Travel Stories: How Tragedies Impact a Culture

Image of a bunker on the Slovakia- Austrian border, a remnant of the conflict.

It can be easy sometimes to get caught up in the excitement of visiting a new place. You know the feeling – dropping your bags somewhere and racing out to explore. (I may have been the child who rode 10 hours in the car in her bathing suit so she could run straight to the hotel pool.) By no means am I suggesting that we shouldn’t do exactly that! What I want to encourage is to do this while being mindful and aware that each place we visit has a history of both triumph and tragedy that effects the daily lives of the people who live there long after the event.

The people we encounter in our travels have stories to share about their lives if only we’ll slow down and hear what they have to say. They can humanize the events reported in the news. As travelers, we can only benefit from listening with an open heart and mind.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have several bloggers share their stories.

NOTE: Photo credit goes to each blogger.

*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That means that if you purchase through a link, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps keep This Big Wild World up and running!

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

By This Big Wild World

Image of the memorial in remembrance of the thirteen people who died in the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis Minnesota.

Imagine sitting in traffic on the way home from work. It’s the same route you’ve taken for years, crowded with other business people, parents, taxis, and school buses. You’re singing along to the radio, talking on the phone, or decompressing after a long day. And then, suddenly you’re falling.

It’s been 10 years since the I-35W bridge collapsed here in Minneapolis during rush hour. For those not familiar with the Twin Cities, the I-35W bridge is the major artery connecting Minneapolis and St Paul which allows 140,000 vehicles daily to easily cross the Mississippi River. Despite the impressive response of emergency services, 13 people lost their lives that day.

A friend of mine had just moved to St. Paul less than 6 months before the event, and she had registered as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with the Red Cross. As she was sitting down to dinner that night she saw the incident on the news just before her phone rang looking for volunteer EMT’s to help.

On that first evening, her role was to help treat non-serious injuries at the incident command center that had been setup in the parking lot of the Red Cross building, located right next to the bridge. They treated several of the children who had been on a school bus that had fallen in the collapse. She explained to me that it was really the second day that was the hardest for her because her role was to take descriptions of those that were still missing. Each conversation was with a frantic family member searching for a loved one.

We talked about the short and long term effects of this incident. In the short term, in addition to the loss of life, a major artery in the city was gone. It would be just over a year before a new bridge would be built in its place. As those 140,000 vehicles were re-routed, it was a daily reminder of the incident. We (Minnesotans) typically get frustrated by construction, but my friend commented that this was different. People knew why and they were patient. This event also triggered national awareness about the need for bridge inspections, as the cause for the collapse was found to be an incorrectly engineered gusset plate. 

Today, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, near the new I-35W bridge, is a memorial with 13 posts with the name of each person who died in this incident. It’s a symbol not only of the lives that were lost but how Minnesotans can come together in a time of tragedy. 


Janine and Ryan from Same Same But Different

Image of a Buddhist stupa now built as a memorial on the Killing Fields where thousands died in a mass grave in Cambodia.

How Cambodia’s Traumatic History Has Influenced Its Culture

What happened:

By Ryan

The first truly shocking thing about Cambodia’s traumatic history is how few people know about it. It is one of the largest genocides in history, and yet it is not often taught in Western schools. The Cambodian Genocide took place between 1975 and 1979. It was committed when a brutal Communist regime called the Khmer Rouge seized power, and began a mass displacement and slaughter.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot, and he held the belief that Cambodia should become a totally self-sufficient nation. He imposed this idea by evacuating the cities, and forcing everyone to work on farms. This ultimately led to widespread famine. Phnom Penh city was nearly abandoned, and schools became torture prisons. Those accused of speaking out against the regime were seen as enemies, and were shown no mercy. The educated were also targets, and just wearing glasses was enough to get you imprisoned and tortured to death.

Image of skulls arranged by age and gender on display at the memorial at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.

In 4 years, 1.7 to 3 million people were killed at the hands of their own government. That was up to one third of the population of Cambodia, so it’s likely that any Cambodian you talk to will have family who were killed, and anyone over 40 is likely to have had personal experience of the horrors of that time. 23,000 mass graves have been found throughout the country, so you are never too far from a place of torture and slaughter.

