Published in Traveller, Winter 2005
“I want to talk to you about responsible tourism” I said when I had the group’s attention. “You’ll already have discovered that one of the bonuses of trekking in this remote region is that the locals don’t expect anything from us. Isn’t it wonderful that the children just watch us – they don’t rush up asking for sweets or pens? I’d like to keep it this way.”
I explained my view: that here in Peru tourists are changing the tradition of reciprocity which normally influences every aspect of rural life. By coming into remote communities with our pens and sweets we are teaching children to expect something for nothing, we are giving then a taste for sweets in a region where there are no dentists, and we are educating them into the art of begging and showing them how to be a pain in the neck to the next group of trekkers. “You know what I mean? You’re tired and your patience snaps so you end up yelling at a kid. Ultimately it’s not fair on them.
“Yes, they are poor and we are comparatively rich, but there’s another way of looking at it. We are, after all, entertainment in ourselves – probably the most exciting, amusing thing that has happened in the village for weeks.” I speculated that we feel compelled to give presents because it makes us feel better rather than because it benefits the recipient – playing with the kids or interacting in some way was much more worthwhile. Pens, I said, were best given to the school teacher to hand out to students. Those pocket calculators could also go to the teachers to give as rewards to the best students.
The group listened attentively and asked a few questions. I felt rather smug as they put away their goodies; a good leader has a duty to give guidance on responsible tourism. Next time we met a school teacher they obediently handed over their pens and a dozen cheap calculators. The teacher was delighted.
Mendel, our local guide and his assistant Ruben went on ahead to prepare the campsite. When we caught up, all the children in the community were clutching pens and Ruben was following up with a sweetie each. I didn’t feel I could tackle the subject but proudly told Mendel about giving the calculators to the teacher. “Well, that’s nice”, he said “He’ll sell the calculators and keep the pens. He’s a complete crook, that guy”.
I give up!
© Hilary Bradt