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The Traveller from Alpha Centauri

Ubud, Indonesia.

Graffiti in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Southeast Asia is cheap. Even a campground in the United States that costs $20 per night often comes with a nasty toilet, no shower, and a dirt patch where you’re welcome to sleep and make a fire to cook food. The same $20, actually only $16, gets an air conditioned room in Hanoi with real hand painted art on the walls, hand carved furniture, a queen bed, and a balcony. This makes it easy to travel in Asia for less than $50 per day and live in a nice hotel, over eat fantastic food, and engage in all varieties of hedonistic pleasure.

People in Asia don’t speak English very well. As I watch my subconscious thoughts over six months on the road the language barrier can make me think that people in Asia aren’t necessarily smart. It takes effort to fight these thoughts. People who don’t speak my language, or speak it with poor grammar, or constantly mistake requests and do something I didn’t ask for can appear to not be smart.

I tell you this bluntly, not so that you’ll feel bad for me, but so that you may see the same behavior in yourself someday and be careful with it. I’m saying these things not because I believe them to be true, but because I know that these thoughts can slowly infect us over time.

The thing is: Southeast Asia is not a playground to do whatever you please only because it’s inexpensive. People in Southeast Asia are not stupid, and being in poor countries is not an excuse to spend money like water or treat people like they’re stupid.

Through the benefits of luck, geography, access to natural resources and living in climates that don’t favor dozens of brutal diseases, Europeans and Americans have won the lottery ticket on earth. The rest of the world hasn’t necessarily caught up. It may never “catch up.” But that doesn’t mean you get to treat people in Asia like shit.

I bought this kid lunch in Cambodia. He was so pushy about selling bracelets and postcards that I decided to help him out. He also looked sick. Still, I felt weird afterward because he didn’t appear thankful at all for the food. Why? Because he probably need the money to give to his employer. Many of the kids begging in Cambodia never see the money that they raise. Poor parts of the world are full of moral mazes like this.

Your response might be “I’m not treating people in Southeast Asia like shit!” That’s totally valid. Here’s where the issue comes in: What we ask for, how we spend money, and what we appreciate when we travel are the parts of a culture that survive.

This is the converse to the point I made yesterday about tourism eating culture. We who do the tourism cause cultures to change. How we treat locals are how they think that we treat the rest of the world. In turn it may become how they treat each other, and it affects how they think of themselves and their country.

When I travel I am an ambassador for my country. I don’t want this job but it’s given to me and I have to accept it. I imagine rich aliens from Alpha Centauri coming to earth, spending money like water, paying for everything with diamonds, demanding Centaurian food and getting frustrated when my Centaurian language isn’t up to their standards. Then I imagine myself as that Centaurian when I visit Asia.

What do I do in this situation? I try to treat people as I’d like them to treat me unless doing so would offend them. I try to also treat them how they would like to be treated. I like to tread lightly in their towns, living efficiently, and favor stores with fixed prices over tough negotiation in the streets. I try to keep my hedonistic western pleasures (ice cream and coffee mostly) to a minimum.

Not giving money to a beggar at Angkor Wat. This is a nasty interaction driven by two clashing cultures. The western woman probably bought things from other kids, but got exhausted at repeated requests, so she kept walking. The child knows that westerners are good for money and that begging long and hard enough yields results. What should you do in this situation?

I believe that as a tourist I shouldn’t have to pay more for something only because of the color of my skin and my home country. I also believe in treating people like humans. It’s hard to turn down the tenth taxi request in a day gracefully. Sometimes I fail. But the way to atone for frustration on the street is to treat everyone else I come across as if they are a human and try to think opposite thoughts.

If someone doesn’t understand what I say, I imagine how well I’d do with their language if they were a tourist in my country. If I want to buy an experience or a hotel, I think about how I’d look buying the same thing in the United States. Before I take a picture I ask myself “Can this person get out of the photo if they want to?” and “Would I be upset if someone took this picture of me?” I can’t always take pictures that show people in flattering light, but I try not to make people look worse than reality.

True story: this woman’s face appeared to be burned off. I didn’t realize she was there, and she couldn’t talk. When I walked by she made a loud moaning noise and I looked down and was startled, saw her, gasped, and walked away in shock. I felt horrible, so I went back and gave her about $5. Even now I have no idea if the money I gave her went into her pocket or if someone maimed her so that she’d be more effective at begging for money. I have no idea if the $5 did more harm or good.

Sometimes, and I’m not perfect at this, I imagine myself from the outside as the traveller from Alpha Centauri. Blue helmet, pocket full of diamonds, getting frustrated that the Earthlings can’t figure out Centaurian language or cook a decent Centaurian dish.

Then I put myself back in the Earthing’s shoes and try to figure out how I’d like the Alpha Centaurian traveller to behave. I don’t necessarily think the alien should go home, but I do think that the alien should be respectful and aware of how he looks, how he acts, and how his actions affect life on Earth.

A final note: When the apes take over we’ll be paying this shit back. With interest.