Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Worst Kind of Tourist

There is this tradition in Luang Prabang. Every morning, the monks from all the local temples walk along the street collecting alms, or their food for the day. Residents wake up early to give their respects as well as some rice to each monk as they pass by their house.

This is the Luang Prabang I came for...

This ritual is why I went to Laos. I really wanted to see this and I heard that tourists can even participate too. I know it may not be for everyone, but the chance to be a part of something like this was supposed to be really special. We planned around this specific tradition. We arrived early the day before, went to bed early, and made sure to wake up well before dawn to not miss what was arguably the only reason why we went to Laos. This even took precedent over tubing down the river in Vang Vieng.

It was awful.

It's not the monks' fault--they are semi-forced by the government to continue this facade. However, it is no longer the beautiful tradition that it once was. It is overrun with tourists... and not the good kind.

Do you know the tourist with an SLR around their neck, snapping "artistic" pictures, who claim to be a "world citizen?" That in itself is bad, but take that same person, put them inches away from a monk's face (often times children), flash on, taking picture after picture. The kind that has no shame. No remorse. No sense of dignity, and due to this lack of even the slightest strand of dignity, feels no need to respect the humanity anyone else.

He's so excited to shove his camera into these monks' faces, he can't even hold on to his umbrella.

It made me absolutely infuriated.

How can anyone treat another human being like that? It wasn't just European tourists or the Chinese tourists either... though they were admittedly the worst. But even at a zoo or aquarium, you turn off your flash for the animals. So why would you think it's ok to shove a camera into the face of another person? It's not a circus act. They aren't statues or artifacts. They are people. This is their home. You are a guest. Would you put a huge lens in front of a chef as they're cooking your dinner? At a respectful distance and as long as you aren't being distracting, it can be fine. But remember--you are NOT a professional photographer. These are NOT professional models. DO NOT treat another human being like an object. Why do I even have to say this? Don't most people from most countries claim their culture to be "civilized"? Don't most travelers love bragging about how "cultured" and "refined" they are? Have you no sense of decency or respect? Then, how can you turn around and do something so awful and heinous to a fellow human being?!? How can you wake up in the morning and look at your smug self in the mirror and feel good?

Me trying to keep up with the steady stream of monks

I did participate in giving alms, which made me thought, am I any better? Sure, I wasn't right in their face with my camera, but aren't I objectifying them just like these other tourists? Aren't I, by taking pictures to share, tweeting my thoughts, and eventually, writing this blog post, promoting the very thing that I hate? Won't more people come and in turn, perpetuate this shameful shadow of a once great tradition? Am I any better?

While we did had some great experiences while in Laos, this was not one of them. If you do decide to go and participate in this tradition, please remember to do so with respect. And if you go to Laos and decide to skip out on this, I would not blame you.

Here's to the monks. I'm so sorry.

At least I was able to get a Beerlao overlooking the Mekong River. One of the highlights of my trip was simply relaxing and reflecting while sipping on a cold beer. After this morning, I definitely needed it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Curse of the Traveler

I have a lot of posts left about my month of traveling, but before I get to them, I found a post by darien_gap on Reddit the other day. It really struck home with me and I wanted to share it as well as my thoughts on it.

"The Curse of the Traveler.
An old vagabond in his 60s told me about it over a beer in Central America, goes something like this: The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love, the more things you see. It drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that's perfect (we all know there's no Shangri-La), but just for a place that's "just right for you." But the curse is that the odds of finding "just right" get smaller, not larger, the more you experience. So you keep looking even more, but it always gets worse the more you see. This is Part A of the Curse.
Part B is relationships. The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. But the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them. Since all these people can't travel with you, it becomes more and more difficult to cultivate long term relationships the more you travel. Yet you keep traveling, and keep meeting amazing people, so it feels fulfilling, but eventually, you miss them all, and many have all but forgotten who you are. And then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you've seen, and you will always feel a tinge of loneliness, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more than they will want to hear them. The reason this is part of the Curse is that it gets worse the more you travel, yet travel seems to be a cure for a while."

I'm not so sure about Part A. Now that I'm back in the US, I realize that San Francisco feels right, right now. I do want to start a new chapter of my life. I know there may not be a "right fit," but being in California where I can meet people from around the world is pretty close. I can get good Mexican food next to authentic Italian, and still get tonkotsu ramen a few blocks over (though it's not Hakata Ramen, and there's no 替玉). To put it in perspective, I went to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore... and yet my first Burmese meal in my life was in San Francisco last week. Although I deeply miss traveling, my time abroad has really made me appreciate other cultures.

I would argue that unlike the times I spent in France or Paraguay, I have finally lost that jadedness that comes with being Californian. After 2 years in such a mono-ethnic country, I realize how lucky I am to have grown up in the United States, and in particular, the San Francisco Bay Area. Just the other day, while hiking up a mountain in the East Bay, I couldn't help but notice that English was the least spoken language around me--there was dialects from the Indian subcontinent, Mandarin (or Cantonese or some other dialect... it's hard for me to tell), Spanish, Tagalog... and a little bit of English. Some of my favorite cities, like London, Hong Kong, and Singapore, were the best in my eyes, not for their sights, but for their culture and people. Each was a melting pot in the truest sense of the word, and yet, this same love never really extended to California until I lived in Japan.

Part B is the most thought-provoking. My time spent abroad... or even just far away from home like LA... I've met a lot of people in my life. I would like to keep them in, but it's not easy. People drift apart. People change. I have friends scattered across the world. It's not just that the friends I had before have changed--I've changed too. I had my cousins over a few weeks back. I left for Japan, they continued on the fast track to the American Dream. Now, they talk about buying a house and the last dinner party they went to. What can I add to that conversation? Oh, that reminds me of the time I drank cobra venom in Hanoi? Admittedly yes, I may be jaded from traveling, but at the same time, when people have never even left their country or when the furthest they've been away from home is Las Vegas, how can I relate to that life? I know I'm extremely fortunate to have been able to travel. But if you're still doing the same things that we used to do 3 or 5 years ago, does it make me a bad person to say that I can't really relate to that life?

darien_gap goes on to mention his own thoughts about to what extent he agrees with this message and what can be done to solve it. For me, I have to agree with his one big takeaway. To solve this problem of drifting apart, you can travel with other people. I have written in favor of solo traveling before and this shouldn't take anything away from that. It's not just about being in a different place with someone--it's about seeing them in a new light. Traveling with other people makes your friendships stronger. You learn about each other in ways that you never would have thought. Seeing how you react to new experiences, culture shock, unforeseen hiccups, and becoming more cultured reveals more character about you than even living with another person. The most mind-blowing experiences for me were meeting my friends in countries so different to both of us--meeting my high school friend in Paraguay, my study abroad friend back in LA, my Japanese friends in Southeast Asia... It always occurs once the initial shock and adrenaline wears off, normally at night and you're hanging out. Catching up and reminiscing over a beer after dinner like normal, and somewhere along the way you realize--wow, this is weird... we're in Thailand/Macau/Berlin.

That's the moment I live for. It's not possible without the traveler's curse.

So the question then is where to next? Who's down?