Sometimes it's too easy to take the privilege of travel for granted!
It was early November 1993. Already days had shortened to some five brief hours of daylight. Nights were long. The weather was cold.
I, the lone traveller, amongst a hostel full of people who had to flee their country and homes, leaving all posessions and many loved ones behind.
The Bergen Hostel was warm, cosy and comfortable. For me, it was a place of temporay convenience as I made my way around Scandanavia. For those refugees it was an indefinate home. A place to escape from the experience of war, destruction and constant fear of death and separation from loved ones. It was a place of protection and safety, from where they could launch their new and very different lives, in a country that was alien and where they barely understood a word of Norwegian. Most spoke no English,
It was difficult for me to communicate with them.
I was aware of a herd of young children, rampaging annoyingly noisily arond the hostel, top-full of a life of trauma, conflict, war and displacement. I'd likely demonstrate my anger, frustration and insecurity through my behaviour too, if I was in their shoes.
Eventually a middle aged, quite wizen man, began to relate their story. He had been a sailor, travelled the world and spoke fairly good English. He had even been to Melbourne!
He had the difficult task of speaking on behalf of most of his countrymen and women who were inhabiting Bergen Youth Hostel at this moment in history. English was an advantage in a country where many residents were as fluent in it as their mother tongue. Certainly very few Nowegians spoke Bosnian.
The man explained how expensive public transport was in Norway and how limited their funds were for taking the long bus trip into central Bergen, in order to buy food, or look for work, as well as transport their children to and from school during the week. They had to plan every kroner of their expenditure very carefully.
However, the hostel provided comfortable beds, in which they could sleep safe at night. There was a well equipped kitchen and lounge area. They had escaped from war, but not from the trauma and despair that was the legacy of what each of them had lived through. Omnipresent fear for what loved ones remaining in Bosnia were facing on a daily basis. Comfortable as the Youth Hostel was, it was no paradise.
This put into perspective my own awareness of spinning out my travel savings for as long as possible. My near staple diet of bread, cheese, capsicum (because it travels well) and black cherry yoghurt, interspersed with the odd luxury lunchtime meal in a restaurant to try local foods and wine. It put into perspective, my odd complaint about rude staff at stations, long queus at attractions, or less than sanitary toilets. It put into perspective my occasional annoyance at finding it hard to communicate something pretty basic in a foreign language. It put into perspective that I was in a position of absolute and utter privilege, having saved enough to take a year out from my working life to travel on my hard-earned, carefully accumulated savings in order to "see and experience other places and cultures". I had the power to determine my own life path and the enormous privilege of choice.
It is a privillege not shared by refugees.
I guess those three nights where I pondered upon my own comparative wealth, privillege and affluence and capacity to choose made a huge impact on how I have, never since taken for granted what a privillege travel remains, for those of us who can organise our lives and finances to afford such an existence.
By nothing more than chance of birth, I could have been one of those despairing, traumatised refugees, whose resources and capacity to make genuine choices were truly limited. The inconvenience of not having a phone in those pre mobile device days paled in comparison, as did my reliance on public transport and pretty limited travel diet. So what, if the first thing I did upon arrival in any new place was to contemplate the "free attractions list"?
So what if I broke up with my boyfriend of the time? Compared to those Bosnian refugees I had physical and financial freedom and was able to make the choice to travel the world for an entire year. I even had a secure job and career and loving family to return to. I was clearly wealthy, though certainly not a rich woman. Yes I was a woman. Travelling alone. That made the privillege double, or maybe even treble in relation to that privillege of that degree of power of choice and freedom of international movement. Travel is often truly liberating and personally enriching. I call it "investment in myself"!
I was living the itenerant lifestyle of a traveller by choice. I was secure within myself and had enormous security to return to in Australia. None of these privilleges were shared by my fellow hostellers.
None offered me the enthusiastic advice of destinations and attractions to venture to next day, as per the usual interaction amongst fellow travellers, be they back-packing or on organised tours. None was in a position even to accompany me to the local Grieg Haus, fish market, or Viking Museum and archeological sites.
The Bergen Hostel manager informed me that these Bosnian refugees had been allocated housing within the hostel during its "off season". The Bergen YHA kept just three bunk rooms aside to accomodate their more regular clientelle. This time of the year, the hostel was mostly empty. From the Bergen YHA, via the goodwill of the Norwegian government and people, these refugees did have some privilleges after all: the right to enjoy liberty within Norway itself, the right to education, health and housing, the right to particpate and live within their new community.
I guess all concepts of privillege and "wealth" are relevant to one's individual circumstances?
However, I do wish I had the influence to ensure that Australia's politicians could spend those same three nights as I shared alone, in the presence of refugees.
Perhaps then we here in Australia could extend the privillege of basic human rights and approriate support for those seeking refuge in Australia, via whatever means they come to us, through "official, channels, or those of the desperate and dangerous sea voyages. Those Bosnian refugees in Norway were a case in point. They were not physically incarcerated at great financial and moral cost to all Australians. Instead they were putting money back into Norwegian businesses and services from the day they were given the "privillege of refuge", something that remains recognised as a basic universal human right, as defined by the United Nations 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights', within Norway. Imagine the savings that could be made instantly within the Australian budget, should all such refugees be integrated into the Australian community.
It is way too easy to take so very much for granted!
I hope all of my readers that enjoy travel, regular holidays, freedom of movement and are able to make choices about their destiny and circumstances never take such privilleges for granted.
Meanwhile I am imagining the entire Abbott government cruising through the spectacular fjords around Bergen, en route to live side by side, in that crowded, noisy hostel in Bergen, with the refugees currently incarcerated within Australia's internal and off-shore detention centres. Oh that they might ponder genuine and universal 'common wealth' in the process!