Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Picture I Wish I'd Never Taken

Imagine inviting yourself over at someone's house -- someone you don't even know -- eating their food and then complaining about the way it was served. Now try to see yourself making snide comments about their home, the way they dress, what they do for a living. Think about being a real jerk and calling down their whole lifestyle.

Most of us wouldn't even consider being that rude, right? I mean -- it's unthinkable to behave so badly when you're a guest in someone's house.

A tourist is just someone visiting strangers in a really big house.

Take a close look at the image above. This is a street family in South America. The girl with the flowered top sells little boxes of Chicklets to the thousands of tourists who pour off the cruise ships. Mostly she stands on the dock, with a cardboard box raised and a shy smile frozen on her face. Most people walk past her without even looking her way.

Once in a while, someone stops and gives her a dollar for two pieces of gum. Sometimes someone shakes their finger in her face and lectures her about "begging" in a language she doesn't understand, although I suspect their message comes through loud and clear. But mostly, she is ignored.

My wife and I saw her walk back to her mother and little sister. They all sat against a stone wall together. I went over with my camera. I saw a picture I wanted to take: a street family with three clearly defined personalities and I began shooting. I had no second thoughts, no greeting. I just started taking their picture.

The mother buried her face in her youngest child's hair, while the middle child reached for her sister's arm, with this strangely impassive look on her face. In retrospect, what were they supposed to do? I'd like to think I left some money behind once I was done. I honestly don't remember.

But I should never ever have taken the picture. At least I shouldn't have taken it the way I did. Each time I look at the image of these people now, I wonder what they must have been feeling when this tourist from a country far away, pointed a camera at them and started taking their picture, like they were particularly interesting fire hydrants or buildings. There's a little pang of guilt each time I see it. Okay. A BIG pang of guilt.

In North America, we are the world's blessed people. We don't depend on selling a few mini boxes of Chicklets to survive. For most of us food and shelter have ceased to be issues. That's why we have the income to travel like we do. We consider poverty not being able to afford a new car or a plasma screen television. There are people -- many of them really small people -- who are literally just trying to get get enough to eat.

It was some years later when I came across this image that I started thinking about what I had done. I'd treated three people like "un-people." I'd been an Ugly Tourist. Yikes! That's a hard thing to admit to myself, let alone publish in the blog.

Since then, I have developed Five Rules For Visiting Other Places Without Being A Jerk.

1) If You Wouldn't Say It in Front of Your Host at Home, Don't Say It. Tourists often think that people in foreign countries can't understand what they are talking about. I've seen people say very nasty things about the place they're in, the food they're served or the behaviour of the "locals." Trust me. These people know. They spend their lives watching tourists. They know who you are. Be nice.

2) Try to Speak the Language. My Italian is horrid. I clearly remember being urged by my wife to ask a complete stranger on a train where our hotel was. I spoke in my halting Italian and watched as a very kind light came into her eyes. She at least knew I was trying. (She answered my question in near perfect English, by the way.) But I'd shown some respect for where I was visiting and that meant something to her.

3) Enjoy The Ride. Why do we travel? We want to see different places and different people, right? Don't get bent out of shape when things don't go your way. If it rains, it rains. If the taxi breaks down -- yelling at the driver accomplishes nothing. I've seen tourists rag on tour guides because the weather sucks, or there are too many bugs or the line-ups are too long. What must they think of us? My wife and I will often look at each other, smile and shrug and say something like "It's travel." So relax. It's all part of the trip.

4) Pay a Couple of Bucks For The Picture, Okay? Two or three dollars might not be much to us. It can be a whole lot more for third world families. Stop and smile. Raise your camera and ask if with your eyes if it's okay to take their picture. Give them a little money. You'll be amazed at what good models they can be. It's a great trade-off. You get a memorable image, they get some cash. I would be able to look at this image with pride if I'd done that...and I probably would have met some cool people. (A little further back in this blog I've written about one of those life-transforming experiences involving me trying to photograph a street person.)

5) Buy the Freaking Chicklets. I don't think I will ever see that kid again. But I won't pass the Chicklet vendors by again. There is, of course, a small risk here. Once the other kids see a tourist passing out money -- you run the risk of getting swamped. That's why I will have a couple of singles in my pocket, ready to go. I can very quietly give the money to one child and move on. I read recently about another traveler who gives out small toys and pencils to the kids. This is a great idea...except that you can't eat a pencil.

I keep thinking: "What must we look like to them?" Wave after wave of bloated tourists roll off the cruise ships waving Visa cards like swords and finding fault with everything around them.

On my first day in Jamaica, I asked the bartender for bottled water. I thought that was what we were supposed to do and frankly I didn't mean any insult. I remember the snapping anger in his eyes. It was there for just a moment and then he masked it by polishing the glasses in front of him. He muttered that there was nothing wrong with Jamaican water...but he gave me a bottle all the same.

It's about being a gracious guest. When you visit someone for dinner, you take a bottle of wine, right? Maybe some flowers...or a dessert. I've been on enough trips now where I am really starting to view myself as a guest in the country I'm visiting.

Try it.

You'll get better pictures, your travel experiences will be much richer and you will never look with shame upon the picture you should never have taken.

Our power is the money we bring. And we have this power because they are poor. But we are going to their homes. And I'd really rather be a welcome guest instead of a jerk.