Travel Regrets: One Lost Conversation

It’s impossible to know what a lost conversation might have yielded. A lost conversation occupies a place in memory, a reservoir of sadness or relief. It’s the shape of the reservoir that remains forever unknown. This uncertainty often renders the very recognition of a lost conversational opportunity difficult.

The decision to welcome a stranger into conversation while on the road isn’t always easy. Nobody wants to be an easy mark. In places with pervasive tourism infrastructures, it’s often the better part of wisdom to ignore touts and attempts at conversation altogether. There are, after all, many scams to avoid, many tourist traps to escape.

But often a self-imposed barrier to conversation on the part of a tourist or traveler precludes what would have been interesting, useful, personally significant, or simply an opportunity to share a laugh or two.

A year and a half ago I was in Mauritius, having a conversation with my partner on a beach. What was it about? No idea. A very tall man with dreadlocks came up to us and hovered maybe 15 feet away. Very quietly he asked us if we might be interested in buying some jewelry made out of sea urchins.

I couldn’t hear him. “Sorry?” I asked. He repeated his pitch. “No thank you,” I responded, somewhat curtly. We were not interested in his jewelry. He also wasn’t really bothering us. Had our completely forgettable conversation not felt urgent, I would no doubt have been more polite. Hawkers are few and far between in this part of Mauritius, at least off-season, and his entreaty had been tame and gentle. But we weren’t interested, and we were in the middle of a conversation in any case.

“Where are you from?” he persisted. Every time we got this question in Mauritius we had to make a decision. Either we enjoyed the unfolding game and entertained a dozen or so guesses before we revealed our nationality, or we nipped it in the bud by responding “American.” This time, eager to get back to our conversation, we chose the latter option.

“I know America,” he said with sudden clarity. He pointed at his chest with a single finger. “I am from Chagos.” Suddenly, everything changed. He was no longer an unobtrusive if vaguely annoying hawker. “You are from Chagos?” I asked, suddenly alert. “Yes,” he answered. And then he turned away abruptly. The lines of communication were closed. He was done.The Chagos Islands are a string of Indian Ocean islands, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The islanders’ modern history is pretty terrible, all things considered. Beginning in the late 1960s, native Chagossians were evicted from the territory by the British government, who proceeded in 1971 to lease Diego Garcia to the United States for use as a military base.

Chagossians won several court battles in the UK for the right to return to the islands before seeing that right overturned in 2008. The islanders subsequently appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and currently await a ruling. In 2010, the British government declared the territory a marine reserve, something that may place the islands off limits to Chagossians if the European Court of Human Rights rules in their favor.

Today, Chagossians are well and truly dispossessed. They live mostly in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK. I’d known prior to visiting Mauritius that there was a sizable Chagossian community in the country. I’d wanted to glimpse Chagossian culture, get a sense of their situation in Mauritius, and maybe have dinner at a Chagossian restaurant, should one exist.

I asked around about the Chagossians. One taxi driver told us that they were responsible for many social problems. He went on and on. His diatribe sounded almost verbatim like the kind of blanketing anti-Roma sentiment I’ve heard from many Europeans. It didn’t just lodge a complaint against a people; it assigned a thoroughgoing failure to possess positive values to an entire culture. The picture that emerged in conversation on Mauritius and in my own research is of a community dispossessed doubly – both from their territory and within Mauritian society.

In the context of such intense cultural dispossession, maybe a conversation on a beach in Mauritius between an American tourist and a displaced Chagossian can’t simply be a conversation. It’s hard to know. Most people are, after all, able to distinguish between individuals and the behavior of governments.

In any case, I regret strongly that this conversation never happened. It might have been annoying. It might have simply been a continual sales pitch for an object I didn’t want. It also might have been an opportunity to learn. Less loftily, it might simply have been an enjoyable exchange. I’ll never know.

[Image: Flickr | Drew Avery]