Say you are driving home late from work. It’s raining. You’re tired. You accidently hit someone. You get out of the car, try to help, and realize it’s too late. What will your next step be?
Of course, we all know the right answer, but are you absolutely sure that this will be your answer? Back home, your family is waiting for you. You have friends, dreams, places you still want to visit. Nobody saw the accident. No one will ever know.
I never thought about this question until one moonlit night while I was backpacking in the Himalayas, when I saw that there was something wrong with the guy at the table next to mine. He was handsome, with blue eyes and blond hair, and he’d been staring out the window without moving for three nights in a row. He didn’t speak to any of the other backpackers, didn’t play his guitar, didn’t drink or eat. It took me two days to realize that he didn’t sleep either. That’s when I went to him and asked if he was all right. He told me that several days ago he had hit an Indian man with his motorcycle, and had fled the scene.
The blond guy didn’t look like a bad man. More like a kid. In just a few months he would start university. He had come to India to explore and discover new things about the world, but instead he discovered something new about himself: that he was a killer, capable of hitting someone and leaving him on the side of the road.
But was the hit-and-run a result of this man’s character, or a result of the psychology of traveling? Could it be that just as people take a vacation from work in order to see the world, they also “take a vacation” from their moral standards when they travel? Is it easier to commit a hit-and-run in the Himalayas than in the street next to one’s home? Did it matter that the victim was “a local”—a man who looked different, talked differently, dressed differently? Could it be that the more different he is from you, the easier it is to leave him there?
Yet, the guy I met didn’t just leave the Indian man there. Before he left, he took out a hundred-dollar bill and put it in the man’s pocket. I kept thinking about this moment afterward: The backpacker leans toward the man he hit. He takes out his wallet. How much? How many bills? We’re so used to bargaining in third world countries—what’s a good bargain for a man’s life? This act of payment, of setting the price, shows the backpacker’s conscience just as much as it shows the lack of it. He knows what he did is wrong. That’s why he can’t sleep. But he knows it will eventually become “a story,” something that happened to him when he was traveling in India, a long, long time ago. Time changes things—we think something will haunt us for the rest of our lives, but is it really so? Maybe we actually prefer to feel guilty, to hate ourselves on our therapist’s sofa, than to really pay for our acts?
A known piece of research in social psychology shows that people don’t tip as much while on vacation as they do back home. Our moral standards suddenly drop when we’re away from home. The interactions with the locals are short, and travelers tend to assume they won’t be back in this place anyway, so why bother tipping? When traveling, people don’t care so much what others will think of them. The anonymity is liberating: swimming naked on a blue beach in Mexico sounds much less embarrassing than doing the same near your workplace. It’s the same with drinking, dancing, cheating on your partner. The farther you get from home, the further you get from your inhibitions.
The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson talks about the Psychosocial Moratorium, when young people get society’s permission to go out and explore, to “find themselves,” like the Lost Boys of Neverland, without rules or grownups. Erikson believed this phase is crucial for the emergence of a strong identity. But could it be that we sometimes take this freedom from ourselves one step too far?
The guy I met in the Himalayas looked exactly my age at the time—only 20. We both liked the Beatles and read García Márquez. He was a mirror image of me. And though I wanted to be 100 percent sure that I could never do what he did, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Prison in India can be an unpleasant place, to say the least. A man can end his life in such a prison. And it had been an accident, not an intentional crime.
Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure that I would have called the local police. Is there a place within me that would have also panicked, thought only of the consequences, and escaped?
When I got back home, the Himalayas and the story I heard suddenly seemed far, far away, but when I get into the car late at night, I still sometimes ask myself: What would I do? What would any of us do?
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was born in Israel in 1982 and holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. She has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement, and is an award-winning screenwriter. She won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for best debut. Waking Lions, her first novel published in the U.S., has been translated into nine languages.