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Interacting With Locals While Traveling: A Revolution of Sorts

I think that the commonly-held view that the most interesting people that one meets while traveling are travelers themselves can be self-indulgent and ignorant, or even rather racist.
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When Aung Poe took his vows to become a monk at age 13, he never imagined that a decade later he would be guiding English-speaking tourists at a lake, trying to save up for marriage.

He became a monk because he had education in mind; the public education that the Myanmar government offered was inferior to a monastic education in most subjects. And so he left his mountainside village for Yangon. For nine years, everything progressed smoothly: a thoughtful disciple and a handsome and well-liked young man, he reached a high level for his age, and dreamed of eventually teaching dhamma at a Buddhist university.

And then, a friend showed him a picture of a girl on Facebook.

He thought about her for days, driven to distraction. Contacting a monk near her village, he arranged a visit to study local Pali writings. He hoped for closure. But on the fourth evening, when he met her at a pre-arranged spot outside the monastery, he was thrown into mental disarray. For weeks, he couldn't meditate properly, and dreamed about her throughout the nights.

After careful deliberation, he announced to his head monk that he would change colors to become a layperson. The monk was upset. He revealed that he had secured a scholarship for Aung Poe to study in America, and was planning to arrange a teaching position for him when he returned. But nothing could change Aung Poe's mind; he had proposed to the girl and she had accepted. Love, that scourge of even the best-laid plans, had smitten him.

He left his monastery to work in a biscuit factory, but at $1.50 a day, it wasn't enough to afford the marriage ceremony. So, after six months, he left to work at a rubber plantation. $3 a day was a step up, but still not enough. Four months later, he accepted a position teaching English at a school near Inle Lake, and then took on some private students, and finally started a part-time job working for the small tourist stand where I met him early one afternoon. Although I'm not sure exactly how Aung Poe and I started talking about his past, he finished relating the epic well after 8 p.m., over some tea and Myanmar biscuits. It was a humbling moment.

Many people talk of a joy of travel being the stories that other travelers tell, but by far the more interesting ones to me are the ones I hear from the locals who serve the travelers. I have heard beautiful and selfless dreams placed in backdrops of heroic rags-to-riches stories that have kept me on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears. There was the rickshaw driver in Cambodia's Angkor Watt who grew up orphaned, learned English better than anyone else in his village, had a flash of luck when an Australian donated him a rickshaw, and now uses the profits to fund a small school in his village. I met a Kashmiri Indian who fled his village's floods to sell shirts in Goa, and through interacting with foreigners came to terms with his homosexuality, and now dreams of setting up LGBT support centers back in Kashmir. There was the Burmese villager who leads local food tours to save money to get himself to Singapore, the girl selling scarves in Bagan who had managed to save $70 over three months but donated it back to her flooded home village, the Indian jetski renters who could take higher-paying call-center jobs but who travel from beach to beach during high tourist seasons purely because they love beaches and travel, too.

Indeed, I think that the commonly-held view that the most interesting people that one meets while traveling are travelers themselves can be self-indulgent and ignorant, or even rather racist. This view glorifies travelers, placing inherent value on the ability to travel without considering the economic and geo-political privilege inherent in the act. It's also typically born out of lack of interaction with the locals; this dearth is often more willful than it seems, and I claim that the racism lies in this willfulness. I have never traveled to a rural place where I felt the locals did not want to talk, yet at first I had to overcome a commonly-held uneasiness with interaction. What is the basis of this uneasiness? An inherent discomfort with those assumed to be poor? Inbred societal notions that people with brown skin in developing situations are "dangerous"? The difficulty of speaking English to a non-native speaker, ignoring the fact that most locals speak English far better than we speak their languages? All of these unspoken equities are present in any interaction with a local person, and to not try to confront them head-on is, I believe, to allow oneself to be complicit in a structure of global subordination.

Yes, confronting this aversion and trying to interact with locals can be difficult. At times, traveling definitely can feel like a battle where one has to be constantly vigilant in order to keep one's money away from people that seem like parasitic agents. Part of this is purely emotional-- I often felt used, reduced to a privileged wallet assumed to be larger than the world's average, born by a lazy consumer of the cheap local thrills.

