It has rained or drizzled all day today, on Sunday. It feels like autumn, with the coolness from a storm and the sounds of car tires whooshing through the streets. An introspective day. Even the birds are quiet.
It makes for a leisurely afternoon, during which to cook Sunday Dinner (a beef ribeye roast) and stream Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.
I’m a big fan of his, since back when he published an essay in The New Yorker, to his book Kitchen Confidential, and the subsequent plethora of TV shows focused on travel and food.
I just watched his show on Jamaica. In it, he focuses on locals and the resorts that are displacing them. High-end properties are buying beaches and erecting large fences and employing guards that keep out Jamaicans.
Within the resort’s walls, wealthy tourists come for sun, sand, and Slurpee-like cocktails. Their contact with locals is very limited. The tourists bring much-needed spending that boost the local economy.
I am from, and have traveled extensively in, the Third World. There’s a tremendous amount of crushing poverty just yards away from most resorts. I’ve seen a great deal of it.
We “went home” a few times during my childhood to visit family in Indonesia. Many live very simply. The few who did accumulate wealth live in houses surrounded by big fences.
Moreover, after business school, and before my job at Bain Singapore, Mrs. T. and I spent a month traveling in Indonesia, mostly in Bali.
There were some great memories, such as eating fresh pineapple at Lovina’s beach, as bats streamed out at dusk from a cave. The beautiful music and artwork in Ubud. The seductive smells of sweet fruit, verdant leaves, and pungent flowers everywhere. Insanely-lush rice fields.
But, everywhere, there were vendors competing fiercely to give you a ride, sell you a trinket, take you to a hotel, etc. They all seemed to sell the same stuff and had the same sales pitch with the same few token words of English.
It was very common to see light-skinned tourists absolutely surrounded by dark-skinned vendors. Class, race, business, and tourism all wrapped into one.
In particular, I will never forget the young woman who was our guide at a tree park. It offered free guides. She spoke perfect English and was very kind.
At the end, she took us to a souvenir stall and invited us to look around. We declined to buy anything. She then seemed on the verge of tears and very politely asked us to consider seeing if something caught our eye.
Suddenly, it clicked in my head. This was her stall.
“How many groups do you guide a day?” I asked.
“One,” she said.
“You wait all day?”
I offered to give her some money as a gift. She said that wouldn’t give her “good luck.” We bought two t-shirts and gave her some money.
The young woman looked so happy. She walked around her small stall, touching the money on her merchandise, uttering a prayer of thanksgiving.
We said our goodbyes and left her shop. As we walked away, I looked back. Her stall was one of dozens, literally, all next to each other. Each one sold virtually identical goods.
I’ve not thought of this young woman in a long time. But, when I hear of Third World travel, I often remember her. Her look of desperation, and then, profound gratitude.
Outside of the four walls of most resorts, there is a lot going on. I’d encourage you to leave such a place and walk around. And, if you buy something, let them keep the change.
They really need it.