All over the blogosphere you find people urging you to have more ‘genuine’ experiences in foreign lands. They tell you to dig beneath the veneer presented in tourist brochures and to really get to the core of a place. Now, I fully understand if you want to relax on a beach, slurping Bintangs whilst having your hair braided, but, without being evangelical, I love scratching at the surface of a place.
But how to do this?
The answer is simple: just remember that it is people, not monuments or mountains, that make up a country.
“CD? DVD? hash? Something…” That pesky tout who has been shadowing you for three blocks is thinking about two hungry kids, not your holiday. Those guys who chase you trying to sell rip-off CDs are trying to make a living in a crowded marketplace. They are all people, just like you. I always remind myself of this when abroad.
This is exactly what I did when walking back to my hotel through the dark, dusty streets of Thamel, Nepal. The occasional military truck passed on its way to monitor a Maoist curfew that had forced the (free WiFi) pub where I was working to shut before midnight.
On a street corner I was stopped by a rickshaw man, “You want lift?”
I was tired and ready to ignore him but, remembering my motto, stopped to reply, “Hi. No thanks mate, I am nearly there.”
He continued with hope in his eyes, “You want Hash? Something?”
“No thanks mate, I’m all good.”
I asked this short, dark man his name and he replied, “Kamal,” I made a joke about the singer and asked him to sing for me. We got talking about how the curfew affected his business. Things had been quiet since the curfew began a few weeks ago.
As we chatted I could see that Kamal was seeing me as more than just a walking wallet.
Running out of conversation, Kamal showed interest in the laptop poking out of my bag. At first I was hesitant to show him my shiny new MacBook Pro, but he looked genuinely curious. I sat on the curb, balanced my computer on my lap and scrolled through photos of my recent mountaineering exploits.
Soon a group of bored rickshaw men drifted by to peek over each other’s shoulders and catch a glimpse. Occasionally one would reach down to touch the screen or touchpad curiously.
Feeling bold, I asked Kamal, “Hey, do you want to watch a movie with me?”
Kamal eagerly said, “Yes please Mr. Ben…but not here, Maoists will trouble us. We go to my home?”
Why not? I thought. If he had wanted to steal my computer it would be long gone, and they all seem like genuinely friendly, if somewhat grubby, people.
The next thing I knew I was in a convoy of five rickshaws slowly bouncing through increasingly dark streets. We were heading out of the safe tourist district and into the depths of Kathmandu. At this stage I should have been really nervous. I was alone, hopelessly outnumbered and had no idea where we were going, but my gut feeling was that these were all good people…and if they had wanted to steal my computer it would be long gone. Right?
Eventually our convoy stopped outside what looked like an abandoned car yard and Kamal jumped off his seat. Grunting, he slowly opened ten foot high gates topped with razor wire. I got out to help him but he waved me in before pushing his bike through. I got a bit nervous when he locked the gates behind us but he explained, “The gates stop the thieves.”
Broken rickshaws on their sides missing wheels and empty crates were scattered amongst tents and lean-to houses. This place, that around 50 rickshaw drivers called home, looked like a refugee camp. Soon I was sitting on a tattered couch beside my new friend. Kamal and I were flanked on all sides by tired rickshaw men as we watched Pulp Fiction and shared a single tall beer that he refused to let me pay for. My computer was perched on a 44 gallon drum and the tiny speakers struggled to penetrate our conversation. I was sure that most of the audience had no idea what the movie was about, but they happily alternated between staring engrossed at the screen and asking me curious questions about Australia.
For the rest of my stay in Nepal, every time a rickshaw rattled past, the driver would slow down and yell out, “Hi Mr. Ben! Movie tonight? Rickshaw? Free for you sir!”
So, this little cultural experience did not cure poverty in Africa, nor did it teach anyone to read, but it does go to show that if you treat people with respect and view them as humans they might just return the favor.
Ben has just written a book! Check out The Red Rucksack at http://www.redrucksack.com/book!