I find cultural tours to developing countries to be immensely rewarding personally. We are all global citizens, and experiencing and interacting with other cultures gives us a broader perspective and appreciation of our own lives. Developing countries in particular are so different from my own day-to-day world that I often have to pause, simply to reflect on what I have seen, experienced and learned.
Still, I feel some ambivalence. I enjoy people watching. I don’t believe I seek a titillating voyeuristic thrill. I think that people are the essence of any culture, and we best learn by watching and interacting with them. My ambivalence stems from a vague moral discomfort; it somehow feels “different” when I am in a very poor country. I’ve seen thousands of tourists shove their cameras right into the faces of locals without thought or simple courtesy, as the locals go about their daily business of simple survival. This has a tinge of a human safari. Tourists would never dare try that to a New Yorker without fear of bodily harm.
Does the fact that I either try to interact with the locals and seek their permission first, or try to be at least discreet in my candid shots, make a difference? Does the fact that I treat shooting photos of people in a developing country no different than when I am in a major Western capital matter? I am often trying to capture a universal human expression or drama, more than “look at the homo sapien Asiatica that I saw on my safari.” Or am I nonetheless still somehow impinging on their humanity? And then there is the fact that tourism is the major source of revenue in these countries. Without tourists, whatever our behavior, there is no question that the lives of many of these locals would be worse.
I try to discreet and respectful in my candid shots, which are almost always in venues where the subjects know they are likely to be photographed by someone. I also try to interact with many of the locals, and often ask permission, even if it is as simple as pointing to my camera and then pointing to them with a questioning look. I’m not sure that I’ve struck the right balance, but people watching will remain a huge part of all of my travels, regardless of destination. As for the occasional photo of a buffoon doing something stupid or looking ridiculous? Well, that may not be respectful, but it certainly is universal.
Sapa provided many photo opportunities of the local citizens in various settings. I loved the colorful costumes, but most of all, I respected their work ethic. The layered rice paddies are truly beautiful, but think about the level of human effort it takes to build and maintain them, and then to work the mountainous fields daily. I spent hours watching farmers as they go about their back breaking work. I encountered many tribal people walking for hours (!!!) each way to get to market, or on Sunday, to make it to the local church. These people work harder than we can imagine, simply to eke out a wage that most of us would consider as coins we lose in our friends’ couch cushions.
And this is where my comment about good luck comes in. To paraphrase a comment made by the famous investor Warren Buffett, I feel blessed to have been a relative winner in the “Ovarian Lottery.” Buffett asks us to imagine that just before we are born, we get to stick our hand in a bucket with 7 billion slips of paper. The paper we pull out will determine whether we are born male or female, black or white, in the UK or in Bangladesh, etc.
We (especially we Americans) like to think that we make our own fortune. We succeed entirely because of our talents. In a world of true equal opportunities, perhaps this view may have some justification. I’m lucky and blessed to be an American. In two generations, my family moved from abject poverty to a comfortable life, due to both hard work and good luck. But what if my grandparents were born in Sapa (or Bangladesh or Somalia)? What if I had been born as a Sapa tribal girl? What if Steve Jobs had been born in Sapa? Can any amount of talent overcome the misfortune of the lottery? Or to put it differently, who’s to say that among the dozens of kids I saw on my trip, one of them couldn’t have been the next e-commerce star had he or she simply drawn a better ticket in the Ovarian Lottery.
Sapa was a great trip on many fronts: natural beauty, wonderful people, and cultural insights.
It also reminded me that not everything I have is due to my perceived great skill or intelligence. I also have had plenty of good luck, and can call home a great country. I'm also reminded that as a global citizen, we all have a duty to help better the lives of others if and where we can. I don't know if I personally can do much in Sapa, but there are plenty of other areas where you and I can make a real contribution.