Culture shock, language barriers, or strange new encounters – these are the expected common side effects of traveling abroad.
I am an adaptive person thanks to a background stretched between two different cultures, experiencing little doses of culture shock on an annual basis since childhood. Packaged alongside bare minimalism and low maintenance, traveling the world was an easy task.
And for most of the journey, it has been smooth sailing.
Yet as I complete my second year of traveling, I find that I’m not getting sick of those predicted side effects of roaming a foreign land, but an unease for something else entirely unexpected.
It was the sense of divide – the inability to travel the world as anything except an “outsider.”
Since the beginning, I have volunteered while traveling, to avoid the dreaded “Tourist vs. Local” dynamic. I wanted to immerse into the cultures I visited, living with locals and working with them.
In the two months I spent in Morocco, however, I was given a rude awakening.
In major cities like Marrakesh or Fez, we were in the midst of rich tourism. It was expected that we’d be treated differently, and heckled by those who make a living prying money off foreigners. Henna artists grab your arms on the street, while children follow you through the winding medinas, pretending to give directions and cuss you out for not tipping.
When we entered Tamegroute, we expected something different. In this quaint, sandy village where everyone seems to live underground, women are covered head to toe in black niqabs,while local children playfully run through the narrow alleyways in between Quran School. There are no foreigners around, so there wouldn’t be a culture of accosting tourists, right?
To my complete surprise, it was quite the opposite. The local children had a tendency to immediately start following foreigners, muttering in French and gesturing the need for money or food. These children looked healthy, dressed in decent clothes and sometimes even carried Disney-brand backpacks. Yet they still seemed to have been taught to see foreigners as financially superior cash cows that you should shamelessly harass.
It was undeniably irritating, as some young locals stalk while putting on a pity play, tugging at your clothes and begging. It is an obvious act, and it’s disturbing to see children learning to conspire and connive for materialistic gain at such a young age. Unfortunately, often times you must resort to rudeness in order to be left alone. The consequential insensitivity that develops is numbing.
In my overall impression of Morocco, the rural folks seem to lead simple lives. It’s not an impoverished, third-world country, and people work humble jobs, live modestly, while the children seem playful and healthy. And in our great experience with hitchhiking, we received great hospitality.
Yet the sense of disparity between the local and foreign is unavoidable. With the average working wage at only €200/month, it’s no wonder so many young people see tourists as walking wads of cash and choose to make a living as professional guilt-trippers instead. Why would you study or pursue a real career when you can make more money as a beggar?
Morocco has a long history of European rule and influence, with French still being one of its main languages. Yet in cities like Casablanca, there is still a massive income inequality issue, proved best by how many cheap labor one average business can afford. As an ignorant backpacker who spent merely two months there, what I saw was most likely only the tip of the iceberg.
Beyond Morocco, this divide holds true for many more countries, such as India or Thailand. These “poorer” nations have developed communities whose entire economies depend on shopaholic vacationers. Selling mass-produced cheap jewelry or begging has become the best, if not only, source of income.
I don’t consider these countries to be “poor.” In fact, I think many of these people are much more satisfied with their lives than the average middle-class American. But there’s an attitude toward foreigners, caused by tourist influences, that makes it difficult to be there as an outsider.
Most people going on exotic vacations aren’t there to care about societal issues. Most of us enjoy the sense of superiority as our currency fattens upon entry. But the sad reality is watching children spend their days with their palms held out, staring at your oily sunburnt ass on the sandy beach playing Candy Crush on a smartphone worth more than their house. However, spending a few dollars on them is not going to change anything, as they will most likely bring it back to someone who will only ask them to go back out and get more.
I’d like to imagine a time when these villages were untainted by our capitalism, and the locals lived modest yet sustainable and satisfied lives.
As my journey completes, I sit here visiting family in Taiwan, where I speak the language and consider it a second home. There are many things I don’t understand about this culture, like the TPapocalypse or their obsession with white skin. But I am thankful for my privileges, to be able to choose my way of life, and to be able to walk outside as a woman alone without having to sell anything or be rude to anyone.
The ability to travel is a blessing, but sometimes it takes a toll, for reasons least expected.