Feeling Helpless To The Problems I See When I Travel


Julie Kern / December 2016

I arrived in Budapest 5 days ago and so far, I’ve fallen completely in love with this city. It’s history is fascinating, the architecture is stunning, and the nightlife is completely wild. Everyone here feels young, full of life and energetic. The city feels alive.

But yet over the past few days,  I have increasingly felt an uncomfortable feeling growing inside me that I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on. At first I ignored it, thinking it was just a short bout of homesickness that would pass. But it hasn’t passed, and I’m starting to think it’s something more than that. I recognize this aching; I’ve felt this way before.

Like many cities that I’ve visited, Budapest is a backpacker’s heaven. There are pub crawls, good public transportation, thermal baths and lots of hostels brimming with travelers to meet. But beyond the trendy cafes, and graffiti covered nightclubs, Budapest has a much darker side to it that if you aren’t looking for it, can easily be dismissed.

In my short-lived time in this city, I have noticed an unusual number of homeless people clinging to life on the streets. It’s only October, but it’s already very cold here. It’s raining almost everyday and these people who are living, human beings, aren’t able to purhcase and wear a brand new jacket to keep warm. I have admittedly walked right past them, unphased by what I’m used to seeing back home in San Francisco.

But  yesterday, I went to lunch in a cafe and saw a sticker on the back of the bathroom stall that read, “refugees welcome.” Suddenly it clicked that this striking homeless population is only just scratching the surface of what goes on here. As in love as I am with Budapest, there is also so much living, breathing darkness here, that I am overwhelmed by. You can find it in the historical plaques hanging in museums, in the mass graves of the Great Synagogue and in every audio tour you can find in this town. The people here have braved so many periods of oppression from religious discrimination, to being completely bombed in wars, to fighting off more than 30 invasions from other countries. And most recently, beyond the naked tourist eye, there is so much suffering sitting drearily behind razor wire fences along the country’s closed-off borders.

Syria is in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, and facing the largest exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. More than 11 million people have been killed or forced to flee, many of them on the Balkans Refugee Trail, which leads straight through Hungary to Western European countries.

But Hungary has refused to let them in. Instead, officials have sealed a railway crossing point that had been left open for people to enter the country on foot, formally closed the border with Serbia and planning to build a fence along the border with Romania. The country literally put up a razor wire fence to keep refugees out and there is story after story of people being denied help.

Reading and learning about this makes me feel heavy, useless and almost like I am taking advantage of a country and its people. How can I be here in my comfortable Airbnb, with money to spend, and only trivial things to worry about?  How is it so that I was able to get on a train from Croatia and sleep peacefully through the 6 hour train ride across the border with my shiny US passport, while hundreds of thousands of people are left stranded, homeless and suffering watching my train go by?

Like I said, I have felt this way before.

A few years ago when I was traveling in India, a man with two legs who was quite literally dragging his body through a train station approached me for money. I looked him in the eyes, apologized and said I didn’t have any change. After the exchange, I cried uncontrollably. I was so ashamed to be the one crying in this situation, but I felt so much pain in my heart that it was physically hurting me from the inside out. All I could think about was how  it’s just so unfair. How did I win the lottery when this person had to go through life like that. I would get on the train, and that man would continue to drag himself across the floor, looking for help. Should I have helped him? What could I do?

I felt this way when I visited Sihanoukville, Cambodia, a town known for turquoise waters and easy travel. But, this “beach paradise” is actually one of the darkest places I’ve ever visited, full of sex tourism, gangs, child labor and atrocious living conditions for its people. Being there made me feel like part of the problem, and it made me feel helpless for how to solve it.

So, here I am, far away from Cambodia or India, in Budapest, and I feel the same. My mind wanders to the same question. What can I do? What can WE do?

I used to think the answer was to inspire people to travel to become educated, and the world would magically heal itself. But as I’m learning more and more, I am realizing it is much more complicated than that.  I have resolved to the idea that I alone cannot fix the world. No one can. But I, you, we, can all do a little something to make a positive contribution. Here’s how I think we can help:

Realize the issues are always complex

Most of the times, the problems people face are much more deeply rooted than what one individual can ever possibly comprehend. As hard as it is, we have to try not to latch on to a full understanding for why a situation is happening and focus on trying to dissipate it instead. For example, children selling souvenirs on the street is an extremely complicated subject. While you don’t have to fully understand it, caving to a child selling bracelets is perpetuating the problem at hand. If no one bought bracelets from children, then children wouldn’t continue to sell them. It’s not the entire solution, but it’s a damn good start.

It’s okay to be confused

It’s taken me a very long time to be okay with admitting I don’t understand certain things happening in the news and I certainly don’t think I’m alone. It’s okay to be confused.. The solution is not to just avoid the topic, but rather to bring it up in conversation with friends, ask questions, seek out information, and learn about it. It’s intimidating to try and tackle a subject that is very confusing, but in the end, you will feel less helpless and empowered by your knowledge. Once you become versed, you can help others who might feel the same confusion. Maybe someone doesn’t realize that children selling bracelets on the street are being exploited and forced to give all their money to an adult ring leader. You can teach them that. That’s how change happens.

Donate to an organization you care about

Like I said, you and I cannot solve the world’s problems on our own. Thankfully there are established, fully functioning organizations that help with that. The way that we can all do our part as individuals, is to find organizations that represent a cause, and donate our time or money to help support them. In Delhi India, there is something called the Salaam Balaak Trust. All guides are former street kids who were given shelter, and the opportunity to attend school.They often call for visitors to donate old electronics for their school. Maybe next time you want to sell your iPad, you can send it to them instead.  It’s small, it doesn’t solve the problem of 400K street children in India, but it’s a tangible way to help.

Talk about it

The things you will be exposed to are intense, and sometimes very heavy. You don’t have to carry the weight alone. Try to share these experiences  and try not to shy away from leaving the serious bits out when you’re talking about them. You never know who you might inspire, and change is not a one-man band.

I think that this feeling of helplessness is very common, but not often talked about. It’s heavy, it’s dark, and it’s not that fun. But it’s real and that’s why I travel. As uncomfortable as I am sometimes, I want to understand the places I visit, so that I can more clearly appreciate a life that is so different from my own.



Mercy Corps 


Cafe Babel

Tags: eastern europe, education, Europe, Hungary, social responsibility, Travel Smart



Read 3 Previous Comments

  • Nina Frambuesa // December 19, 2016

    This is such a good post! It’s so important that as we travel we are also aware of the darker sides of a place.

  • Zakiya from Have That Cake // December 19, 2016

    I loved your post…. it’s such a difficult situation that you’re in. A common, but still difficult one.

    I guess the question we should all ask is How can we, individually, do our truest best in whatever we can throughout life.

    You crying about the man in India, I am sure that out of that experience, many others that you had the opportunity to help – you did. That man’s affect on you had it’s intentional impact for your life. Same with the knowledge of the children, and knowing how complex a situation it is. Some may say that NOT buying from the children is setting up the children for other, worse tasks.

    Life is complex. That’s the only thing that is certain. But although I don’t know you, I am proud of you. I am proud of you for being human. Being humble. Feeling these ranges of emotions and not just hiding them away, but reflecting on it and seeing what you can do in the future.

    That is growth. That is the LIGHT of humanity. And THAT is how we are all going to evolve for the better ❤️

    Thank you for writing such a personal, and thought provoking article on such a complex issue.


  • Courtney // January 17, 2017

    This is a great article! I had never thought about it before but since reading this it has opened my eyes. I will be visiting Europe this year and will definitely think about it when I am traveling.

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