“We see frightful souvenirs for sale in the Valley of the Kings, or we blanch at the ruination of Bethlehem or the Austrian Alps — and we blame it on mass travel. We prophesy dire and culturally fatal consequences. We wish, often vehemently, that every ugly tourist would stay at home in his living room by his wretched fire, and leave such noble places to their emptiness — or at least, to us. Yet what we forget is that without travel — there would be no “us.” For what is modern man, other than the consequence of movement, of migration, of wandering?”
–Simon Winchester, intro to Martin Parr’s Small World (1995)
As a first stop during my “charity discovery tour” in India I visited the village of Sujata, just behind Buddhist pilgrimage center – and Tibetan refugee colony – Bodhgaya, in Bihar state. If Bodhgaya is a bit more developed, although desperately poor, Sujata represents a real Bihar’s backwater: the kind of Indian village where houses are half built, their walls covered in thick cow dung’s cakes, and most people roam jobless looking for something to do under the scorching sun.
I was a host of Dinu, a young chap I met through Couchsurfing. He has been helping a local charity school, Lord Buddha, to develop and raise the foundations of the building thanks to the offers of a few foreign contributors. Dinu is still a young student: he dedicates his time to the school project for the poor kids of the adjoining villages, and he is trying to study Chinese besides the dearth of opportunities to find updated textbooks in Bihar.
Dinu also would like to be able to build a small “Couchsurfing Hostel” where he may be able to host many people passing through Bodhgaya, giving them a chance to volunteer participating to the schools’ activities. So far, the only thing Dinu has is some free land space, and some tons of bricks generously provided by a Canadian donor. Although having a vision, Dinu lacks funds, and needs help.
This post has the sole intention to let you know Dinu’s story and open up a channel in order to contact him, if interested. If you could even send him an English-Chinese dictionary or textbooks, he would be extremely thankful. Regarding the Lord Buddha school, I had a chance to visit during India’s Independence Day 2012, as the little kids put up a parade in front of the – for the moment being – single storey school building. Parents and families from the surrounding village were all present, flags were raised, dances and songs were performed, and everyone had a very sweet and entertaining morning.
I urge people to get in touch with him, at least to give some encouragement or practical tips, as this young fellow is really dedicated and has a very good heart: you can write an email to dinusinha(at)yahoo.co.in and get in touch regarding the project, or make a donation by contacting Dinu and using Paypal.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
For the first time in ten months, North Korean soldiers came down from their posts and took pictures of each other right outside the conference building joining North and South–while I was getting a tour inside the building.
However high the tension between the countries, it seemed trivialized by the bright blue paint and perfectly immobile South Korean soldiers in their teal uniforms and round helmets. It felt as if we were all acting in a play, not treading one of the highest security areas in the world.
“It may seem absurd to view a sightseeing tour of Versailles or the Pyramids as a kind of pilgrim’s progress toward spiritual fulfillment — or it may seem entirely appropriate. For one thing, the pilgrim of yore had more in common with the present-day tourist than many suspect. One of the first books printed in English, Informacion for Pylgrymes unto the Holy Londe (1498) is a sort of primitive Rough Guide, advising pilgrims on how to negotiate with ships’ captains, obtain the best berth once aboard and find the strongest horses upon arrival. What’s more, many of the vices that today’s tourists are accused of in Ibiza or Las Vegas were also leveled against pilgrims. The sixteenth century Dutch theologian, Erasmus, condemned pilgrimages as little more than excuses for dissipation, accusing pilgrims of merely seeking adventure and a chance to boast of their exploits upon return.”
–George Pendle, “Sight Seers,” Bidoun, Spring/Summer 2006
Most of us travel so that we can see the world, get out of our “box” and explore another culture, or corner of the world. If we wanted everything to stay the same, we would just stay home! It boggles my mind when I see travelers who spend their entire time abroad trying to recreate home and, essentially, avoiding the local interactions they claim to want.
