Arturo was a smart guy. He didn’t have many teeth left, but he eyes were bright and quick, his collared shirt clean and pressed, and his pantomimes of art history happenings more exuberant than anything I’d ever done sober. We had run into him at a museum in Mexico City, and he proceeded to walk us through every single aspect of Diego Riviera’s intricate murals. Our encounter encompassed almost two hours, 5 murals, and several conversations about both parties’ personal lives.
When it came time for us to leave, I held my breath and braced myself for the supplication that had been a foregone conclusion in the back of my mind from the moment Arturo started talking: “How much money is he going to ask us for in return?”
Thankfully, it never came. Arturo bid us goodbye with nothing more than a smile and a wave, and my faith in humanity was restored ever so slightly.
Yet the encounter remains poisoned in my memory due to the suspicion I had harbored during the whole exchange. I expected him to demand money from us because he had shared his time and knowledge with us, because he didn’t look well-off, and because, well, this was Mexico. Western travelers are used to shrugging off persistent pleas for alms or purchases at the numerous tchotchke shacks that line every tourist attraction in the developing world. It’s easy to shrug off the fusillade of begging when presented at you all at once, and as long as you speak firmly and don’t dally, such vendors usually give up and leave you alone.
But it’s harder to deal with the seemingly friendly local encounters that reveal themselves as scams designed to bring out your wallet rather than your goodwill. Like the man in Bulgaria who struck up conversation with us in the street only to foist the business cards of his gentleman’s club on us five minutes in. Or the Thai peddler who let my friend carry his bag on a stick for a block, only to turn around and demand payment for the privilege. Or the elderly Moroccan man who found me wandering lost in the medina of Tangiers and accompanied me to my intended destination amidst friendly conversation, only to sink to his knees upon arrival and beg for coffee money.
Such interactions are intrinsically disappointing, but what’s worse is that they poison the few legitimate relationships I happen upon (like Arturo) with suspicion and doubt. I cannot be sure of a stranger’s intentions in the Third World, but I’m usually not far off the mark when I guess them to be fiduciary.
And this is a terrible shame. I view all relationships as transactional – in any friendship things are being freely given and taken by both parties. Solidarity, a partner in crime, common interest, or just someone to talk to – these are all common things in the friendship marketplace. But what makes it magical is the lack of money exchanged for such services. You’re not friends with someone because they pay you to be – you’re friends with them because you like them and get just as much out of the relationship as they do. Accordingly, you give them little bonuses, like picking up their lunch here, offering a couch to crash on there, or a shoulder to lean on in times of need. These are starkly priced commodities outside of friendships (look at restaurants, hotels, and psychiatrists, respectively), but on the inside they are unspoken guarantees.
Romantic relationships have even more give-and-take going on, since they provide vitally important things to each party. That’s why they’re so much harder – so much is being given and taken that sometimes the balances are uneven, or one person comes in looking for something that the other is not willing to offer. And they provide an even more obvious distinction between organic and inorganic offerings – you can’t hire somebody to be your girlfriend; it becomes a completely different relationship at that point
This trust and goodwill is often absent when rich travelers come to developing counties, sadly. Certainly you can find authentic friends in such places – if you stick around and invest in the community with an open heart, there’s always true friends to be had. But on the street, when you only have a few days in the city, they see you as nothing more than a big walking dollar sign, and thus you come to see them as nothing more than greedy scavengers. Human interaction is transformed into a soulless accounts payable spreadsheet, and the joy of connecting with fellow humanity is lost, to the detriment of all involved
But who am I to condemn these opportunists? They’re never asking for more than what I would spend cavalierly on a candy bar at the gas station back home. That paltry sum is worth far more to them than it is to me, as it probably comprises the majority of their daily income. By refusing to play their game I may be shirking them of the daily bread, and the only cost to me is a few moments of annoyance along with a dollar or two. Shouldn’t I acquiesce to their demands and brighten their bland lives that short bit? Yet by doing so I reinforce their addiction, and the next hapless traveller to come this way will get set upon just as vociferously. Most importantly, I contribute towards degrading human kindness into commodity bartering.
This is why I detest the American policy of tipping. I shouldn’t have to pay you extra in order to receive my food or beer without hassle – the cost of the delivery of the product should be part of the product itself. It’s not like we’re shipping it across the country. By separating it, every nuance of my interaction with the waiter/waitress is now part of the balance sheet, and any kindness on their part becomes inauthentic, as it is now a calculated business decision. But that’s an entirely different blog post.
I still haven’t come up with a good answer to the question of whether to enable such commodification of human interaction abroad (or here, amidst homeless beggars who are just as grateful for a dollar). It makes me treasure the authentic friendships and interactions I have with others all the more, no matter where I am. Meaningful connection with other humans is possibly the most important and rewarding part of life, and thus it should remain sacred.
Photo from Greg Younger