“I wonder if they like what they do?”
“I’d ask but they probably don’t speak English”
“This probably isn’t even a charity, just another scam to try and get money out dumb tourists”
This was an overheard conversation between a couple of backpackers while visiting a workshop, where disabled people (agent orange victims) create and sell artwork. It struck me as sad that these twenty somethings were so jaded. Maybe they just wanted to sound savvy and well travelled or maybe they believed that we had been deposited here to buy handicrafts against our will.
This isn’t an isolated issue though, commonly I hear travelers bemoaning scams, pushy touts, meter fiddling taxi drivers, persistent sales people. Their interactions with local people are often tainted with an underlying mistrust.
At my former employer we were sent on a negotiation training course. Over the duration of the course we roll played as the buyers and the sellers of various products. A principle tenant of the process was the assumption of positive intent, the understanding that both parties had a job to do and neither one was looking to actively screw the other over. We were encouraged to show good humor and good faith at all times. This idea of assuming positive intent really resonated with me, it struck me as something that should be applied to all facets of human interaction.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many pit falls a traveller should be aware of.
When driving from Toronto to Argentina, we were constantly drilled with questions from concerned friends and relatives. A common concern seemed to be the corrupt officials we might meet along the way. Just outside of Mexico City we were pulled over by a policeman, turned out that because of congestion reduction measures, and based on our license plate we were not allowed on that particular stretch of road that day. It unfortunately turned out that this particular officer was not one of the good ones, he tried to extract a $500 bribe, we blathered on about directions, ignoring his request for money, until another police car pulled in behind us, at which point he flung our documents back at us and told us to go. Within seconds the second car pulled us over, this time each window was flanked by a policeman. We rolled down our windows and greeted them with smiles, they enquired if we were ok and if the first guy tried to bribe us, we explained that he did but had given him nothing. They were happy to hear this and went on to explain that we shouldn’t be on this road today, we told them where we had been heading for and that we had ended up on it by accident. Understanding our mistake they insisted that we followed them, they flipped on their lights and escorted us to the correct roads. Over the course of our 18 month road trip we were typically pulled over at least twice a week, every time we greeted the officers with smiles and handshakes, and they universally reciprocated. Had we not assumed positive intent each and everyone of these encounters would have been stressful, but by just assuming these guys were doing their jobs we ended up having positive interactions that ended with smiles laughs and waves goodbye.
Also I have been robbed three times while traveling, thankfully nothing violent, I was always unaware of the act until after it had occurred. Twice was by fellow travelers and once was by a local. If I let this colour my view of travel I would have to be distrusting of everyone which would be exhausting.
As I said at the start maybe the younger backpackers were effecting a cool world weary persona, or maybe it is a reflection of being inexperienced and this is a manifestation of nervousness. Either way I think personally a lot more can be gained from travel by accepting that the touts are just doing there job as are the persistent tuk tuk drivers, acknowledging this with a smile and good grace makes it better for everyone. So let’s all assume a little more positive intent, this goes for your home lives as well as travel lives.