There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with staying at the Hilton, eating at McDonalds or shopping at the Dispensar Familiar (a box store that is owned by Walmart but is masquerading behind a “local” label) but don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re having a local experience, or contributing to the local economy when profits are funneled into big corporations “back home.” There are some simple ways to have a more “authentic” experience wherever you happen to be traveling and to make sure your dollar goes further within the local economy as well. Here are three of mine; perhaps you have some of your own to add:
1. Stay local
Sure, you might book that first night by the airport with your travel miles card, but after that, stay at a family run hotel or guesthouse. Go one step further, and stay somewhere not recommended in the guidebook. Those places are getting a big bump by virtue of their write up in Lonely Planet, but there are likely several other very good places run by families who have generations invested in a particular place that will stretch your buck and add depth to your journey. We’ve found, across the board, that these sorts of places yield “insider” information and recommendations if not personal invitations to explore with new found friends, the proprietors. You’ll also find a very interesting subset of traveler frequenting these places, they’re the people you want to meet, I promise you.
2. Eat where there’s no english menu
That is to say, eat where the local folks are eating. In Merida, Mexico, this might mean walking deep into the mercado, flipping over a five gallon pail and bellying up to the tile bar with the roadwork crew to eat the plata del dia. No need to know what you’re ordering, they only serve on thing per day. I guarantee your money isn’t padding the pocket of the big red clown with preternaturally large feet.
3. Hire a local
It’s possible that the slick looking “Green Travel” agency on the strip in Champasak is genuinely locally owned and operated, but I’m not betting my money on it, based on their advertising. If you have the time and the patience, track down a guy with a boat and book your own ride down the Mekong to the next town. I promise you’re paying extra through the agencies, and that money is probably not being invested the way you wish it was. Look for opportunities to hire local people to teach you things. Hire the Mayan woman who comes knocking to teach you to use a back-strap loom. Hire your cyclo driver in Hue, Vietnam to take you on his motorcycle out into the hills, he’ll bring two of his friends if you have as many people as we do, and it will be a cross-cultural party!
4. Send out your laundry
Okay, here’s a fourth, I couldn’t stop at three: Send out your laundry, and not through your hotel. The laundries that have hotel contracts are doing well, making lots of money. Take a walk, look for the hole in the wall that looks like it’s run by a mother-daughter team and give them your business.
How ‘bout you? What are your best tips for making sure your dollar stretches within a local economy and is spent to the betterment of the community you’re visiting?
Are rumors of horrible medical care abroad holding you back from heading out to see the world? Take heart – most of those rumors are unfounded. A while ago I read 5 Myths About Health Care Around the World by T. R. Reid and started thinking about our experiences with health care in the four corners of the globe – including the United States of America.
In Ethiopia, my husband’s heart went into arrhythmia and he was admitted into ICU at the local hospital. Within minutes of arriving at the hospital, he had a team of doctors on his case and received the best care possible in the country. As it turned out, the Ethiopian doctors knew exactly what needed to be done, but they were not prepared to equip my husband with a pacemaker should it be required – so they arranged to have him evacuated to Israel.
In Israel, top-notch doctors treated him with the most current, innovative methods and did a massive barrage of tests to ascertain exactly what was going on. In the end, they managed to get his heart converted and he went home to Ethiopia a healthy man once again.
In Taiwan, my hip suddenly began to hurt. The very next day I had an appointment with a hip specialist who sent me for an MRI – in two hours! After dealing with the US system of waiting weeks to get an MRI approved and scheduled, I was pleasantly surprised.
In Mexico, doctors took care of my son’s badly sprained wrist and I got to see a knee specialist about my bum knee.
In Panama and Colombia, my son had ingrown toenails surgically removed.
Yes, I’ve dealt with the medical system in the USA and it is slow and cumbersome compared to the health care you will get at a much lower cost in most other countries. Doctors around the globe are highly trained and professional, good facilities can be found in nearly every country, and health care is generally much more affordable than in the USA.