Yet the reward is more than just a minuscule tipping of global scales; it can be immediately and personally rewarding. Digging deeper has shown me the complex humanity of people, and furnished me with a network of contacts I genuinely respect and consider friends throughout these tourist destinations. We must never forget that it is pure economic privilege that we can immediately think of others as "more than a wallet", and, in any case, it's often an exaggeration. In my fear of being seen as a walking wallet, I used to see financial transactions as superseding human interactions in their power and therefore as things to be avoided at all costs if one sought "cultural experience" (whatever that means), but now I firmly believe that they necessarily bolster many true relationships without eclipsing them, and that sometimes they can express certain genuine and human messages in a way that nothing else can.

Let me give an example.

In Myanmar, I had met a very smart and friendly Taiwanese girl while living at a Buddhist meditation center, and together we traveled to an ancient temple complex nearby. A young local man came up to us as we contemplated a very large Buddha, and politely related a part of the statue's history. Recognizing it as an implicit overture to an informal tour, I instinctively thanked him and turned away-- I didn't have much money left, and didn't really feel like learning too much that afternoon.

To my horror, the Taiwanese girl did not feel similarly.

"Why did the King decide to put a Chinese face on the Eastern facing Buddha?"

I didn't learn the King's decision, as I had walked away in protest.

But as she amiably ambled with him through the next corridor, my aversion gave way to curiosity, and I caught up with them in time to hear about the Northern facing Buddha. For the next 30 minutes, I followed them. His breadth of knowledge was impressive, and my Taiwanese friend's genuine questions were engaging and interesting. The whole experience refreshed in me an appreciation for the amazing history behind these structures that our past civilizations leave us.

However, the best part of that interaction, for me, was that the man seemed completely earnest. Something about him felt like he really wanted to be relating these facts and stories. Was it because he was actually interested in the history of those cardinally facing Buddhas? Or was it because he was genuinely happy to finally be listened to and earn honest money? He told me that he was attending morning classes to become an English teacher, but came straight from school every day to the temple to try to earn money. At that point, giving him a platform, intellectually and financially, was a respect of his efforts and a validation of hours of time he spent at the temples without business. Imagine how many people react to him as I initially had or worse? It didn't matter if his earnestness wasn't totally borne from a niche historical interest; it was the result of a pride and appreciation nonetheless.

When we arrived back at the large Eastern Buddha, I stepped back to let my friend end the interaction as she saw fit. She quietly expressed to me a discomfort in handing over money, and instead brought the man to a stand outside and asked him to pick a cold soda with her. Confused, he deferred, but eventually went for a Fanta. She paid for his and hers, and we split off from him. She drank and I watched him. He rejoined another local guide, and swung back and forth his orange reward, unopened. His movements seemed dejected.

It felt wrong.

I mean, we had misled him in way. We had consented to his sharing his knowledge and time, and although implicit, we had thus agreed to a payment of sorts. We then forcibly chose that payment for him based on our own discomforts, choosing something that wouldn't really benefit him, not even nutritionally. In essence, we alienated him from his labor by robbing him of ownership over the fruits of that labor. We forced him to accept a bourgeois notion that money cheapens interactions, and worse, he had no contractual leverage to reverse the decision, even if his pride had allowed him to.

I slipped him a 500 kyat note as we left. He seemed pleasantly surprised and grateful. I'm as cheap as they come, traveling, but even now I'm glad I did that. I felt like I had expressed gratitude that needed to be expressed, in a way that nothing else really could. It was more than a mere transfer: it was recognition.

Look, ideals are important to cling to - how else can we meaningfully push the norm, during the short course of our lives?-- and I do believe that utopia is achieved through abolishing notions of property and financial capital. But ideals are luxuries to have and to practice, and in this case, even if I thought the world should not be like this, the world is like this, and nothing I could do short term would change the fact that this guy's day would be improved if I gave him money. People are people, and like this guy or like Aung Poe, they have stories I don't know by looking at them and reasons for asking for my money that I cannot fully appreciate. Race, poverty, and language privilege had all effected these interactions, but I was more humbled and open minded for having pushed back on these issues while traveling. In that moment, everything felt richer and more complex; by uncovering these stories I had glimpsed the potential for one thousand stories, everywhere I looked.