Too Cynical to Travel?

September 24, 2012

I remember a conversation I had in San Francisco as I volunteered to be in the background of a Food Network commercial in exchange for some free gourmet samples. Between takes, I offered up that I had traveled a lot in southeast Asia and the world, and such experiences tended to make me more guarded and suspicious of nearly everything, from random people approaching me starting conversations, to leaving my bag unguarded.

At the moment, I’m in Dubai, surrounded by shopping malls, chain restaurants, upscale hair salons, and bars with large windows to view the ocean and Palm Jumeirah. Life here can be a big bubble for expats, in a city that’s build around comfort with no regard for conservation or efficiency. To give you an example: ALL of the beach near the Jumeirah residences is reclaimed land, as is the entire Palm (duh); the city’s water source is desalinated seawater; there’s a hotel inside the indoor ski resort at the Mall of the Emirates which requires you to build a fire to stay warm (Dubai is in the desert and NEVER gets cold, obviously). These are a few things residents have come to expect from this city. My first thought upon being dropped off at the Marina Mall was: “My god… how can a place be so sterile“?

Both experiences have made me realize I may be far too cynical to travel as a traveler should travel (say that ten times fast). When I was in Thailand, I tended to avoid speaking to locals, as I believed any substantial conversation I might have with some random person on the street would either result in them offering to take me to a friend’s gem shop (or worse, a brothel), or trying anything to get a few extra Baht out of me. I wouldn’t mind speaking to a Thai woman, but how can I meet anyone in my age range who isn’t working as either a bargirl or masseuse (or just someone whose job it is to take money from foreigners, e.g. travel agents)? I’m skeptical of people’s intentions, and that hurt me a lot these last two months on the road.

Sometimes, especially in places like Thailand and Haiti, these feelings are justified. After all, nearly every tuk-tuk, taxi driver, and travel agent in Surat Thani will try to scam you. I got cheated out of $15 by the official AA staff at Port au Prince airport. And because I’m usually a very independent traveler in the first place, I don’t often have to rely upon or reach out to others.

But more often than not, I feel this attitude hurts my travels. Because I don’t think I can gain anything from interactions with locals at times, I simply don’t interact at all. Because I plan ahead and know what to do when I land on foreign soil, I don’t have to ask for help or directions. Sometimes I think it would be great to be ignorant again, to have to deal with dodgy taxis at airports and train stations; to not know why two men in pristine short-sleeve white collared shirts, black pants, and black ties (aka Mormons on their mission) are randomly approaching me in a foreign country; to believe in the good of all people, not just friends and those I consider more “like me”.

The only solution is just to be aware of these feelings, and try to set them aside when a situation arises.

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