We have been in Asia for almost a month now, and travelled to only three countries so far. Traveling in Asia seems different this time. Because this time we can really feel what we see. Beyond the history, the rich culture, the beautiful temples....we see two worlds existing simultaneously - one meant for the locals, and one for the tourists....two completely different worlds. Is it because as travelers we will not be able to handle the reality? I don't know.
When we started planning our backpacking trip, we decided we will go off the beaten path as much as possible and not just do touristy things....and here we are. The world created for the tourists seems so fake that we cringe to the thought of spending time doing those same things. And the real world....it just makes us cuddle up in our hotel room and not go out....because the reality hurts. It really hurts to see this disparity - over and over and over again. Growing up in India, we had witnessed this disparity, lived with it and had gotten used to it. Our years spent living in the US, we didn't see it in our day to day lives initially and even when we witnessed it, it was overshadowed by other distractions the media and government created so that we ended up feeling thankful for living the normal American dream. But now this disparity, this huge gap in the society is right in front of us! And this time it is hard to ignore it.
We spent time in the "touristy" places and also in places where we could hardly see any travelers. It was sad to see such drastic contrast between these. While the pollution, the crowd, the noise of vehicles honking is everywhere, the vibe of these places was different and so was the presentation. From the locals' street to the travelers' street , the roads suddenly got cleaner, the restaurants became more diverse and the hotels rooms better equipped. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, there was an entire street called Pub Street - filled with bars, pubs, pizzas, steaks, hamburgers and live bands playing western music. And this street was packed - not with locals but only tourists. While roaming around, we both just felt sad and amused at the same time. Sad to see that these beautiful locals completely gave up their culture and identity and created a false world for tourists, because they saw an opportunity - which meant better income for them and their families. And we felt amused - to see tourists from all over the world, coming to Cambodia and doing the same things as they did back in their home town!
On the other hand, the local streets - they presented a completely different picture altogether. The road side restaurants were completely unhygienic. With no trash bins, the roads and sidewalks became one. The infrastructure was poor which made driving on the roads really hard. The toilets, well I shouldn't even mention their condition. Street dogs roamed searching for food. Some of the houses in villages were a little shack. It is hard to imagine that despite of tremendous increase in tourism in these countries, why such basic things are not so basic?? We cannot say that locals don't like to keep their houses and streets clean. Or they don't want better roads - then why don't they? Why do they feel the need to present a different world to the tourists and keep the reality to themselves and live it day in day out? Is it because their biggest priority is to bring food to the table and feed their families? They have nothing else in their everyday to-do list. Maybe they saw a sudden increase in interest of tourists in their country and they just jumped to the new opportunities - they did not fix the world they live in, they just created a new one - for tourists - who want the local experience, the culture and the history but cannot dare to live like the locals.
Our eyes teared up when we visited temples and see small children, probably 4, 5, 6 year olds holding little baskets and selling souvenirs to the tourists. And believe it or not, for most of them, THIS is their life. Selling things - three for a dollar. They speak in english but probably those are the only few words they have learnt.
Their eyes are emotionless and their faces blank. It makes both of us wonder, do they ever think about their future, about their life beyond selling things to tourists who more often than not ignore them? Do they have dreams and aspirations? Or is it all lost already - their childhood, their hopes? Some of them are fortunate to attend school for few hours in the morning and then go back to selling things after school. And in many cases, it is not that their parents are forcing them to work. The big families and poor income leaves these parents no choice. The mother usually sells food or has a small street side shop also, selling art, clothes and souvenirs. And the father usually is out driving tuk-tuk. In the market and on the streets we see dozens of shops selling the same things and on the road, we see more tuk-tuks than the tourists. Both parents mostly work, still they are left with no choice but send their kids to work too. I can imagine how difficult it must be for the parents, who probably have dreams for their children too - to have education and a better quality of life!
We do not buy anything from these kids - because we do not want to encourage child labor....but many of us do, thinking they are helping these kids. What we all need to really think, are we really helping them? Or are we encouraging child labor? Many times I felt like talking to the mother of these kids, asking her why she is letting her child work....but I couldn't. After all most of the parents want their kids to learn and do good. What choice do they have? None - if things remain the way they are. None till a drastic step is taken to eradicate poverty and provide a better way of life to these families.
I don't have a solution, but I cannot close my eyes and behave like a tourist who is oblivious to these things....not anymore. For now, I am just going to share these feelings and experiences. I am going to observe, be a witness. And as one of my good friends suggested - "change yourself and shine as bright as possible". So I am going to change myself, be more aware of what I am doing and how it is impacting the society and the environment. I am going to do my little part - hoping one day, there will be only one world - the real world, unlike the two contrasting worlds I see today . And hoping this real world will be as beautiful, as equal and as harmonious as our universe is.
I got curious to look up the definition of mid-life crisis….maybe because we (my husband and I) started having doubts that we were going thru one. So let’s see what dictionary.com came up with:
midlife crisis – “a crisis that may be experienced in middle age involving frustration, panic, and feelings of pointlessness, sometimes resulting in radical and often ill-advised changes of lifestyle”
Hmmm looks like we both are!
So, what did we do about it? No, we did not buy an expensive toy and we did not get cosmetic manipulation of any sort.
We simply decided to just be.
Be who we were when we were a child – fearless, curious, adventurous, creative and full of life.
Be who we were before the system took our innocence away, put us in the survival mode so we could be a productive part of the society and a benefit to the same system.
We finally woke up. And decided it is time to leave….leave the comfort of this known to explore the limitless possibilities of the unknown.
Seven months, ten countries, a backpack and the two of us.
Symptoms of frustration, panic and pointlessness – gone!
Radical – maybe.
Ill-advised change of lifestyle – time will tell.
Taking this decision was not easy. The feeling of anxiety and nervousness was natural. But it did not last long. It is not that we are affluent or lucky (few common reactions we got) and we definitely do not have it all figured out! And probably we never will. We are simply trying - to re-evaluate, to simplify, to make sense of it all. We are trading our comforts and security with a lifestyle that is in harmony with what we love.
It is a really small step. But as they say “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!” :o)