Meaningful travel & transactional relationships – Part 2

by Steve Brock on June 3, 2011

As with people we meet on a trip, there's more to something as simple as a bottle of water than we initially think...

As we saw last time, relationships that start out based on a monetary transaction don’t have to stay at that level.

For example, for two of the days we were in the Sacred Valley in Peru, we hired a driver to take us to various Incan ruins and local markets. I’ll call him Miguel.

Miguel wasn’t very talkative. Though I tried to converse in Spanish, we sensed that his lack of English made him hesitant to initiate conversations. He’d answer our direct questions about destinations or logistics, but that was it.

On the second day, however, I was more rested which helped both my attitude and my Spanish immensely.

So with renewed zeal I tried to engage Miguel in a deeper conversation. Several attempts to do so either resulted in short answers or ones that exceeded my vocabulary.

Finally, however, I asked Miguel if he’d been to Machu Picchu himself.

A door opened. Our paid driver was now a fellow traveler explaining his own adventure. It’s funny how rarely I think of locals as being tourists in their own country. Connecting on that level, however, changed the nature of our conversation and relationship.

He explained that three years earlier, he, his wife and another couple had visited Machu Picchu. They’d saved and saved for the entry fees (it costs about $45/adult for tourists and while less for locals, it is still expensive). They decided to save even more by not taking the bus from the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu up to the ruins’ entrance.

Guidebooks say it takes about 90-120 minutes to hike the 2,000 foot elevation from the town to Machu Picchu. What they don’t mention is how hot it gets and how steep the trail is the entire way. By the time Miguel and his party made it to the entrance, they were hot, tired and dehydrated for they had forgotten to bring any water with them.

They soon discovered that the only source of drinking water were small bottles for sale at the lone snack bar just outside the entrance to Machu Picchu. Each bottle cost about $4.

That seemed pricey to us when we were there two days earlier. But we had the financial means to purchase the water. $4 per bottle for Miguel was like $100 for us. But they had no choice. All the money they saved on the bus fare now went toward two bottles that the four of them shared for the entire day.

Miguel hadn’t counted on having to buy water that day nor the exorbitant cost of it. But as he explained the experience, two things became clear.

First, I had thought he’d have this deep cultural connection to his Incan roots there. Maybe he did. But what came across in his story was how much fun they had in large part – and counter-intuitively – because of the effort it took just to get to Machu Picchu and the preciousness of those two bottles of water that they shared.

Second, as Miguel explained his story to me, something changed between us. We were no longer just paid driver and paying customer but two travelers who understood each other a bit more. I could appreciate from my own experience how sometimes the bad, unexpected things on our trips can make for the most meaningful memories.

After this, we had additional conversations during our time with Miguel that went beyond the transactional. Can I say, however, that Miguel became a friend? I wouldn’t go that far. Even without the underlying transactional basis for our relationship, friendship usually takes more time than that.

And do I now know or understand what daily life is like for Miguel in Peru? No. We barely scratched the surface.

But as a result of our moving beyond the transactional basis of our relationship into something more I do know this:

I have not looked at a bottle of water the same since.

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