It had been a while since I spent hours locked up in a train, so it was with some joy that I folded myself into the short bed of an overnight train to the Chinese border the other day. The compartment was fan cooled, which meant no glass in the windows between the sleepers and the corridor. Which in turn meant that you would wake up in the night with strange little men in the room, who had let themselves in using thin arms and the pane-less windows to unlock the door.
The way back was more interesting still. Our beds had been double booked, so I got shunted from compartment to compartment, eventually coming to rest at the expense of a young Vietnamese girl who was turfed into the corridor by the heartless guards. I’d had a few Tigers, and was presented by a local expert on tourist development policy, and an aging, grey-bearded English fool. The fool had been to Nepal, Tibet, anywhere else he cared to mention. Before it was legal / popular / easy / blah blah blah. Nepal was great. No matter how the Vietnamese dude tried to steer conversation to Vietnam and our opinions on the tourist scene, or of Asian politics and economics, the fool was determined to tell us how good trekking in Nepal was.
There weren’t any elephants in North Vietnam he said, which was a pity. They were good for trekking. But he prefered to see them in their natural environment, working. And although you could see them in Nepal, it was a bit touristy. Touristy? Do you speak Nepalese, Vietnamese? Well, do you? Thought not. Travel around speaking English slowly to them, hoping that they will be untouched by your visit. Do you want all of these people to stay exactly as they are, so that you can visit them with your stupid sandals, and compare them all to Tibet thirty years ago?
While you’re at it, lets set some people up in England, let them live in the middle ages so we can visit them too. Watch them die of bubonic plague so that we get the authentic insight into nursery rhymes about roses. And please, can you be one of them?
So the Hmong only wash their clothes once a year, who cares that tourists want them to be cleaner to buy bangles from? They have UNICEF hospitals and an improving life expectancy, and ten children per family. The children sell trinkets to tourists for more money than they get selling rice, without the back breaking labour. What do you think they’re going to do? I’m not going anywhere in particular with this rant, but at least acknowledge that if you are going to visit places, in whatever numbers, you are going to change them. Its okay giving ‘sustainable capability building policies’ to the locals, but what about giving a bit of a kick, and some instructions to the tourists. Sorry, travellers.