Tiger Leaping Gorge and a poor attempt to express my views on interaction between travelers and locals.
One of the most famous canyons in the world is located in China’s Yunnan province. At sixteen kilometers long, the Tiger Leaping Gorge runs along the Yangtze River, the third longest in the world. My hike through the gorge began in the village Qiaotou, where the pansexual proprietor of Jane’s guesthouse took in backpacks of those travelers who planned to continue further north after the hike. After insisting we photograph the large map with routes and her phone number on the wall she wished us good luck and we set off.
The entrance fee to the gorge is 50 Yuan, but a 50% discount is available to anyone with a (self-made or authentic) student ID card. The gorge takes its name after a tiger who supposedly leaped 25 meters across the river as he ran from the hunters pursuing him.
Our group of 9 met at Mama Naxi’s guesthouse in Lijiang. Every day travelers meet at this amiable guest house, become friends over the communal dinner at 6 o’clock and make plans to hike the length of the gorge together.
The hike lasted two days. As we climbed we met an old Naxi woman. She had a loaded basket strapped to her shoulders and seemed many times more at ease than us on the rocky path. Desiring to capture and remember this eccentric and charming woman, I took out my camera. “Three Yuan” she said in Mandarin.
A kilometer later we came upon a small table laden with provisions, water and marijuana. An old man stood nearby and demanded we pay him for photographing ourselves on the scenic cliff nearby.
In our group were two Germans, one Belgian, two Israelis, three Americans, and me (a Russian-American). One of the American girls tried to buy something from each seller we passed (it was her way of supporting the villagers). After we passed the old man at the cliff I instigated a discussion on the topic of money and tourism.
I asked the Belgian why he’d paid the old woman for her photo. He replied that he felt he was taking something for which he should compensate her. “But what did you take,” I wanted to know.
True, my Belgian friend has inherited the rights and social mobility of European civilization’s legacy, middle class privileges, an education and all the opportunities that these accord him. “I have choices, she doesn’t, she’s ignorant, therefore my life is better.” I suggested that he was imposing his conceptions without considering the diverse cultural composition of the villagers.
Freedom is a cultural construct. Its definition and value varies across cultures. Amongst the nomads of Venezuela, the Yanomami, freedom is understood in terms of territory rather than interpersonal relations. In this society, women do not feel violated because they are pressured to marry young. According to Good’s narrative, they do not even feel violated during a rape. (Into the Heart, by Kenneth Good) But show the nomads the ways of the others and make them feel inferior and they’ll adopt the cultural values and aspirations of the others.
I am not romanticizing the life of the Naxi woman, but I think that the questions are too complex to be answered by direct charity. I too want to see people live better but generosity without awareness may not be goodwill at all. Rather this generosity (much like missionary efforts) may simply undermine the lifestyle of these villagers or put them in circumstances far worse than their present ones.
I too am guilty of being obsessed with freedom. I too have spent countless hours insisting that everything could be better if everyone appreciated their freedom. I too have worried that those who lack freedom are deprived and miserable.
Indeed, if the Naxi woman lacks choice and freedom, the important question is not how can we help her attain it but how does this affect the quality of her life. If we have any desire to maintain cultural diversity on our earth, we ought to consider how we interact with the strangers we meet in the mountains, forests, and plateaus of distant lands. Traveling is an opportunity to witness these differences directly and to partake in the lives of strangers rather than pity them for lacking the conveniences and customs we are accustomed to.
As tourists, are we customers by nature? Or is this gap between traveler and local person individually constructed? Are we undermining our travel experience by turning ourselves into customers more and more directly? Perhaps the answer is yes only if our reasons for travel are inter-cultural.
Instead of using the camera as a means to unite us, it becomes a tool that differentiates and turns travelers into customers and locals into providers. By paying the Naxi woman for her photo we ablate the possibility of a non-consumer relationship. We’re no longer guests in her land who have honored her by photographing her; we’re foreigners and the money we paid her is symbolic of our separateness. Our exchange is finished. She will relate her luck to her neighbors and they will follow suit, juicing tourists like oranges. We are catalysts in the transformation of human relationships. And as such, maybe it’s because of us that a man decides to stand on a piece of grass in his village and demand to be paid for trespassing it?