Tourist is an ugly we word for us. It evokes images of pink, overweight Caucasians floating above the bony shoulders of spindly brown men wheezing above creaking rickshaws that splinter beneath the weight of exotic, unforgiving suns. These salmon spectacles look unhappy and are sweating. They only communicate with their drivers before when they bargain the price and after when they pay. This is strictly an exchange of services: you give me money, I push you up the hill.
This is simple and just.
Since we’ve left China, our faraway Paradise in fatalistic retrospective tunnels of light, we’ve encountered a bonanza of tourists: small ones, big ones, tanned and sculpted backpacker couples you want to look like, middle-aged drifters disillusioned by the new globalized callousness that tourism has rained down on their precious alcoves, paranoid foreign residents that simply hang out for 13 years telling stories about murdered Japanese tourists and paid off cops, worldly Frenchmen telling tall tales about young women doing yoga in the mountains of the Himalayas as they wave their cigarettes gracefully between middle and index finger, maneuvering the smoke like a curtain.
Our encounters with the locals have minimized since we do not speak the language. We have taken to squeezing ourselves, limbs and instruments, into tiny wooden classrooms to play music and teach impromptu English lessons since high school teachers no longer eavesdrop on our lunch conversations, waiting to kidnap us for an afternoon visit to their schools. The small children fill in windows to see us, but they are shy, and we don’t speak their language, so perhaps we appear the same to them as other foreigners passing through their neighborhoods like specters swept away on bikes.
Or perhaps that we stopped and introduced ourselves and gave them something to listen to, songs that we love playing, some we wrote ourselves, perhaps this may show up in their childhood scrapbooks as another page, a sticker, a highlighter just light enough to become memory, which becomes fact, which begets possibility.
Possibility possibly maybe.
The farther away we move from China, the more desensitized people are to foreigners. In Laos, a favorite of SE Asian tourists who describe it as Thailand 30 years ago when it was virginal, people keep to themselves. No one comes to our tables to shake our hands and invites us to drink rice wine with them.
When we camp near paths in rice fields, people walk right through without stopping and acknowledging the rarity of our presence in their countryside crop. The walk away bargaining tactic evokes but a shrug and a chuckle that slaps us mockinglyon the back. In Cambodia, they greet us hospitably and ask us what is it we would like to buy. We are tourists and there is no way around it.
We are tourists. Like everyone else. But there is something soft-tongued and dimpled that has touched us in traveling this closely against the red earth that yawns and slumps beneath the squawking rays of a demanding sun. Something more intimate than the road out in front of us, the pepper-colored pebbles that roll out like pixels beneath our bikes, the breathing earth that in turn takes our breath as we pump pump blood through our thighs hammering down down whoosh whoosh galloping hills, beating back time, creating surface area beneath the skin of our experiences, that takes our breath away when all the climbing is done and suddenly we are at the top of a mountain with rivers and valleys beneath.
And we can feel the ticks of our hearts pounding time.
Our time on earth is valuable. We know exactly how much energy it takes to move our bodies without the assistance of engines 70km across the earth. We know how much time it takes to find a stone on top of a hill to view the sunset, to follow the arms of tall trees that reach into the sky so black that you can only see its teeth, blinging like gold, to find our notepad and precious pen that is so easily lost in transit and record our minds’ visions lest we forget them as the hours fill with visions of mountains and water buffaloes and encounters with locals selling snails at the market on the dock , to follow a trail into old forests where vines are so old they become lumber themselves.
But in these forests, in Laos and Cambodia, where furtive landmines dwell, waiting beneath dead leaves, there are too few people to till the land for rice. Riding into
Cambodia day before yesterday, smoking trees laid on their sides in puddles of ash, stumps floated in heat waves, but there were no signs of animal grazing or slash and burn.
That night, some of our neighbors tiptoed up to our campsite and restacked our campfire with twigs and branches, reviving it into something godlike. They pointed at the flames and put together their palms, trying to convey to us that we should be thankful for something. We were told by other biking tourists that camping in the dark angers the spirits.
Something soft-tongued and dimpled has touched us. We move like ghosts. Sleeping in the woods, we leave behind fruit peels, but take our manmade plastics and our tissues with us. We never stay long enough to leave an impression on the earth. Our footsteps erase. Like our breath. Life is elusive.
