When I went in to pay rent for my trailer space, the trailer park owner and I started talking about travel to developing countries. She and her husband are going to meet up in Belize, their second time there. We shared our feelings about the impact of seeing desperate poverty while on vacation, and then Cynthia shared a beautiful story…
She and her husband had signed up for an all-day tour, which started with a homemade breakfast. Breakfast consisted of eggs and freshly prepared tortillas, all made by a woman who appeared to be at least 80 years old. She served her guests in her dirt floor home with care, and everything was immaculate.
Cynthia and her husband were quietly discussing how much of a tip they should leave. Another tour guest overheard; one of three American stock brokers whose conversations certainly suggested they were well-off. He loudly proclaimed that the tip was included in the tour fee, settling the issue for him and his buddies.
Cynthia was aghast at their arrogance and stinginess. A meaningful tip for this woman, who had worked very hard to prepare a nice breakfast, wouldn’t even be missed from their bulging wallets. She felt ashamed to be among selfish, ugly American tourists.
She asked the tour guide to translate, and through him asked the old woman if there was one thing that she really wished she had. At first she demurred, but with further encouragement she said that she wished she had a sign outside her home announcing her restaurant. So few people knew what she offered, and business was very slow.
Cynthia and her husband made all the arrangements, and before they left town a brand new sign was hanging in front of the woman’s home and place of business.
This started a tradition for them. Now every time they travel to a poor country, they keep their ears and eyes open. It starts with making genuine connections with the people whose country they are visiting, something they already did. And when they hear about a way they can make a meaningful difference, they do it. One family was unable to go to a big annual church service because they could not afford nice clothes for their growing children; so Cynthia and her husband took them to a clothing store and bought each child a new outfit to wear to church. On another trip, they bought Christmas presents for a family who didn’t have any money left after paying medical expenses for their ailing grandmother.
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of traveling not as a tourist, but as a visitor to someone’s home; to really experience a culture and its people, not isolate in a sterile resort. Too, I am aware of how tourism can worsen conditions for people already living in poverty: thinking the cities will provide opportunity; they leave behind their chickens and gardens and end up begging on the sidewalk. These are things I want to be more mindful of, so that when I do travel, I do not contribute to worsening conditions.
But what Cynthia and her husband do takes it a step further: a giant step further. They find a way to really help someone. It may or may not change their lives, but it changes their lives in that moment. It also shows that Americans can be courteous, respectful and compassionate. And most important, it creates a tangible opportunity for humans from two entirely different paths to touch each other’s lives.