed my things and left. This was better. I was moving.
But I didn’t feel better. I felt sick.
An old anxiety slipped into my stomach from back home and refused to shift. A lump in my throat rising.
I rang Mumma.
“I thought I would like having a travel buddy but I don’t. He wants us to do things together. He wants me to keep my data on and check my messages. I don’t want to have to keep checking my messages. I want to just be. Why can’t he just come and find me when he’s ready? I don’t want to be dependent or waiting on something else. This feels horrible. This isn’t what I wanted. This is uncomfortable.”
I was crying now. My sunglasses hiding my eyes from passersby. “Now I have a message saying let’s meet at the castle. But what if I don’t want to go to the castle? What if I don’t want to be dictated to? This isn’t even about the castle because I want to see the castle, it’s just…”
“I know. I understand. I understand.”
I cried, she listened, I calmed down.
It was as though this me, this person that I was happy and comfortable with being, felt threatened in the presence of other people. I felt so comfortable and at ease with myself travelling alone. I knew who I was. What I was. How I wanted to be. And I could be that person. Unaffected by external surroundings and social pressures.
But the presence of another person… It felt as though it threatened that. It felt as though it put bars around the possibility of my being me.
It was an anxiety I associated with being at home, back in the UK. It’s the anxiety of being late for something. Waiting for someone. It’s the anxiety of not feeling in control.
It’s the anxiety of feeling overloaded, and stretching yourself out to pull something back.
I didn’t feel in control.
Was that sensible? Was that OK? Were these even the right questions to be asking myself?
Was it sensible? It was understandable. Was it OK? It wasn’t not OK because it made sense. It was what I did in response to it that determined whether it was ‘OK’ or not.
I took a deep breath.
“I have to go now. I can see them at the castle. I’ve got to go and meet them.”
I walked over. Volmer, Jana, and Stuart were looking over a wall into what was supposed to be a bear pit looking for the bear who was supposed to live there but none of us had seen it.
“GRRrowl!” I shouted over. Stuart turned around, smiled, waved. We joined up. “So, where are we going?”
“To the top of the castle!”
I felt on edge. Shaken. Defensive. As though I needed to protect myself.
We went into the information office to ask about ticket prices for the tower. I needed to get cash out.
“I have enough. I’ll pay,” piped up Jana. She was small, short, and with a tiny high pitched voice to match. She was bright and sunny in complexion, presence, and mood.
I smiled. Felt comforted. Felt warmed. Felt like I was a part of a group. That it was OK. That this didn’t negate being in control.
We bought our tickets and climbed the stairs. They were small, steep steps. We passed a giant bell on the way up. “Do you think we’re allowed to ring it?”
At the top of the tower we looked out across Cesky Krumlov and deep into the mountains.
The view was beautiful. The roof tops of each building sliding upwards to the sky. It was as if they’d been built short and fat like in Britain, but then pulled upwards to be tall and thin afterwards, as if to make more room for the other buildings that had been subjected to the same treatment.
It was here that I truly felt that Cesky Krumlov had been carved into the navel of these mountains. Nestled in amongst the trees and rock faces, it sat, cushioned in nature.
We spent the day exploring the area, visiting the palace gardens, and a Baroque theatre.
While walking through the gardens I asked Volmer about the social media culture in Asia. I explained that from a European perspective, it seemed that selfies were just such a huge thing on a scale that, in Europe, people would just not be comfortable with.
“In Thailand, your Facebook is everything. It tells people how popular you are, whether you’re someone worth knowing. It can determine how likely you are to get a job. People really care. You can go from being no one to being famous in one day if you take the perfect selfie and you look good. Looks matter.”
“So, the idea of someone like me, who hates Facebook and actively tries not to use it, does that really exist in Thailand?”
“It’s very unusual. It’s almost funny. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have and use Facebook like I do.”
“Are organised trips a big thing in Asia?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for us, Asian tourists are typically thought of as being people who arrive in coach loads. It’s a common stereotype and image for European people about Asian tourists.”
“What about Asian tourists?” Jana spun round, mildly defensive. She smiled, winked. Turned back around and carried on walking with Stuart.
“Asian people are more scared of security,” continued Volmer, “you’re safer if you do things in groups, with lots of other people. It’s something that Asian people really value.”
“So is solo travelling like you and Jana are doing not very common in Asia?”
“Not at all. I know maybe two or three other people who have been travelling like this. Everyone else does it on organised holidays in big groups. It’s about security.”
We walked. Stopped at the edge of a big pond. Looked at the fish. Jana put on some music. Maroon 5. It interrupted the environment, the atmosphere.
“All the time. You’d make a big pile, and then jump in.” Stuart grinned like a child as he said it.
“Jana, Volmer, what about you?”
“We don’t really get weather cold enough in Asia for autumn leaves.” We walked along a bit further and found a huge clearing laden thick with leaves.
“Come on, Jana, Volmer, you’ve got to try it. Scoop them up in your arms and throw up in the air above your head!”
Volmer climbed down the bank and scooped up a pile, “Is this enough?”
“The more the better, but that’s good!”
Later that evening we went out in search of food. There were six of us in total, and we’d received a recommendation from our tour guide the night before on the Ghost Tour for a place where we could try real, authentic Czechian food.
As we opened the door to the building, it smelt of chlorine, and I immediately felt uncomfortable. It’ll be OK when we get upstairs.
As we climbed the stairs we caught a glimpse of the people in the restaurant area. Our eyes locked. The air shifted.
I spoke to a lady at the bar, “Are you serving food, please?”
She walked away and went behind the bar into another room. She came out two minutes later, following a man, he paused, spoke to a larger man playing darts, he looked at us, shook his head and laughed.
“Hi, are you still serving food?”
He smiled. Shook his head, trying not to laugh. “No food sorry. Go back into the centre of town if you want food.”
I felt something turn in the pit of my stomach. Something I’d never experienced before. Something uncomfortable. I wasn’t welcome here. We weren’t welcome here.
There is something very strange about being on the receiving end of discrimination when you’re a white woman from a wealthy country. I felt as though I couldn’t be upset about it. Almost as if, as a nation, we had had this coming. How could I complain of discrimination? I thought.