It tells you what you want to know. It shows you what you want to see. It makes you smile. It makes you laugh. It also tells and shows you what is not covered in a travel guidebook. Despite the language barrier, it somehow makes you see more, understand deeper, both the good and the bad. Exchange of words does not necessarily have to take place to achieve that understanding. Look deeply into its eyes and they will give you the insights. What is that element of a place that does all this? – The people. Not just any people. It is
the local people you meet and talk to as you traverse their land. It certainly is a wonderful experience to be able to meet and talk to the local people of the place you are visiting. Go to places where the local people usually are at- local restaurants, villages, markets, streets, local stores, off-the-beaten-track places. See them in their everyday lives, from the food they eat to the way their hands move as they communicate. Hear what they are saying, though you may not understand a single word that is being uttered (some time later, when you reflect, the whole scene will be like a silent movie). Have a conversation with them when the opportunity presents itself. When I was in Egypt, my conversation with
my guide went beyond ‘tourist’ information. I was made to understand the widening, unbridgeable gap between the rich and the poor, and how the gap had created a deep scar in the heart of the latter. The streets were a living stage for that gap. While trekking in Sapa, Vietnam, some Black H’mong friends followed me to my destination. Some of them were just kids. They were trying to sell
their products to me, of course. I asked them about their families, school, and what life was like for them. It was quite heart-breaking to learn how poverty and the need to survive propelled marriages at a young age and the abandonment of the pursuit of formal education…I learned that tourism can be a vehicle to promote a cross-cultural understanding between visitors and local people. While I believe that is true to a large degree, I wonder if that understanding can be completely materialized in a situation where the local people view visitors as a walking dollar sign, and visitors see the local people as a living attraction on display. The
words exchanged between the two smell a great deal like a business transaction. A visit to Isla Taquile on Lake Titicaca, Peru opened my eyes (more widely) to that. The moment the island residents spotted us (the visitors), the kids came running toward us, holding a bag of knick-knacks they made, so ready and eager to strike a deal. The visitors, on the other hand, could not stop taking snapshots of the host with their state-of-the-art cameras. At the entrance of Sacsaywaman in Cusco, Peru, I saw a row of Peruvian women in their traditional costumes and braided hairstyle, with their llamas, standing behind a rope line, as if they were in some invisible glass display box. Some visitors joined them and had a few pictures taken.
I did that too, thinking it would make a good shot. And the price I paid for that shot? One sol, paid after the service. Looking at the picture now, I wonder, in a tourism world that seems so mass, so money-orientated, so fast moving….how much is left that is truly authentic…