Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Few Thoughts On Traveling

To be blunt, at times traveling makes you feel like a total asshole. You feel this way when you speak English all the time, because you don't know the local language. You feel this way when you haggle for a dirt-cheap moto ride. You feel this way when kids try to sell you things and you say "no" or just ignore them. You feel this way when you see other foreigners acting in ugly ways. You feel this way when you arrive in Pnom Penh and the tuk-tuk drivers run up to you eagerly, saying, "Killing Fields? Tuol Sleng?" like it's Disneyworld or the Louvre. You feel this way when you realize you came to Pnom Penh to see these things, like many other people, and it suddenly feels like a perverse kind of genocide tourism. You feel this way when you realize you are an unwelcome presence, while at the same time a booster of the local economy.

I have to say, I don't feel this way often in China. For one, very few people speak English in Dalian, so I'm constantly making a fool of myself in stores and restaurants and taxicabs. I attempt to speak the language and people are equal parts helpful and unhelpful. And I think that's how it should be when you live in another country. It should feel different and you should feel a bit like an outsider. Even when buying bus tickets or train tickets, I don't have the luxury of using English, like I did in Southeast Asia. Additionally, China is zooming ahead like a bullet train, so while I definitely come from a place of privilege, I don't really feel the way an American might have felt in China fifteen or twenty or thirty years ago. While no pioneer in democracy or human rights, China is still surpassing the States in many other ways. And although I know there's still poverty and hunger in China, even the poorer kids I saw in the rural areas looked healthier and better cared for than the ones in Laos or Cambodia.

That's not to say I felt like a jerk all through Southeast Asia. I had some wonderful times and some genuine interactions and in Laos I attempted to learn a bit of the language. I think my favorite word for "hello" is in Lao. It's "sai-ba-dee" and since the language is tonal, it's said in a nice, musical way. Everyone says saibadee to everyone else all the time and so it became very natural to me. I learned a bit more as well:

Goodbye - Lai 'Gon
Thank you - Kwap Jai
Thank you very much - Kwap Jai Lai Lai
Great - Kak' Lai
Go - Bai

In Cambodia, my traveling was very different because I was alone. I had more time to think and reflect about where I was and why and how it felt to be there by myself. And I have to say, I experienced things on a much deeper level because of it. I tend to be slightly paranoid when by myself, but I actually think my anxiety is good because I am so much more aware of my surroundings and the world around me. I pay attention to directions so I won't get lost, I read maps, I'm hyper-aware of every smell, every sound, every person, every animal, every look. It's pretty awesome, even if it's a bit overwhelming and taxing. When I'm with other people I get distracted and lazy. When I'm alone, I can't help but to be completely and utterly present in a new place. It was a little exhilarating.

And last meta thought on traveling? I suck at bargaining. I got better after traveling with Hanna and watching her expertly do it, but I still start out too high and give up too quickly. Luckily, I felt slightly excused by the Lonely Planet guide book. The authors had this to say:

Try to remember that the aim is not to get the lowest possible price, but a price that is acceptable to both you and the seller. Remember back home, we pay astronomical sums for items, especially clothes, that have been made in poorer countries for next to nothing, and we don't even get the chance to bargain for them, just the opportunity to contribute to a corporate director's retirement fund. At least there's room for discussion in Cambodia, so try not to become obsessed by the price. And also remember, in many cases a few hundred riel is more important to a Cambodian with a family to support than to a traveler on an extended vacation. After all, nobody bargains over a beer in a busy backpacker bar, so why bargain so hard over a cheap bottle of water?

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