Travelling in the third world exposes you to the terrible injustices of the world, imposed on other peoples.
I remember as a boy I once sat listening to an old traveler as he told me about the world. Whilst he knocked back beers and chain-smoked cigarettes, I hung on every word of strange cultures and far away places. Not much of what he said stays with me now but just the other day some of his words suddenly came back to me. I was thinking about getting involved with the movement for indigenous rights in Chiapas, Mexico when I heard his voice in my head:
“When you travel, you’re just there to observe. The rights and wrongs of a situation have nothing to do with you. You’re just an observer.”
I still don’t know if he was right but I’ll concede that he had a point. It’s a strange thing to travel across the planet to immerse yourself in the struggle of a people whose way of life is so different to yours.
The Zapatistas are the guerilla group in the South East of Mexico who are fighting for the rights of the indigenous people here. Chiapas is a state rich in natural resources; the soil is fertile, there’s plenty of oil and gas and it provides electricity for much of Mexico. Yet most of the tribal people live in the hills without power or even safe drinking water.
Led by a masked man named Sub-Commandante Marcos, the Zapatista forces hide out in the Laconda jungle and have established their own communities in the hills. As the army and various para-military groups have committed numerous atrocities and murders here, waves of international observers have come to volunteer, their very presence acting as an embarrassment for the government’s armed forces.
A lot of good people come to help and the cause of the Zapatistas is clearly a just one, to anyone with open eyes and heart. But many doubt if there’s any point to such a struggle against the odds. Others doubt the intentions of the international volunteers.
“It’s just a game to them,” sighed one shop keeper, “They can’t make revolution in Europe any more so they come to try here instead.”
And this is what I was afraid of when I thought to get involved, that I might just be doing it as a kind of war tourism; another hard-core adventure to put in the pages of a magazine. One night I heard a drunken local shouting at some some volunteers.
“Do you got to make vacations in Iraq and Afghanistan too?”
But however distant a struggle for rights and justice may be, we’re all still humans, right? Simply because someone has a different racial make-up and language, does that mean we care any less about them? Unfortunately, it probably does. When 58 people die in a train crash in Germany, it’s likely to make the news in most of Europe. Whereas a similar accident in India would near a death toll in the four figures to get a mention.
It’s just too far away and unknown. In order to feel empathy for the afflicted we need to be able to imagine ourselves in their shoes. That becomes harder when the victim is covered from head to foot in tribal decorations and pigments that belong to a culture far from our understanding.
Thousands of people died in Hindu-Muslim riots a few years ago in Gujurat, India. Whilst these massacres appalled everyone, most people don’t really know what they were fighting about in the first place. Or even what the difference between the two sides is anyway. The wars in the former Yugoslavia were much closer to home. They bordered on Italy and Austria, places where one might go on holiday. And the people dying were white.
The most successful beggar I ever saw was a Croatian guy in Goa, 1999. His story was that he’d escaped Serbian persecution and was now stuck in India, certain death awaiting him at home. Such was the underlying guilt /responsibility felt by white Europeans for one of their own that he lived the good life in Goa all season. A Kashmiri with the same story would have had trouble getting someone to buy him coffee.
People still do care and they do give but usually in a way that doesn’t require them to think more about it than they have to. Charities like Amnesty, Oxfam and Greenpeace take on the role of relieving our consciences whilst they go and do the dirty work of helping out on the ground.
Sadly, it’s often the case that just a few cents from each dollar actually reaches the needy. Charity begins at home with many NGOs, and the salaries and lifestyle often present more of a career move than a vocation for many of the people who work with them.
True, there are tens of thousands of doctors and nurses who work ridiculous hours for free in relief sites all over the world. You’ll be hard-pushed to find a purer example of altruism. But these saints are an exception rather than the rule. Most people’s reaction to world suffering is to shrug, as if to say ‘it’s not my fault’.
“You’re just an observer.” I was told. And so I look, I listen and I learn – and I do absolutely nothing about it. For, like most people, while it breaks my heart to see people suffer, I also want to live my life in relative comfort.
Perhaps it’s just too big. We find it far easier to make grand sacrifices for friends and family than for an army of orphans on the other side of the world. We can help when we see direct results. Most movements for change seem to break down into undecipherable politics or else run up against multi-billion dollar empires that are unlikely to just step aside. We feel powerless and impotent, just pawns in the game.
But what do I care? I’m just an observer.