OK, so I was kinda cranky when I posted before. This place had really gotten to me, and I suppose it didn’t help that I was tired and hot and sore and that a tuk-tuk *hit* me (and ran over my foot!), leaving a nasty bruise on my leg. So today, instead of spending my last day at the temples, I opted to wander in town a bit, have an hour-long foot massage (ahhhhhh) and then have a few beers with a late lunch. I’m much more cheerful now.
I’m back into the mode of traveling alone, and I have to say that in many ways I prefer it. I’ve met and chatted with dozens of other travelers and locals since Marjan and I parted ways just 5 days ago. I suspect that part of my current relief is that Marjan wasn’t my perfect match in terms of travel companion, though we got on just fine. I’m just happy to be doing my own thing again.
For example, in Phnom Penh I met a Dutch man who’s teaching English for a year in the Cambodian countryside as part of a volunteer program with an NGO. He said he doesn’t know that he or NGOs in general are doing much good here. There’s terrible poverty in rural areas, and families can’t afford to send their children to school – let alone feed them well enough to pay attention to their studies. But when an NGO comes in to help (he says) Cabmodians view it as an opportunity to get a swankier school rather than to increase the number of children who go to school. People live for appearances *right now* rather than investing in the future of the country via education. “It’s an interesting problem,” he said. “In Honduras, for example, there was no NGO help [because of a general boycott] and they did a great job of helping themselves.” He also said that it’s different in Vietnam, where people have national pride “because they defeated the Americans.”
Today I met a man from New York – he lives right down the street from me, in Stuy-town – who’s here fro three weeks. He and his travel buddy were sitting next to me at lunch. He was drinking a diet Coke out of a can, and there was a small homeless boy hanging around, gesticulating at him and his drink and making a drinking motion. He boy wanted the guy to hurry up and drink the Coke so that he could have the can. He absolutely refused to leave until the guy finally finished.
The whole situation was annoying for us, as you might imagine, because we couldn’t have an uninterrupted conversation (and I had to pay half my attention to the boy’s proximity to my backpack). But forget us – what about the boy (and the dozens of others around town)? On the one hand, collecting cans is definitely more productive than simply panhandling or out-and-out stealing. (An education would be even better, of course.) On the other hand, he’s learning a lesson early that all Siem Reap area citizens seem to know: If you whine and pester and annoy tourists long enough, eventually they’ll give you the can (or buy your postcard or bottle of water or guide book) just to make you go away. Speaking of going away: I can’t wait to get out of here, and I’m completely disinclined to buy any souvenirs at all because I’m sick of being harassed about them.
This whole question about tourism and developing economies is an interesting one. It comes up a lot when scuba diving. If there is a beautiful, untouched reef somewhere, scuba shops open up to bring tourists there. The tourists come in greater and greater numbers, requiring more hotels (and resulting in more deforestation and then runoff when it rains, which kills the reef). At least one person (and often many more) in every dive group touches the coral either accidentally or because they’re a poor or stupid diver. When you touch coral it dies, and it takes weeks for that little bit to grow back. The regrowth can’t keep up with the tourist volume, the reef suffers, it can’t support aquatic life, the diving starts to suck…and we divers move on to the next “untouched” spot. Replace “touch the reef” with “brush against ancient carvings on Angkor Wat” or “trod on Mayan ruins” or “trek through virgin rain forest” and the whole thing gets depressing quite quickly. Makes you think you should just stay home and watch the Discovery Channel – let the professionals do it!
Oy vey – what’s with the doom and gloom today? I better shut the eff up.