If you are thinking of globetrotting around the world, medical issues should certainly not stop you!
“D.H. Lawrence, in a letter written early in the last century, complained, “I feel sometimes, I shall go mad, because there is no where to go, no ‘new world.’” In Tristes Tropiques (alternately—and tellingly—titled A World on the Wane), published in 1955, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, “There was a time when traveling brought the traveler into contact with civilizations which were radically different from his own and impressed him in the first place by their strangeness. During the last few centuries such instances have become increasingly rare. Whether he is visiting India or America, the modern traveler is less surprised than he cares to admit.” Maybe every generation feels this way. Alexander the Great was said to have wept when he realized he had no more worlds to conquer, and Evelyn Waugh, in 1946, took the same tone when he wrote that he did not “expect to see many travel books in the near future,” adding that, “Never again, I suppose, shall we land on foreign soil with letter of credit and passport … and feel the world wide open before us.” Even the title of the book from which that passage is drawn, When the Going Was Good, puts joy in the past tense.”
–Malcolm Jones, Is Travel Writing Dead? The Daily Beast, Jun 5, 2011
There seems to be an interesting trend starting in the theatre world, one which has history lovers and travel addicts like me very, very intrigued.
Theatrical companies are facing declining audiences as many now flock to the more realistic experiences of the modern digitally-enhanced blockbuster, and they have been forced to get creative in their choice of staging. This has prompted some to do away with the stage altogether; catering to people’s interest in a more, shall we say, “immersive” theatre experience. As a result, some highly respected British drama companies are beginning to hold performances of historically-based plays on the very sites where those stories actually took place.
The latest—and largest—to follow this new trend is none other than Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The revered drama company recently announced plans to spend its new season performing the Bard’s three Henry VI plays, which cover the tumultuous and violent reign of Henry VI and the medieval War of the Roses, on the sites where the plays’ historic battles took place. The drenched-in-history surroundings of Tewkesbury, St Albans, Barnet, and Towton (no, NOT Downton) will see productions of the classic works set where the fifteenth-century king and his knights duked it out with his rivals for the crown.
A similar performance was also held at the Bosworth battlefield in a production of Shakespeare’s epic Richard III, the main character of which has recently gained new fame after his remains were unearthed in a car park near the site of his death in combat. Across the Channel, a performance of Henry V—famous for his victory over the French and his “Band of Brothers” speech riling up his hopelessly outnumbered troops—will take place in Agincourt, the site of his unlikely triumph.
So, if you find yourself near any of these historic and serene locales this year, you might just be able to experience a world-class performance of a classic play—on the soil upon which it all happened.
Suddenly, a night at the theatre doesn’t sound so boring, does it?
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
A monitor lizard!! I wasn’t even in the park. I was just walking down the road, and I almost tripped over it. It was HUGE and scared me to death. I have been in awe of all of the different types of animals in Yala Park, though. Sloth bears, peacocks, a leopard and her cubs, elephants, monkeys. It’s incredible.
“I was recently in Kenya, in the Masai-Mara game reserve in southwestern Kenya, and every so often saw a Masai moran, or warrior, with a cell phone in one hand and a spear in the other. Rickshaw wallahs in India carry cell phones, and there is electronic media available in the unlikeliest places. While I was paddling around the Pacific in the early ’90s for my Happy Isles of Oceania, the elders in some islands confided to me their lament that, for the first time ever, their people were seeing pornographic movies and the Rambo films on TVs with battery-operated video systems. The Internet has now reached the Solomon Islands and the Cooks and the Marquesas, and it’s everywhere else, dispensing information, corrupting some, informing others, putting people in touch, creating a deafening global buzz of confusion, mingled opinion and prejudice and fact.”
–Paul Theroux, “Dispatch From a Shrinking Planet,” Newsweek, May 15, 2011