Monday, April 20, 2009

Ethical Travel

Travel, like everyday life, is full of decisions that must be made: where to eat, where to sleep, which bus to take. Along with these relatively easy decisions come the ones that can affect other people, whether locals or fellow travelers. For better or for worse, making the right choices can make a world of difference and can also make a difference in this world.

For starters, the easiest ethical travel choice to make is the one to avoid the sex trade. Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, but it's also one of the most prevalent. I don't think I need to go into much detail about why it's horrible or why you should just not use, promote, or purchase the services of a prostitute anywhere -- whether at home or away, or in a back alley somewhere or in a glitzy casino. Don't be that creepy guy. As an obvious addendum, especially do not, not, NOT hire the services of a minor, as this act would move you well past the category of creepy guy and into the category of putrid and vehemently repulsive.

Child prostitution is not the only form of abuse that exists, unfortunately. Children all over the world are exploited in many ways. The Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire illustrates this point vividly in one scene where an orphaned child, a beggar by trade, has his eyes put out with hot acid -- because blind beggars make more money. His "pimp", his owner, chooses to have this done. As much as we'd all like to believe that this scene is an exaggeration, I have to tell you that it is, unfortunately, not. Child beggars are especially appealing to tourists because they're adorable. Their innocence touches that soft spot within us all, and you may find yourself giving over handfuls of change to fill their bowls. After all, it's mere pennies to you, right? It might be, but the pennies collected by hundreds of children are funneled into the pockets of their owner, and the kids are left with nothing. They don't go to school, they don't get jobs, they don't get fed. After all, skinny kids make more money.

Travelers with big hearts often fill their backpacks and suitcases with sweets, toys, and pencils when they travel to less-developed countries, in the hopes of befriending a little person or offering a token in exchange for a photo opportunity. In every town you'll find a budding photographer, shiny new DSLR around the neck, searching for that perfect shot -- the one of the beautiful naive face with the soulful eyes that say so much. Once the photo has been taken, a pocketful of sweets is distributed to the subject and any others in the vicinity.

The problem with the candy bribes is twofold. First, giving sugary candies to children that have often never even seen a toothbrush (or dentist) will lead to cavities, pulled teeth, and years of pain. It hardly seems worth it. We thought about getting around this by giving out sugarless candies. A fellow traveler told us, proudly, that instead of giving just candy, he gave out vitamins that looked like Gummy Bears. Oh, he was so smart. We solved the first problem but not the second -- the one with far more serious consequences.

Children in popular travel destinations quickly learn that tourists = treats. After the first few generous backpackers come through with lollipops and peppermints, the next bus load will find themselves stalked like the Pied Piper, with dozens of children trailing behind. Their hands will be outstretched. In many places, even the youngest of children could say the words, "Chocolate" or "Sweets" in English when they didn't know how to say anything else. These well-meaning travelers have created a generation of beggars who depend on tourists for hand-outs. They learn that it's an acceptable and easy way to make a living. They begin to ask for not just candy, but also other food, for money, for clothes. They ask and ask and ask. I remember vividly once being asked for a drink by a young man while we changed a flat tire in Namibia. He seemed to have been walking awhile, so I gave a Coke. Immediately he put his hand out and asked for a chocolate bar, barely giving his drink a glance. It was frustrating and disappointing, and it left me feeling guilty for having given him anything at all, and even guiltier that I didn't want to give him anything else, all because he asked.

Travelers to developing countries will understand when others speak of being treated like a "walking ATM". They complain, bitterly, that they are being taken advantage of in markets and shops; that they are being asked for handouts; that they are seen as rich tourists with loads of extra money to give away. First, you are being taken advantage of, and the precise reason is that you are a rich tourist with loads of extra money to give away. The fact that you are on a vacation means that you have more disposable income than most people in the world. You have a job that pays you to take time off? You have enough savings to spend some of it on travel for fun? You can afford to fly in an airplane? Dollar signs everywhere, my friend. So bargain for that souvenir in the market, but be fair. Don't try to screw the guy, for god's sakes. It's a game, to be sure, but it's not a fight to the death. On the other hand, don't pay the first price you're quoted (except in Laos. They won't try to screw you in Laos... yet.) It IS a game, and paying the exorbitantly inflated price you're given makes it harder for the next group of travelers wandering through.

How, then, do you find that balance of saving your pocketbook and sharing what you've got? Spend within your means, but shop locally. Eat at the street-food cart and not at McDonald's. Buy your bottled water from the mom and pop shop, not the 7-11. Make friends with kids; share experiences with them, not sweets. Give when your heart tells you to, by all means. Just be aware of what you're doing; usually an act of kindness is simply that. Unfortunately, sometimes an innocent gesture can be twisted into something darker.

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