I am sure everyone who has travelled has encountered this situation. You are out touring, maybe in a third world place, and you are met with big eyes and outstretched hands – usually a child’s. It’s hard to say no to this but you should.
When I travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia our guide was extremely strict about not giving money or even candy to the kids who surrounded us at every stop. She got very cross with one of our group who handed out one dollar bills and she said that this encouraged children to stay away from school and instead turn to begging on the streets. Even worse than that was the fact that mothers with too little money and too many children might turn out the prettiest or the cutest onto the streets to beg. It is one of the saddest parts of being a traveller. You still have to smile at the ingenuity of these kids. Stepping off a small boat somewhere in the Mekong Delta we were greeted by a small crowd of kids from one of the remote villages.
“Hello – how are you? Hello Canada? Very nice country!”
I found similar situations in India and there too our guide in Mumbai spoke sternly to the young women and children hanging around the tour buses. As a busy guide in this huge city she knew many of them by sight. I was surprised when she told me that not all of these people were homeless and that begging can be a profitable “job”. She also was very upset at the practice of tourists bringing big bags of candies and handing these out left right and centre. I could understand this concern. Suddenly a kindly tourist is surrounded by a horde of excited children. Eventually the candy runs out and yes – there are going to be some disappointed kids there – usually the smallest and the youngest.
So what to do if you want to share the wealth.
The first thing is to check the tour company you are booking with. Many of them have initiatives where a donation for every booking goes to a registered charity in your country of destination. For example when I did my tour with Insight Vacations to India there is an automatic donation of $5 per passenger included in your total trip paid to the Indian Children’s Charity. Now $5 may not sound like much but let me tell you – it buys a lot in India. We could not believe that a short cab ride we took in Mumbai cost the equivalent of a dollar.
Secondly check that your tour company uses as many local guides as possible. I read somewhere about a tour company that boasts about having North American guides so as to identify more easily with the guests. What? Why would you want a North American guide on your tour to India for example? We learned so much from our lovely guide in Mumbai. If you really want to experience a country let its own people show you around. G.Adventures is another company that does this very well and also supports many local endeavours to support small business in the countries in which they operate.
Finally check the charities supporting the country you are visiting and make a donation there, find out if there is a school visit planned so that you can take books and pencils but find out first what they need most and lastly tip generously. It doesn’t add up to much in Canadian dollars but in Rupees, or Vietnamese Dong or Cambodian Riel or Thai Bhat….
Well …. you do the math!
I think I am getting past it – shopping that is – when I am travelling. Don’t get me wrong. I love shopping for things I can use – like clothes or shoes – especially in exotic places like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the Silk Markets of Hanoi. But cut me out with knick knacks. I am really done. I think I am moving into that part of my life where I yearn for simplicity and order. Really – I have to look at some of the things I have from my travels and say to myself “What the hell were you thinking of when you bought this?”.
Take this alabaster cat. It’s horrible. It’s heavy. It’s not particularly well made. It was at the end of our tour in Egypt and we were taken to the alabaster shop, shown ancient tools still used today – to make badly carved cats and vases. I felt bad. The shop owner followed me around the store while I desperately looked for something that wasn’t going to cost an arm and a leg. I felt I should really buy something – and I like cats. Mmmmm – this was one of my mistakes.
Let’s not even talk about the bangles that made my wrist go green or the pure cotton woven shirts that disintegrated in the washing machine.
My colleagues are just as bad … look at their desks…..
Mind you – I do have a few little bits and pieces that I am quite fond of. The peat Celtic cross I bought in Ireland, the medieval soldier from Germany and the Buddha from Vietnam.
And then there are those cute hats I bought in Vietnam which I have hanging on the wall. And they are special because I saw the lady making them.
How can I throw any of these away? They are all memories – some good some bad but on a snowy day in Calgary they remind me and take me back again and again.
Next Christmas I am definitely heading out of town – somewhere hot would be nice. A beach, a margarita and Feliz Navidad would suit me just fine. I know it is a crazy time to travel – that’s what I tell my clients. Everything is overpriced and overcrowded. Airline staff are grumpy, baggage handlers unreliable and there is not a spare seat on the plane. At the beach you can forget about getting a beach chair without at least bribing ten people first and if you are at one of those all inclusive resorts where the speciality dining requires reservations that morning – good luck with the queue.
So why would I put myself through that hell rather than stay at home in this “lesser hell” of crowded shopping centres, crying children and excesses of spending, eating and drinking? You see, Christmas just doesn’t seem the same any more. I know, I know – I am not 6 years old any more and if I had to line up and sit on Santa’s knee at the shopping centre – well let’s not go there.