Although smaller than the Jewish holocaust, I feel that the sheer brutality and savagery of the Cambodian genocide is unmatched in recent history. Torture, infanticide and rape were appallingly common. Methods of death were often incredibly cruel, as bullets were valued more than human lives.

The Influence on the culture:

By Janine

When travelling in Cambodia you can feel how much of an effect this dark past has had on the culture and the people of today, especially in Phnom Penh. The two biggest tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are the S21 Torture Prison and the Killing Fields. We visited them both while we were there, and despite it being a truly harrowing experience, we would still highly recommend it to other visitors. I think to understand the culture and the people you need to educate yourself on what happened.

The regime only ended in 1979 so there are still many people alive today that lived through it. Our tuk-tuk driver to the Killing Fields, Peter, was a little boy during the regime and he told us some harsh truths about what life was like for him then and how his whole family died. It was heartbreaking to hear but also heartwarming as he told us how he sees all his customers as his family. Despite the past having lots of negative effects on the Cambodian people, I think it has also made them more open and appreciative of what they have.

Follow Janine and Ryan on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

RELATED: Vietnam: The Faces of Mai Chau and Xom Pung Villages

New York City, New York, USA

Kelly from Girl with the Passport

Image of Kelly from Girl with a Passport with her Father and Brother, who was a responding police officer in New York City after 9/11.

September 11, 2001 is one of those days that is forever etched into the minds and hearts of everyone you meet. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you remember where you were, that moment, when those planes slammed into the two towers of the World Trade Center.

And while this event means something different to all of us, for New Yorkers, it is something else. We look back on this day and remember not only the lives lost but the friends and family that we buried. That’s why for us, it’s not just a date that we can swiftly and easily move through. Rather, September 11th is an event that irreversibly changed the reality that New Yorkers live in.

While I did not have to breathe, smell and touch the debris of those buildings, my brother did. He is a police officer and was called down to New York City to sift through the rubble, looking for remains. Every once in awhile he would find someone he knew, and loved, and it hurt just a little more than it already did.

That’s why New York City has changed because of this event. Sure, it helped unify us against the forces that tried to tear this city apart, but something else happened too. People were no longer as trusting and became more wary of anyone who reminded them of the hijackers.

For myself, I remember getting on a plane after it happened, and seeing someone who reminded me of the hijackers. I panicked, started hyperventilating, and didn’t even want to get on the plane. This made me feel awful because I didn’t want to judge someone based on how they look, but I couldn’t help it. September 11 changed me, like it changed all of New York.

That’s why I fight the fear that enveloped New York City. I don’t want to judge people based on the actions of a few terrorists of the past. But it can be difficult because we never forget.

Sure, we have moved through it and built a memorial to commemorate those lost, but we are still just a little more apprehensive when traveling on buses and trains and planes. Yes, we know that we will probably arrive at our final destination safely, but there is always that seed of doubt that gnaws at us and robs us of our peace of mind.

Follow Kelly on Instagram and Facebook.


From Girl Astray

Image of a bunker on the Slovakia- Austrian border, a remnant of the conflict.

Why You Shouldn’t Try to Fight with Slovak People

The so called Velvet Revolution has completely (re)shaped the modern history of Slovakia (and the Czech Republic since it was the same country at the time). After long years of occupation, the generation of my parents has managed to get rid of the Communist regime…doing so peacefully.

It was the third time during the 20th century that an extremely tense political situation was met with a peaceful response from the people – the first time was after the Munich Dictate (also known as “about us without us”) when Czechoslovakia was basically served to Hitler to do as he pleased, without our diplomacy even being allowed to the negotiations. (That time our government surrendered in order to save the lives of our small country.)

The second time was during the 1968 invasion when the Russian armies were met with civilians baring their chests against tanks, hugging the soldiers and peacefully protesting. This event triggered the tragically brave reaction of Czech student Jan Palach who burned himself in public, protesting against the silence of the rest of the nation in the face of occupation.

