Monday, October 3, 2011

God forbid I have to talk to the locals!!

Hey guys,

My girlfriend and I are looking into traveling in Sumatra for most of Jan and Feb. We are just interested in knowing if there will be a steady flow of other tourists for us to meet. We get along famously but meeting other people is important to us. We are not worried about spending some time alone but it would be preferable if there is always a good chance of meeting other tourists. If it helps we will probably spend most of our time in places such as....

          Thanks in advance! 

Last year I posted a thread on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum about my impression that many people seem to go overseas with the intention of travelling within a well insulated bubble of other westerners. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of so called independent  travellers rarely seek to engage with the local population aside from purchasing goods at a market, taking photographs, or participating in a conversation with a fellow passenger. In fact, even the latter is rare, due to the custom of the western tourists sticking together, making it near impossible for a genuinely friendly local to get a look in.

Due to various scams, that sadly exist in high numbers in heavily touristed areas, many travellers develop a complete mistrust of the local people. Personally I think this completely unfair, as outside tourist areas the local people are invariably extremely friendly and hospitable, and are just as interested in my culture, as I am in theirs. Painting everyone with the same broad brush means missing out on some fantastic experiences. Like being invited to people's villages, into people's homes, being taken sightseeing, fed meals, shown sights not in any guidebook; the list goes on. And all for free.

How do I do it? Firstly I'm open to the experience. I'm not looking for a free ride, but I'm showing
a genuine interest in the people around me. Because I walk everywhere nosing around, usually with my camera out, asking if I can take photos, I often find interesting little markets, housing compounds, or farming practices and from there it starts. I'll want to taste the food being cooked, or ask what's in it, or see how hard it is to thresh rice with your feet and a couple of sticks in the middle of a paddock. And before I know it, I'm dancing with the family at a wedding and being invited home to the village. It's that simple.

It's not that simple if you have alot of luggage, or have high personal comfort needs, because hanging out with the locals might mean some seriously weird culinary experiments, and a stick may be needed to fend off the pig while you do your business!!  After you've walked five hours over two mountains to get there that is. But at least there'll probably be no shortage of home made liquor!

Flexibility is of course the key, because when an offer comes up you need to be in a position to accept it. It's one of the reasons I don't plan too far ahead, or book accommodation ahead of time, because these offers are always spontaneous, and sometimes it just breaks my heart that I can't take up an offer because a visa is about to expire, or a plane has to be caught.

And do I get scammed? The short answer is no, but the longer answer is that if I'm wandering around Yogyakarta and a friendly man comes up to me and starts walking alongside me and starts to tell me about the place, then he's almost certainly going to expect payment for his service. So I have to decide right there and then whether I allow him to continue to accompany me or politely say no. If I accept his company and he provides a good service then he'll get a good payment, otherwise he'll get a mediocre payment, but I'll still pay him. I'm not stupid / naive enough to expect he's just a nice friendly guy who likes to show tourists around for free in a really heavily touristed part of Indonesia. On the other hand, when a group of young school students ask to practice their English with me in a small provincial town, then agree to accompany me to a traditional village, give me their phone numbers and invite me to visit them in their village, there's no financial payment at all.

If people go to a country to learn about the culture, how come so many hang out in backpacker dives with other backpackers, don't eat in local restaurants or even try the local food, and say horrible things about the locals? In fact, why do they leave home at all?

I got a bit of abuse on the Thorn Tree forum, which made me think I may have hit a bit too far below the belt. I mean, people travel for all sorts of reasons and as long as it's legal who am I to judge? But when people claim to be interested in the culture yet their actions contradict this, I'm just here pointing that out. To experience the culture of a place you've kind of got to step out of your own just a little. It's like getting into a hot bath, it starts with dipping a toe in first. And then it gets easier.

One person responded to my post with a frightening explanation: that travel these days has become yet another consumer commodity. One travels to add destinations to one's CV, one expects the same level of luxury as at home, and the culture, food, and people of the destination are really beside the point. I think there may be something in that.

As for the quote above which is lifted from Thorn Tree, I have no idea what these two want out of their holiday in Sumatra, but they sure as hell want to make sure they are surrounded by their own kind while they do it. The way it reads you'd think Sumatra was unpopulated....

Oh wait, it's got orangutan!!

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