I honestly don’t think I am going to find anywhere in the world that hasn’t fallen victim to the Christmas Commerce Bug. Even in Hanoi and Siem Reap Christmas trees popped up on every corner and shops were lavishly decorated in Saigon with wintry scenes of sleighs and frosty trees. I guess if I really want to escape it altogether I might find a corner maybe in Papua New Guinea or in Nepal? Any ideas or recommendations would be welcomed.
In the meantime I will busy myself with taking down the Christmas tree. Funny how everyone wants to help with putting the damn thing up – no-one ever wants to pack it away. That’s OK – I am in the right job to spend a whole year dreaming and planning for a Christmas where Santa won’t be….. I know! The North Pole. Not exactly a beach but hey – maybe I get to see some polar bears – now that would be cool!
A visit to the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the infamous S21 detention centre is not a pleasant experience. It is traumatic. It is upsetting. It is incredible how again and again these atrocities occur – despite the fact that we believe we learn from history and recite the mantra – Never Again.
The detention centre in Phnom Penh – S21 – used to be a high school. Pol Pot’s regime turned it into a chamber of horrors and the evidence is still there – the shackles, the horrific photographs. Only 7 people survived by the time the Vietnamese arrived and I had the honour to meet one of them. Now in his 80’s Chum Manh speaks little English but he does know a few words – like electric shock. He explained to me by sign language and a few words how he was tortured by shock treatment in his ear. He also showed me his knuckles and slid off his shoes to show me his feet where he had been tortured. He has been a witness in the trials of the leaders of the Pol Pot regime.
His story and the stories of all the Cambodian people should be treasured and perhaps one day in the future we will be able to realise the dream of Never Again… Slide show of our photos Genocide Cambodia
Junk – the word has bad connotations for North Americans – so the idea of spending a night on a junk in Ha Long Bay was received with mixed feelings. “Don’t worry”, said Huy our guide “You will have a soft mattress and a small private shower.” In fact what we had was a beautiful room furnished in rich warm woods, crisp white linens and a constantly changing view of magical Ha Long Bay.
Now that it has been named one of the natural wonders of the world Ha Long Bay is certainly busy with visitors from all over the world. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for those intrepid travellers who ventured out to this region before it had been “discovered”. It must have been magical. Even with numerous junks and day trippers the area has a certain mystery about it – especially when the mist slides over the sea and wraps around the tall jagged islands.
Our visit there included a ride around a floating village. The village is relatively new, about fifteen years, and was a brilliant solution to the overcrowding of Hanoi. People without homes were offered the chance to come out and start a fishing village and pearl farm which in turn has developed a little tourist industry all of its own. The local people – mostly young girls – ferry visitors around in traditional Vietnamese boats – almost like a gondola in a way. Kids here learn to row from an early age and we saw several very small children lying back in the boats and operating the oars with their feet.
Other highlights of the area include visits to immense caves in the heart of the limestone islands as well as a gruelling 400 step walk up to the top of one of the islands for the “view”. That’s if you can breathe by the time you get up there. Phew! In the heat and humidity that was a mini marathon. By the time we all got down to the beach a dip in the sea was a must – even without a swimsuit. Yes some of our ladies just walked right in with all their clothes on! Good for them!
….. as in crossing that is. Our guide was very specific about instructions for negotiating the streets of Hanoi. “Always cross at the zebra crossing. Once you start crossing the street keep going but slowly. Do not run. Walk slowly so motorbikes will have a good chance to avoid hitting you.”
And they're off!
Now that’s pretty good advice if you ask me. Forget about traffic lights. They work for the most part but don’t be surprised to find scooters, motor bikes or even cars driving around you, in front of you and behind you while crossing at a pedestrian crossing. Oh and don’t get too relaxed walking down the sidewalk. Many bikers use this as a handy way to avoid the traffic. Go figure.
I use the term “bikers” loosely. For us in North America it conjures up Hell’s Angels or mid-life crisis executives clad in black leather from head to foot sitting confidently astride beautiful Harleys or BMW’s. In Hanoi a biker could be literally anyone wanting to get from point A to point B. Lots of girls. Pretty office workers in stockings, suits and heels. Moms and Dads with one or even two babies wedged between them. It’s amazing what these bikes can do and how the riders can balance huge bags of rice, baskets piled sky-high and very long unwieldy aluminium ladders with no sight of that familiar red cloth tied to the end. It’s pedestrian beware and the sight is enough to make any North American traffic cop want to hang up his radar.
I was astonished to see a group of tourists on a bicycle tour through the city. Truly they deserve a medal – maybe this is going to become an Olympic sport one day. It would certainly call on athletes with nerves of steel and great balance – qualities unfortunately that I do not possess. So you won’t be seeing me on the bike in Vietnam – at least not in Hanoi that is.