You know you’re a tourist when….

By Lori Latta

November 2006

You know you’re a tourist when your malaria pills are giving you recurring nightmares about goats staging armed revolution.

Strange and vivid dreams are a well-known side-effect of anti-malarial medication. But when you wake up cowering from imaginary gun-wielding billies for the third night in a row, don’t expect the general population to empathize. Even in regions where malaria is endemic, local people rarely take anti-malarial pills on a preventative basis. The cost, scarcity, and nasty side effects of malaria drugs are factors, but another important factor is the concern that widespread use of drugs like chloroquine as a malaria prophylaxis jeopardizes the effectiveness of treatment by creating resistant strains of the parasite.

In fact, after decades of leaps in medical science, treatment for malaria has changed little, and there is still no effective cure. Malaria infects over 250 million people worldwide and causes between one and three million deaths per year, 90 percent of them in Africa and mostly among children. But in 2005, only $323 million was invested in malaria research and development—-less than one-third of one percent of total global spending on health-related research and development. Compare this to an estimated $1 billion spent annually just to advertise drugs like Viagra to rich white men. Now that’s a nightmare.

…you can never figure out how to flush the toilet.

You may be familiar with the infrared-sensor automatic flushers in airports, and the complex, diabolical-looking chain-and-pulley systems devised by Europeans. But if you’re travelling in the Third World, don’t look too hard for the nearest flusher. You may find that many facilities employ the “trickle down” theory, where untreated wastes slowly head downstream, downhill, underground, or wherever gravity takes them.

If it crosses your mind that those trenches and pits don’t look very sanitary, you’re right—-and that’s a huge problem. Because lack of access to basic sanitation kills. It kills millions of people. It probably won’t kill you because you are healthy and have access to treatment, but in the Third World 6,000 children die every day from diarrhea caused by lack of sanitation. One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is to provide 1.75 billion people with access to their own toilets by 2015. But these toilets had better not be North American-style flushing toilets, each of which uses about 15,000 litres of water a year to flush away the average person’s 50 pounds of shit—-there simply isn’t enough water in most of the world’s more populated areas to support all that flushing. Much better if we all switch to dehydrating or composting toilets, which sanitize without using any water. (Some assembly and maintenance required.)

…your “regularity” becomes a topic of conversation with every traveller you meet.

Not only are your own bowel movements a newly acceptable news update at the breakfast table, but you may find your fellow travellers responding with prolonged, enthusiastic and very detailed accounts of their own. Your digestive system can definitely steal attention from the scenery when you are suffering the effects of the less-than-pure water used for drinking and food preparation by about 18 percent of the world’s people. With contaminants ranging from chemical pollutants to bacteria to parasites and water-borne diseases, even tourists are bound to ingest a bug or two—-despite drinking only bottled water and avoiding the so-called “cholera wagons” that peddle water to the millions of urban poor who lack access to safe water sources. And urban people are better off than rural people, especially rural women, who have the added insult of giving up hours they might have spent on education or other productive work in order to fetch the tainted water that may kill them. 85 percent of people who lack access to clean water live in rural areas. (This includes several First Nations communities right here in Canada.)

…you are standing in the baking sun wearing a Tilley hat.

Even back when there was an unbroken ozone layer, generations of inhabitants of tropical countries learned to stay in the shade at midday�much the same as generations of Canadians learned not to lie around outside when it’s minus 32 (hat or no hat).

But in many tropical countries, deforestation is depriving people and ecosystems of natural shade and moisture, even as the temperature rises. More than 46 percent of our planet used to be covered by forests; today only a quarter is forested. For a long time deforestation was presented as a result of population growth and poor people depleting forests for fields and fuel. However, the insatiable global consumer economy clearly shares the blame. Infrastructure development (sometimes for tourism), cash cropping, and the demand for forest products account for a large chunk of deforestation. Global wood consumption alone is expected to double over the next 30 years. Also associated with deforestation are decreases in biodiversity and increases in desertification, average temperature, and the wearing of Tilley hats.

…everybody wants to sell you stuff.

Oh, the burden of wealth. But if you compare the modest Canadian per capita income of roughly $20,000 annually to the per capita income of a tourist destination such as Nepal at $210 annually (one percent of our income), you can understand why your sudden appearance in a market would create as much excitement as Oprah walking into a food court. Never mind how much money you think you have—-for much of the world, western tourists are the personification of western wealth and gluttony. It is a fact that if you can travel, you are privileged, so there’s no use fighting that stereotype.

On the other hand, there are other stereotypes of westerners as ignorant, exploitative and arrogant—-and you can help to fight those stereotypes if you keep in mind some of the questions and issues raised in this magazine.

Lori Latta is the Executive Director of Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation (SCIC). SCIC and its fifty member organizations have been fighting global poverty for so long that if they didn’t laugh, they’d cry.

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