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2014-06-22

Observations of Traveling

I started working for an international NGO about 8 months ago. I write this little essay during my third trip to the developing world and my sixth country. What follows are just some (almost) random observations from the surface of these excursions. From more experienced travelers, I ask indulgence for a newbie set of visions. 

Contrasts

The disparities bertween wealth and poverty are visible and jarring to my middling American eyes. You see, in America we separate these economic conditions and the social issues that arise from them by distance. The automobile is the biggest cultural factor of our lives. (Isn't the first step of recovery to admit you have a problem?) It allows many of us to live in moderate comfort (amazing luxury in the context of the developing world) far removed geographically and socially from those who toil for sub-par minimum wages or live off the bits of lucre that fall into their cups as they panhandle outside the subway station or on the corner. 

In the microscopic sample of developing world I have seen, the rich and poor live more often side-by-side. They are usually separated by a high wall topped with--pick your weapon of choice--barbed wire, pointed steel spikes, or razor wire. Every compound has its gate and the richer ones have guards as well. Unlike America where these contrasts are usually separated by miles and the occasional gate, these developing world rich and poor are separated by a barrier just a few inches thick. Right outside those walls are "the wretched of the earth" to use Frantz Fanon's book title for what came to be called the Third World. 
Digression: For those too young to have read Fanon's classic book on the psychological and cultural effects of economic colonialism, he wrote it at a time when there was the first world based on capitalism, a second world alternative based on communism, and then the rest of humanity. At that time, 1961, those in between were both a battleground and living challenge to the first two. 
On the outside of these gated houses, hotels, and compounds are people who live on the streets, underneath bridges, and in makeshift shacks. Some beg but many more work to scratch together the living they need to make it through the day. Many, so many, work as cooks, cleaners, waiters, gardeners, and other staff to serve those who live within the high walls. Their workplaces are comfortable in a way, but all live seconds from a rough return to the streets if they fail to meet expectations and demands of their employers. 

Am I conflicted about staying inside gates and behind walls? Of course. Am I glad to stay relatively safe and comfortable behind the barriers? You bet. I remember a television drama many years ago about a British Prime Minister who was a socialist. He was asked if he would abolish First Class in the British railway system. He replied, "Of course not. I believe everyone should travel in first class." 


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