Image of the barbed wire heart memorial at the border of Czechoslovakia and Austria.

The third time was in November 1989, when the people protested again, ringing keys and holding candles. This final struggle against the regime was a reaction to the police brutality against young students. The violence, however, was faced with peaceful protests, speeches of artists and music. This time, the dictatorship crumbled and we made the first shaky step towards democracy.

…you cannot win a fight against violence with guns.

Although these three events are separated by decades and seemingly unrelated, the calm response of the people is what startles me when I delve deeper into our history. It is a sensitive topic for the Slovak people since some would have rather fought for their freedom and dignity, however, I personally believe you cannot win a fight against violence with guns. I feel grateful for having had a peaceful childhood and being able to cross borders that were formerly blocked by soldiers and barbed wire.

Follow Girl Astray on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Delhi, India

Madhurima from Orange Wayfarer

Image of blogger Orange Wayfarer feeding geese at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi India.

In Hindi, “Dil” means heart, and in such a way that the “heart goes on…”. Numerous songs and volumes of literature have been written about Delhi, the capital of India with a billion residents. Delhi has experienced multitudes of historical events dating back to the 5th century AD. It houses the best universities of the country, the finest of infrastructure and richest of culture. As a millennial, born and raised in the much smaller city of Kolkata, my only obvious emancipation was to flee home and settle in Delhi. 

Violent Crime on a Bus in Delhia

By the time I was to set sail in the winter of 2012, Delhi had stood witness to a gruesome rape incident of a medical student, Jyoti Singh. She was on her way back home with a friend after a movie. The late night and lack of public transport compelled them to board a private bus with 6 crew members. On the way home, she was tortured in the moving vehicle, as it ran on the highways, by each of the gang before her intestine was ruptured with an iron rod pushed inside. Her male friend was already attacked and senseless.

Delhi and a large part of North India had numerous violent crimes against women over a long period of time. Protests erupted at Jantar Mantar (a prime area near the seat of power) and across the country. In a few day’s time, Jyoti, now referred to as “Nirbhaya” which means “fearless”, succumbed to the brutality and died. 

Image of birds flying in the sky at sunset over New Delhi India.

A Lonely Journey to Delhi

On the last day of December 2012, amid dense fog and chaos in the city, I reached Delhi. It was my first lone journey to the world unknown. I was there in search of a job. I had a destination to reach for the night but was alone. The roads were empty, lonely and gloomy.

While the middle class were busy arranging for protests, debates, introspection, and a call for serious action, the Police opened water cannons on protests already and many roads were blocked for the night. The train I boarded (Rajdhani, a premier service by the great Indian railways) was almost desolate. Imagine a lone traveler in a traincar of 6 people? It was iIncredible for a populated nation like us! Sans an existing Uber service, the journey from New Delhi railway station to Mahipalpur will always be a scary experience in my memory. The trauma had the better of me for a long time. I restricted my movement out of the house after 5 pm for the entire next year.

The Aftermath

In a year’s time, the trial court delivered a quick action, causing the convicts to go behind the bars. The incident was an assault on the conscience of Indian middle class society, who connected instantly with Jyoti Singh. The collective outrage turned out to be a pivotal point for our justice system, enforcing genuine efforts to reduce crime against women. Meanwhile, multiple flights, trains, business meetings and travel plans had been cancelled or rescheduled causing panic among the populace.

I invariably cry whenever I try to write about those nights or remember the conversations with friends and family. I personally may not connect much with Delhi’s culture however a visit to the esteemed capita should never cause trauma for an individual. 

Follow Madhurima on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Do you have a story to share? Contact me! I’d love to hear it.

