To be a better tourist, we must do more than look through the microscope. We must engage and try to understand.
12 Ways To Not Suck At Being A Tourist:
1. Spend money locally
2. Fund public independent transportation
3. Eat street food
4. Only haggle if it is customary in the culture and within economic reason
5. Explore both the rich and poor neighborhoods for a better sense of the culture
6. Ask questions
9. Learn the local greeting and how to say thank you
10. Ask for permission before shooting portraits
11. Talk with the locals
12. Contribute to the betterment of society either economically or through volunteer time
We structured our list after our time in Myanmar, where inevitably we were tourists, following the established path from Yangon, to Inle, and then Began and when we realized the massive gap in our understanding of what it meant to be a good tourist.
In Yangon, we crossed the river to visit a fishing village that wasn’t well known. We then took a tuk-tuk tour that brought us to Da Lait village. It was hiding behind the street down a long and narrow dirt road. The village was devastated by a previous natural disaster. Houses were hoisted a few feet above the ground and constructed as four walls with a shallow roof, no doors, no running water, and no electricity. Our driver did his best to give us a tour, but all I kept thinking with our fancy camera and clean clothes was why the hell we were here.
A group of kids building mud pies with sticks greeted us and pointed to our camera. They were curious, whether it was the first time they had seen a camera or the 100th they handled the camera with awe as Tom guided them in taking pictures of one another and taking pictures of us. They were purely kids and yet they were not. They hardly had anything and avoided asking for anything, except for one little boy that made the universal gesture for food.
The reality that we had the means to feed ourselves and they may not is an uncomfortable situation that as a tourist you can choose to ignore. We had been that type of traveler before, taking pictures, uncomfortable with poverty, feeling bad for ourselves because of how shitty and unfair the world can be, overwhelmed with how much we couldn’t help, all the while moving on with our lives. But we were the only ones holding ourselves back from helping.
Whether it was a crafted plan by the tuk-tuk driver or not, we were overtaken by the instinct to give these kids anything we could to make a difference.
We made two trips to the local convenience store. The owners of the store and our tuk-tuk driver helped us to package 65 bags of powdered milk, pre-packaged protein cereal, healthy snacks, hot water meals, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, paper products and lots of school supplies. The elders of the village distributed bags systematically. They used everything that we brought, down to the three cardboard boxes used to carry everything.
We understand that one deed will not save the world. But as a tourist, we can choose to contribute. We can decide where we go, what we do, who we visit, where our money goes, and how we engage with others. And those choices are the difference between visiting and making an effort to understand. The division between a tourist and a traveler, between pointing out the differences and actually making a difference.