But slowness is our mantra. Biking makes us move slowly, see things slowly, village by village, kilometer by kilometer of bamboo forest and red dirt, hut by hut of hyperactive children hollering their “hello’s” and “sabaidee’s” as they run out to the road panting, take in little girls herding water buffaloes across the smooth roads and into the plowed fields. We camp between rest days, awakened by crowing cocks and cow bells that begin their slow daily move to nibble on the fields.
Traveling by bike has taken much of the dazzle out of organized travel for us. When we finally get to a guesthouse on a rest day, we are skeptical of instant boat trips to see “Dolphin on the Mekong” and treks to see tigers in the National Parks, the bungalow stays on the 4000 islands where you can bike around and see waterfalls.
Last week, we sat a lodge in a small village in Laos watching van loads of khaki panted middle aged tourist climb onto the backs of elephants to be taken into the mountains. More interested in sipping coffee and jamming in a music session with the manager, the spectacle seemed more interesting to us than the actual act. The clumsy interaction of European tourists climbing down from air conditioned buses to be led by skinny men in Minnesota sun caps into wild jungles that pull and scratch you if you make the slightest deviation from the path.
The amazing waterfalls and the villagers bathing in the rivers that appear on posters at backpacker hostels are apart of our daily experience on bike. And they usually for free.All but the museums and the cultural heritage sights like Ankor Wat are accessible to us. And if we were to pay money for a tour set up for the benefit of antsy tourists with schedules and tender bellies, we might be let down. We have all the time in the world on bike because we have learnt to appreciate the place we are at when we are there. We cannot rush anywhere on bike. It is impossible without engines. We feel our muscles. We cannot fall asleep, wake up, and suddenly be at our destination. Our destination is here now, on our bikes wherever we may be at lunch, waiting for a situation, an invitation into someone’s conversation, waiting on the whim of strangers.
We are present and reliant on our surroundings and the people around us to give us a good price on food, allow us to camp in their fields, and talk to us when we ourselves are unused to the customs of the place. We must be patient in the market in order to play the cultural game of bargaining.
We could do things quickly: pay the asking price and walk away without any further communication, the way we do in the West, light, efficient unaffected transactions. Exchange of services: I give you money, you make me a fruit shake. We expect success to come in speedy packages. We want what we want when we want it. Now is more preferable than later.
A Norwegian couple I met in Pakse dished out money to a beggar buzzing around their table at breakfast. Easy, cool. Frank. As if there is simply no other thing to do. We are foreigners. The income gap is inexorably large. We can afford to give to these poor people in these poor countries. I shuddered at the sight. Something seemed icky about it, self-righteous, as if it is too easy to make oneself feel justified and charitable by giving out a few notes in a currency that means little to a traveler with powerful euros to burn.
I am not quite sure if I myself have an alternative response to the Third World beggar, but something like an exchange of services say to clean shoes for the dollar one wants, or to share some of your food or to try to communicate to people hoping to get at what it is they need, a meal or clothes, might handle the issue more delicately. Perhaps even this idea of money for service is too Western in thought, perhaps giving to the poor is like giving alms in society. But to know this takes slowness. Thinking of better solutions takes brooding time. Takes interaction, something that Westerners accustomed to the convenience of monetary and service transactions don’t have much time for especially when we have scheduled trains and organized tours.
So we are tourists, as much as we hate the word and the images of fly swatting, barbaric giants. On the ground, underneath the layer of tall tales and fantasies and casual conversations in hostel lobbies, the best we, or any other traveler can do is decide what kind of tourist we want to be. The same way one decides what kind of citizen he or she wants to be, we must decide what kind of tourist we want to be, what we will do with our freedom to take part in a free society.
Cycling has cost us the giddiness of discovering new ways of life on organized day treks and elephant jungle rides, we have gained the intimacy of spontaneity, the deep connection to the weather, the dependence on the hospitality of the people, the erratic pulse of the terrain that rises unforgivingly up 400km stretches or undulates annoyingly like light rain in winter that drills the cold into your bones like a machine gun, instead of just gushing once and stopping.
We give ourselves up completely to the rhythms of the earth and the whims of the people. Waving dollar bills will get you nowhere fast. Building relationships whether through learning the language or making gestures or playing music has replaced the power of the almighty dollar, which we have very little of in the first place.
We crawl off the main arteries of the countries, slipping into the backstreets, sneaking close up views of water buffaloes with birds on their backs, taking brakes in the coolness of caves, waiting for a situation, as Drew would say, to come.