Meaningful travel & transactional relationships – Part 1

by Steve Brock on May 31, 2011

How meaningful can a relationship be when that relationship is based on a transaction, some form of monetary exchange? That’s a question that haunted me at the end of my trip to Peru.

I realized on the last day of our trip that every significant conversation I had in the week we were in Peru was with someone that I either paid or that wanted me to pay them. Drivers, waiters, hotel staff, guides, vendors, airline employees – all of these people who showed great interest in me had reasons to do so beyond my witty charm or compelling repartee.

Limited time in a highly traveled area made it difficult for us to meet local people who weren’t somehow tied to the tourist trade. As a result, I had a number of interactions– some brief encounters, some extended conversations – with people who, in a sense, were paid to do so.

Sort of cheapens the value of those conversations, doesn’t it?

Or does it?

Some encounters were, of course, strictly monetary exchanges. Take the two women, small child and lamb in the picture. That photo set me back about US$.70 (two Peruvian sols), the going rate in the area. Paying people to photograph them isn’t something I normally condone. But in this touristy area, it’s an established practice that preserves the traditional dress and provides income in a region of high poverty. Tipping them may thus be culturally acceptable, but it doesn’t make for a meaningful relationship.

Another source of interactions that intrudes on you there are street vendors who constantly assail you like swarming mosquitoes that you shoo away only to have them approach you moments later from a different angle. The closest any of these came to even a quasi-deeper-level encounter occurred outside the cathedral in Cusco.

A woman street vendor – probably the 70th of the day – approached me, attempting to sell various handicrafts. I gave my usual answer in Spanish: “No thank you. I don’t need any of those.” Most vendors usually leave me after that or make one last effort to convince me otherwise. But this one just stopped and said in broken English, “You good tourist.”

That caught my attention, so I asked her why in Spanish. Now in Spanish, she replied, “Because you said, ‘Thank you.’ Other tourists like that lady there just say, ‘No.’ You looked at me. You said ‘No, thank you.’”

I smiled at her and said appreciatively, “Thank you very much… But I still don’t need anything.”

She returned my smile even more broadly. She then nodded and walked off repeating as she left, “You’re a good tourist.” And that was it.

Not a meaningful relationship, but it was, at least, a human encounter.

Sometimes on short trips, those are enough.

So back to my original question: Can encounters with people you meet on a trip be meaningful if they are based only on the exchange of money?

I think the secret lies in that word, “only.”

You may meet someone such as that street vendor who may initially see you only as a potential source of income. You in turn may see her only as an annoyance. But when you both begin to see each other as fellow humans and move beyond the starting point of the transaction itself, something wonderful can happen…even if only for a moment.

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