At various times during our travels over the past couple of months I have found myself pondering how our presence, and the presence of fellow travelers, was impacting the places and cultures we were visiting. Our recent experiences in Tadlo and Vang Vieng have brought these vague notions into sharper focus.
There was something not quite right about the guided trek we took through the traditional villages around Tadlo. It felt as if the villagers and their way of life were being reduced to a curiosity. The traditional way of life is cheapened, reduced to a spectacle, a sideshow. People take the tour, stop, gawk like simpletons and exclaim, “Ooohhhh, look how they live!”
I have definitely picked up hints of underlying animosity at times. It is absolutely fair enough, you can’t help but feel that we get so much more out of the interaction than they do. We get to see and experience a different culture, a different way of life and to learn from that. We visit idyllic pastoral paradises untouched by the modern world, breathtaking jungle clad mountains, villagers working the terraced garden beds set into the banks of a gently winding stream.
Then you realise that your presence cheapens and undermines the unspoilt majesty of it all. What do the locals get in return? Often only the simple lesson: money can pretty much buy anything. I’m not really sure what benefits tourism actually brings to the developing world. A whole heap of fat, culturally insensitive jerks turn up with little or no language skills, wads of cash and high expectations (i.e. me). Sure, a few locals make a tidy living off those visitors but they are usually the better educated and well off, what about the rest?
Local children are often encouraged to talk to complete strangers, take their money, lollies, whatever they can get. Most of it is well intentioned but there are the obvious dangers: pedophilia, prostitution, kids not going to school because they make a better living hawking the streets.
I have never had a problem giving money to people begging, in Australia or anywhere else. But recently I have become more uneasy with the underlying motivations. There I am, the benign backpacker, doling out token charity. Is it in order to plicate some of the underlying guilt about the obvious poverty gap that confronts me every direction I look, ‘I better give 10c to this dude, I just spent ten bucks on Mojitos.’
Tourism brings internet cafes, travel agents, bars, prostitution, drugs and Hippy wannabes and their fucking fire twirling. The town of Vang Vieng is a perfect example of how an utter shithole can develop around a pristine paradise. Don’t get me wrong I don’t have any problem with people having a banger of a time, it’s just that the bulk of people I met there were innately boring, culturally insensitive, conceited, fuckwits. People so desperate for creditability they can’t help but turn every conversation into a contest were they brag about the plethora of exotic places they got fucked up at. Nevermind the fact they have haven’t learnt a thing along the way and as such have absolutely nothing of interest to add to a conversation.
I am not saying that tourism is the only source of ill, things like foreign investment and aid have equally problematic downsides but I am a direct and willing participant in tourism. I am one of the legions stomping their way through someone else’s backyard.
But what do I do about that? Stop traveling? I don’t think I can. What I have attempted to do is to curb the thoughtlessness that comes so naturally, be as culturally sensitive as possible. I also stop every now and then, take a look around, see if there is a whisper of wisdom or a glimmer of understanding I can appropriate. I won’t go on a traditional village trek again. Is that enough?