One major reason as to why the travel bug constantly tugs at my heartstrings, even more than the wonderment of places is the diversity of people that I get to meet.

It is amazing how social, cultural, geographic, religious and political factors concoct such diversity in human beings, giving them a distinction in disposition, aura, colour and character. And then, people’s individual quirks and personalities make these encounters even more insightful, enriching and sometimes life changing.

A few months ago, when I announced to my parents that I planned to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan for the very first time, they became super worried about their daughter’s safety and wouldn’t stop with their endless cautionary lists. “Don’t liaise with strangers”, “Be careful of going to xyz place”, “Make sure that your money is safe.”

I respected their concerns and while their alarm bells were valid, I wished that they would understand that I was now a responsible and mature adult who could take care of herself unlike their mental image of me as a “baby with a pacifier”.

I guess that the first impression is the last impression?

Instead of pumping me up with fear, as if preparing me for a battle, I wish that they would have added to my pre-vacation excitement by telling me to revel in the country’s natural beauty, to learn about their history and to marvel in the majesty of their architectural wonders.

Their panic dimmed my pre-holiday high however I did not let their fears overpower my mood and judgment. I believe that if you travel in a state of panic, you would end up attracting panicky situations. And simply being in a state of panic would deter you from enjoying your vacation thereby deeming the entire journey futile.

I realise that travel phobia and xenophobia in general are insanely common in not just parents but in a vast majority of people around the globe and I can gauge the source of this “borrowed” paranoia.

News channels regurgitating horrific headlines and media productions such as films “Taken” and “Hostel” will have anyone convinced that the entire planet is in a state of doom and gloom whilst stereotyping citizens of their respective countries by the antics of their worst of criminals. And if one were to ingest these stereotypes and clichés then every American would be a school-shooter, every Italian a Mafioso and every Pakistani an extremist but that is not the case. In fact, reality is at a stark contrast to these reductionist labels. This, in my opinion, makes travel an imperative just for the sole purpose of vanquishing this propaganda and to restore one’s faith in humanity once again.

How could we ever save the planet without trust anyway?

I had voyaged to Baku with tinges of fear and paranoia within my subconscious to the point of even doubting the intentions of our first taxi driver from the airport to the hotel, however all of that doubt washed away by the end of trip, thanks to the love and kindness of strangers.

With my travel partner and Farida and Turana, lovely Azerbaijani girls who took us to an Italian DIY pasta place in Baku city centre.

I’d like to thank everybody who hosted us, gave us their time and escorted us during the trip including, Farida and Turana, twenty something girls who worked as a humanitarian and a civil employee, respectively. They would insist to meet us every day, introduced us to their friends and connected us with influencers in Baku. Gunay from couchsurfers took us for dinner and showed us the beauty of Old City Baku. Seville introduced us to delicious Azeri cuisine and Nigar and her friends took us for dinner to a very special Georgian restaurant tucked in a secretive corner of the city centre, with no agenda but that of showing us a great time and developing friendly bonds.

One particular person whom I will never forget is a shopkeeper in an ethnic shop in Old City Baku. I stirred up a conversation with him thanks to my knowledge of Turkish, which is one of the languages spoken in Azerbaijan, other than Russian. He ended up giving me a bargain on the decorations that I purchased. We then left the shop to stroll around the cobbled streets of the old city when he came chasing after us over a distance of almost half a mile after half an hour and stopped us.

I wondered what was up when he handed over a note of 100 Manat (roughly 7000 PKR) and told me that I had forgotten my money at the shop. I was humbled to see his level of sincerity and honesty. He could have chosen to keep the cash as I didn’t even remember that I had left my money there but he chose to do what was right and what was humane and I found that remarkable.

If I had not taken this trip, I would have never known that there were people out there with a high level of integrity and purity. This is not to say that there aren’t strangers with ambiguous intentions but that we should choose our beliefs based upon our own experiences rather than to ingest somebody else’s narrative of “truth” which would deter us from exploration as nothing great was ever achieved without having faith.

“I hope that you and your belongings are safe.” My mom texted me the next morning.

“Actually, I lost my money but it was returned to me by a local Azeri. :)” I texted her back hoping to alchemise her fear with love.

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