“Tourists who try to find things on their own only find mosquitos”

06/02/2010 by Christopher Buxton

It was ever thus: As Jane Austin might have written, It is a truth universally acknowledged that in a poor country a western tourist must be in search of some paid help or service.

However little known the feelings or views of such a tourist on his first approaching a market stall, historic monument or even bus stop, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding natives that he/she is considered their rightful property.

Tourists of slender material wealth flock to countries which possess stunning monuments and natural locations, astonishing arts and crafts, benevolent weather and above all the reputation of being extremely cheap.

The challenge of visiting an alien culture, which seems older and richer than yours is vitiated by the fear that you will be ripped off by the natives. That is why you have purchased a guidebook the size of a bible.

This guidebook is of course designed to keep contact with local people to a minimum.

Enter a museum. You may be approached by a man who is urbane, shows a flattering interest in you, is able to speak your language flawlessly and is a mine of interesting information. Warned by your guidebook, you may purse your lips and tell him you have no need of his services. He will look hurt. You may feel a flash of guilt.

What the guidebook will not remind you is that for the man this linkage of personal human contact with financial gain is unavoidable, and that this man needs you not just to survive, but also maintain a sense of self worth. He needs your money but also he needs the reassurance of being liked and respected for his manners and knowledge.

The guidebook is therefore the enemy of the local population who stand as fishermen before the annual shoals of tourists. Stick your head too much in the guidebook, you’ll trip over broken ancient paving stones. You’ll see more printed words than decorated doorways or tiled fountains.

The streets of poor countries throng with educated, multilingual and barely employed young men. One such walks beside you. Where are you from? What are you looking for? I’ll show you the way! You close the guidebook, pretend that you are not lost. You stop to look in a shop and hope he will go away. But he waits by the next corner. As you try to avoid his polite approaches, his face will betray hurt at your lack of manners.

Tourists who try to find things on their own, only find mosquitoes! – the frustrated reaction of one such young man. We had declined his offer to guide us through the maze of narrow streets to find the ancient synagogue in Moroccan Meknes.

Some tourists will go to lengths to protect themselves entirely from cultural contamination. In Thailand and Cambodia, we saw groups of wealthy Korean Tourists being led by Korean guides, protected from the locals by invisible barriers. After being shown temples or museums, the tourists are bused back to Korean owned hotels where they eat Korean food and buy souvenirs in Korean owned hotel shops.

This of course does not improve local stereotypes of arrogant Koreans.

But the ordinary tourist will still have to brace themselves when it comes to buying souvenirs and presents. There is no avoiding hassle and haggle.

The guidebook will be consulted before any unavoidable transaction – how much should you pay for a taxi? a rug? a tagine? Deep in your heart there is a sense of raging competition with your fellow tourists. Will you have boasting rights on your bargaining skills back at the hotel, or will someone just sneer: You paid how much?They must have seen you coming.

But this competition is artificial. It’s better to take writer Paul Bowles advice and go with the flow. We need to gain a sense of perspective and not worry too much about paying a little over the odds. After all being screwed can be a pleasurable experience. And it redresses global unfairness. We have to live up or down to our hosts’ expectations.