The Price of our Cynicism
For many of us, a degree of often unfounded cynicism is one of those universalities of travel that all of us experience but none acknowledge, like the necessity of wearing the same underwear for a week, the hostel bunkbed “climb of shame” and diarrhoea. The skeptical traveller will be the one drowning out the vendors in the market by commenting not-so-subtly about the extortionate mark-ups on coconuts for tourists, the one convinced those cute kids are trying to steal out of their bag, the one who whispers about the guides definitely leading them off to be a sacrifice in their village, the one who declares, “That curry definitely looks suspicious”.
What’s sad is that travel should actually be the perfect antidote for this disease of distrust. The experience of new cultures and ideas should be, in the words of Mark Twain, “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”, but too often the opposite is the case.
I’m the first to admit that sometimes, the longer I’m away, the more closed-off I can become. It’s not really our fault, though, we say. We could protest that we’re only cynical because we were raised on a hearty Australian diet of xenophobia and bush-safety talks, the combination of which taught us that anything we couldn’t immediately identify was a threat, not to be trusted and probably going to kill us when we turned around. Because that’s not cynical at all.
There reached a point, at the end of my last long-term stint on the road where I found myself being lulled into mother skeptic’s warm embrace. Waving away the guides, refusing the food, putting my iPod in on buses instead of talking to people – all because of an irrational uncertainty. But whatever travel deities are out there – you know, the ones responsible for food poisoning, bunks next to Adonis-like Frenchmen and general hobo karma – have a habit of letting you know when you’re getting things that wrong.
Over and over, as I found myself wandering down dusty streets clueless and lost (so pretty much hourly), I found most that people will go out of their way to help you. Going to begin the battle against crowds of vendors in bus stops, people I’d never spoken to before would take me by the hand, lead me to my next place, make sure I didn’t get ripped off, and refuse anything I offered in return. I’m talking about the persistently friendly guides who I waved away at first, but who then showed me the surreal flamingo lake hidden just off the road and whose Jason Derulo impressions ended up making them some of the best company of my trip. In Dar es Salaam, when a guy I’d been speaking to offered me a lift to the bus station, my travel-weary mind naturally jumped to dark alleyway scenarios where I starred in the real-life sequel to Taken. My hobo instincts soon kicked in to remind me how little money/dignity I had left, though, and after I’d been taken out to dinner, taxied around the city and looked after by his friends in the next town, I decided to forgive the travel gods for all the missed trains and bedbugs and call it even. People are kind – when we let them be.
The cynic will invariably throw that back in my face with their catchcry, “But they only did those things because they wanted something from you!” and perhaps in some situations they’re right. There are certainly people who would jump at a chance to make some extra money by directing tourists to the nearest bus station/toilet/seedy Thai brothel, and some who may not use the most honest means to get it. To be honest, I don’t blame them; there is a reason people feel the need to do so and it’s best to let it pass. Naïve though it might be, however, I refuse to subscribe to the view that one human being will only ever help another for his or her own personal gain. I refuse to believe that those people that helped me were the exception rather than the rule.
Now, being open, trusting and kind is not the same thing as being unsafe or irrational. There are some situations in which a healthy degree of hesitation is well-grounded and necessary – when assessing the edibility of the cucumber that’s been in your fridge since June, for example. To be cynical is to take the easy option, to tread the safe path. But when we turn to suspicion as our first port of call, not only do we miss out on the connections, experiences and growth that make us travel in the first place – we show that our ethnocentricity is more powerful than our humanity. Trust is sometimes a gamble, and sometimes you might lose; God knows I have once or twice. But the odds are good.