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Each place we travel to has a story to tell filled with triumph and tragedy. As traveler's we have the opportunity to learn about each culture through the stories told by those we meet. From a bridge collapse in Minnesota, a brutal attack on a train in India, and genocide in Cambodia, travel bloggers share what they've learned about culture through travel. | cultural experience | cultural travel | slow travel | ethical travel | unique travel
As traveler's we have the chance to learn about the daily lives and culture of each place we visit. From a bridge collapse in Minneapolis, genocide in Cambodia, and 9/11 in New York City this collaboration shares several stories from travel bloggers about how tragic events impacted a culture. #travel | #travelstories | #culture | #collaboration | #culturalexperiences

13 thoughts on “Travel Stories: How Tragedies Impact a Culture

  1. Anisa says:

    So fascinating to read these stories. While I had no idea about the Cambodian genocide, I remember September 11th all too well. I can’t image being there.

  2. Brooke says:

    Thank you for presenting such a thoughtful angle to heartrending events that irrevocably changed the worldview of these people and communities. Even when meeting locals in these places, it can be hard to broach the subject and so this is a great way to learn more – thank you to the contributors as well.

    • This Big Wild World says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Yes, it’s certainly difficult to bring up such topics when you’re meeting locals. For me, I’ve learned that many times if you listen and ask open-ended questions, the locals will open up and share their stories. I’m so thankful though that other bloggers were willing to tell theirs with me through this collaboration!

  3. Victoria says:

    I remember reading the news about Jyoti Singh. And then watching a documentary in which one of the men was interviewed and basically blamed her. Thanks for sharing topics that many might be apprehensive to read about, but if we really care to know a place we’re visiting then we should be aware of its traumatic history.

    • This Big Wild World says:

      I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard Jyoti’s story prior to this collab post. I’ll have to search for the documentary you mention! These stories are hard to read, but so insightful if we want to understand more about a place.

  4. Frances says:

    Oofft. These are some heavy reminder of the traumas that countries around the world. I’m saddened to admit that only a few of these I really knew. A great reminder for all travelers to learn about the where they are visiting in more than just the touristy sense so they can better understand the locals and what not to do. Thanks for sharing all these insights!

    • This Big Wild World says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It is a bit heavy, I realize, but also such important stories to share as we explore this big wild world:)!

  5. Nana says:

    Really interesting post. I didnt know about the history of Cambodia either and I was shocked about the horror this country has been through. Its sometimes hard to understand how people can be so mean to each other. And you see the act of evilness in too many countries. Its sometimes like people never learn of it, and it just happens again or a new place. Thanks for sharing this article, I enjoyed reading it. Kind regards, Nana

    • This Big Wild World says:

      Thanks so much, Nana. It’s really hard to understand, but learning about these stories can help us understand what makes a place what it is. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

  6. karin says:

    I am so glad to get to be featured in this article! I think it is one of the best collabs I’ve participated in. It was extremely interesting for me to read about the histories of other countries through the eyes of other locals!

    • This Big Wild World says:

      Thanks so much for contributing and for the kind words! I really appreciated hearing each of your stories! 🙂

  7. Naomi Liz says:

    What a beautiful post (I may need the tissues over here), and I absolutely agree with you. Travel has a way of humanizing news stories, and this humanization isn’t just about meeting people in a new place. It’s about understanding what has shaped their culture and community. Before I studied abroad, I saw history (and all its wars and battles and dates and names) as something irrelevant to my life and utterly boring. My study abroad program in Central America immersed us in the history (both long-term and recent) and current events in a way that forced us to engage with that history. I learned about the civil war in Nicaragua in the 1980s and read the account of a girl who saw her mom cooking dinner with a rifle strapped to her back, and I thought, “That could have been me. I’m old enough to remember a civil war and to live in fear with my family.” And then I traveled there, and met people who were alive during that time and engaged in conversations with them about it. And the same in Guatemala, traveling to Mayan villages in a country that had experienced genocide in my lifetime. Understanding the history of a place—even the painful parts—has a way of deepening our understanding and enriching our travel experiences.

    • This Big Wild World says:

      Thank you for your kind words! I am so thankful for the bloggers who collaborated on this post. I appreciate you sharing your own experiences. Much like you, I couldn’t relate to the things I read about in school until I saw it and heard it in real life through travel. It’s inspiring to see people that are so resilient and strong given all that they’ve faced. My favorite travel moments are exactly what you describe, sitting in someone’s home in a strange place listening to them tell stories about their life.

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