Haggling on holiday's got me down

EXOTIC, YET BANAL: A fisherman in Kerala. The writer and her partner were treated well everywhere they went, except for the occasional battles with aggressive tuk-tuk drivers.


    Jul 15, 2015

    Haggling on holiday's got me down

    I HAVE been travelling since I was a child. My mother, daughter of a diplomat, made sure travelling was part and parcel of our lives. Having lived abroad through most of her formative years, she believes in the importance of being worldly.

    Now that I'm able to travel on my own, I'm beginning to carve my own travelling style. I'm not adventurous enough to backpack and rough it out, although I've always idealised the thought. Regardless, I love to get "lost", being on my feet and roaming about.

    But lately, I've become more aware of the impact of tourism and the behaviour of tourists. When I was travelling with my mother to poorer states, it usually didn't take her long to cave in and start giving money to street children or beggars. But once your purse is out, you are caught in a swarm and find yourself harassed.

    My family are also tippers, and so I've started a habit of tipping when I can afford it. Tipping became a contested issue between my partner and me as he sees value not in monetary transactions, but in conversations with the locals.

    I've started to reflect on ourselves as the visited country and people. How others would see us as "the exotic" and marvel at buildings that are so banal to us. Some tourists behaving badly abroad have earned themselves a reputation, like the Ugly American or Australians in Bali. This minority has given honest travellers a bad name but the stigma still sticks.

    I wonder if it's our fault for allowing them to behave that way. Asians are usually mild-mannered and we avoid conflict as much as we can. We tend to be extra accommodating to Westerners, but I wonder if this behaviour is taken as a green light for them to step on us.

    Because we don't often stand up for ourselves, it takes a major event like Mount Kinabalu to make us speak up against unwelcome behaviour. If we were more assertive on our rules from the get-go, I wonder if we could have avoided such incidents.

    Perhaps because of the many stories of ugly tourists, I try to be conscious of how I act in other countries.

    In South-east Asia, I blend in easily and I don't stand out too much, but being in Kerala state was the first in a long time that I stood out like a sore thumb. Here, I was clearly a tourist. There have been many cases of abuse against women travellers in India, and that got me slightly paranoid.

    Walking back to the hotel after dinner made me realise how "male" Kochi city (if not India) was. Men would just gather at open fields or by the roadside, chatting with their friends. There were no women in sight.

    We were in Kochi recently and it was the monsoon season, which means low season for tourists. We enjoyed the quietness of Kochi and it seemed as if we had more time to talk to the locals. We were treated well everywhere we went, except for the occasional battles with aggressive tuk-tuk drivers.

    After a few of these encounters, I couldn't help but reflect on how average tourists like us, who try to balance experience and comfort, are willing to spend a little bit more than backpackers.

    But because we come from a developing country, we do not have as much spending power as the Arabs or Chinese, or Westerners whose dollars and pounds weigh much more. So we try to save where we can by walking or being more guarded when shopping.

    In the pit of my stomach, I felt guilty. I felt guilty that I even tried to haggle when I was obviously the one with purchasing power. I felt guilty that even for just 50 or 100 rupees, we didn't want to use their services. But my partner reminded me that, for the locals, it's part and parcel of life.

    As we cruised along the backwaters of Alleppey city, I looked out at an "uncle" reading a newspaper on his front porch and an old fisherman in a rickety boat casting his net. I wonder what goes through their heads as they look back at us, who paid a lot of money just to take a peek at their everyday life - the banality of the Alleppey backwaters.

    Alain de Botton wrote in The Art Of Travel: "Among all the places we go to but don't look at properly or which leave us indifferent, a few occasionally stand out with an impact that overwhelms us and forces us to take heed.

    "They possess a quality that might clumsily be called beauty."

    This moment for me was when I realised I was able to really look at the faces I spoke to.

    Perhaps my only regret was not having a better grasp of Hindi and Tamil films which, I learnt, could be useful as conversational pieces in our attempt to find a connection with complete strangers in passing.


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