The Well-Intentioned Guest

(A letter from somewhere between here and there)

By Ryan Meili

November 2006

Dear traveller:

In your time abroad you can be a guest or a parasite—-it depends upon how you treat your hosts. My intention in this letter is to give you, the intrepid, well-intentioned traveller, a few practical suggestions on how to get the most from your travels while doing the least harm. To attempt to be comprehensive would be folly, so I will concentrate on a few key concerns.

Be prepared to give and take

One problem particular to the traveller who sets out with the intention of helping the poor or protecting the environment is the inevitable frustration that comes with the inability to make a real difference.

Unless (and often even if) you come with a very specific and immediate skill, you will be of very little use in your first visit. In light of the magnitude of the problems that exist in the Global South, the admirable desire to make great changes can become a source of deep frustration. What you need to recognize is that you will gain far more from visiting another country than the people there will gain from you. If you can accept that and relax, then you can set about making your willingness to learn your greatest contribution.

This paradox of giving by being willing to receive is an important one to keep in mind. So many who travel to economically poor countries are shocked by the experience of those with nothing wanting to share what little they have with a stranger from a wealthy land. While it is important not to take advantage of such generosity, I encourage you to accept gifts and sincere invitations whenever possible. Why? Just think how satisfying it has been for you to give in the past, when that gift has been honoured and appreciated. Don’t deny someone that feeling because they are poor. Simply allowing people to be your teachers and hosts may be what you are meant to give. At the very least, remember that if you are ever to be of help to those around you, you must first learn from them, and to do so you must be humble and open-minded.

In Mozambique there is a rural area called Tevele. It is on the road to a beautiful beach called Pomene where many tourists from South Africa and other countries go to holiday. These tourists are mostly white people: mlungus in the local language of Xitswa. One day, while another Canadian and I were working with a community group on a malaria project in Tevele, a group of local youth showed up and asked who the mlungus were. The other community members replied, “Oh, they�re not mlungus. They sit on the ground with us.” I don’t think they could have given us a greater compliment.

Know why you go

If you’re going for the bragging rights, to mark off a few more places on the checklist of dark continents and great adventures, don’t go. That is simply ego-tourism. If, however, you are open to new experiences, aspire to be humble and kind, and adapt easily, there are a great many people willing to show you the rich and beautiful world in which we find ourselves.

Do your homework

Learn something about the country’s history, its political divisions, its prides and dirty secrets. With background knowledge you can ask more meaningful questions and get a deeper sense of the events that have led to the current situation. This will also give you some forewarning to avoid entanglement with one faction or another, or at least to know which side you think you’re on.

And if you’re travelling where you don’t speak the language, a little genuine effort to learn (and continue learning) greetings, terms of respect, and common sayings (“there’s no room in here to swing a cat” in Hindi, for instance), and a willingness to laugh at yourself for getting it wrong now and then, will open more doors than you can imagine.

Stay alert, stay safe

Personal safety is important. You need to feel comfortable and secure in order to open up. Lao Tzu said that “whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.” There’s a lot of truth in that, but the phrase trust in God but lock your car can be thrown into the mix as well. The best way to feel safe is to simply act like you feel safe but keep your eyes open. The less you look worried or wealthy, the less likely you are to receive unwanted attention.

No matter how comfortable you feel or look, however, you may find yourself in a dangerous situation. Being aware of particular dangers related to gender or geography can minimize the risk. Use caution and forethought like you use a seatbelt or a bike helmet: wise precautions that let you enjoy the ride.

Beware of foreign affairs

While many a cross-cultural romance has blossomed into a beautiful relationship, sexual exploitation by tourists is far too common. If you find yourself attracted to someone you meet when you’re visiting, don’t rush in. First unpack why you’re attracted to them, and vice versa. How much is a true connection and how much is tied to what you represent to one another: wealth, status, adventure, the exotic. Subtle differences in status can result in people being taken advantage of, even if that is not evident on the surface.

Think before you click

Photographs are very powerful as a reminder of our experiences and a means of sharing what we’ve learned with those who can’t go themselves. Keep in mind, though, that there are ethical minefields here. You may want to take pictures that reflect the harsh realities of life, to represent the trials and tribulations of the people you’re visiting. But remember to respect the dignity and individuality of the people you photograph. I‘�s a fine line between faithful representation and poor-nography. Always ask two questions: Why am I taking this picture? and How would the people here feel about me showing this to strangers? The Heisenberg principle of quantum physics states that no particle can be observed without changing the particle. The same is true for people. Think long and hard of how your observation will change the people you visit—-and to whose benefit or detriment.

This short letter is no place to unpack all the vagaries and complexities of development work and volunteer travel. I don’t pretend to know the answers to how we can properly work in solidarity with people from other countries. But if travellers keep in mind the goals of the local people, the culturally appropriate ways of reaching them, and the strengths present in the community that can be mobilized to move toward those goals, well-intentioned visitors can be a great help.

My hope is that mindful travellers will leave more than footprints and take more than photographs, that theirs can be a legacy of understanding, solidarity, and cross-cultural collaboration for positive change.

Ryan Meili is a gentleman and a scrawler. When his passport is put away he studies and practices Family Medicine in Saskatoon.

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