I shared the table with a Dutch traveler for our complimentary breakfast of coffee, two toasts, and few slices of melon—something that the Burmese or us Filipinos do not normally have for breakfast. But I enjoyed it, nonetheless, especially after an hour or so of pedaling on sandy paths, checking temples at the crack of dawn.
When travelers meet, conversations often evolved in Where are you from?, Where have you been?, How long have you been traveling?, How long is your trip?. And I feel that one’s traveler-ness is gauged according to one’s answer. The longer your trip is, the better, the more experienced traveler you become. It must be so.
This Dutch traveler and his girlfriend (she was still sleeping, he said), had been on the road for three months and were planning to travel around Southeast Asia for six months; and there I was, squeezing five countries in five weeks. When the white girls in a dormitory in Yangon, Myanmar learned about it, I saw the collective shock on their faces. One, who called her doctor mother in Australia after throwing up several times, squealed, “You’re crazy!”
After learning I was from the Philippines, the Dutch traveler commented that he has not met many travelers from the Philippines. He was, is perfectly right. It is rather rare to meet fellow Filipinos or citizens from fellow developing countries traveling around.
When some said, it was dirt cheap to travel around Asia, it is a Western tongue dictating—the voice, the stand of the privileged. A backpacker’s average expenses—based on my own experience—range from US$15 to US$25 (Php600.00-Php1000.00) a day. A typical working Filipino earns Php8000-Php10000 a month. When I wrote an article “What Stops Us Filipinos from Traveling (Is Traveling a Privilege?),” the comments could be reduced into three:
- No money.
- No money.
- No money.
I told the Dutch that when I researched about my SEA trips online, most information were provided ironically by white travelers whose sentences were peppered with “horrible bed” and “hell ride.” I found these distrusting. A Western woman occupying the next table stifled a smile upon hearing me. I knew, I was unnecessarily scalding; but I wanted a discussion on this. I did not get any. The Dutch did not say a word.
Traveling around SEA, I could say it now, is still very white, very neocolonial, and I am caught between faulting and not faulting the white travelers. In Inle Lake (Myanmar), I got fed up with the boat tour to so-called workshops and showrooms. It was not the idea of seeing something familiar that revolted me; it was the nagging truth that some shop owners faked their workshops and expected travelers to buy their goods, authentic or not, priced heftily in dollars. Nyi-nyi, the boatman, felt my uneasiness and discomfort in getting in. He admitted those places are for farang, the foreigners. And I am not. At least not completely.
Traveling—in this part of the world—is viewed, should be done out of extreme necessity: you have to fly back to your hometown because a close relative died, move in to the next island province because your job required you to. For most Filipinos or Southeast Asians, traveling is not a lifestyle, it is life.
At Gili Trawangan (Lombok, Indonesia), Tobias, my boyfriend who happened to be Austrian, felt uncomfortable and embarrassed of himself—sad even—with the local’s answer to his question about the four-nights/five-days sailing trip from Lombok to Flores.
“Was it good?” Tobias asked.
“I dun nu. Not been there,” answered the Rasta man, one of the guys manning the place we stayed in. Because it is true, most locals do not really have interest in traveling their own land; and if they have, their finances or the lack thereof stopped them from pursuing such interest. In the Philippines, whenever the driver or any locals learned that I was traveling in their province, they would say, “Haya-haya” (Lucky). I would just smile and say, “Not really.” Traveling—in this part of the world—is viewed, should be done out of extreme necessity: you have to fly back to your hometown because a close relative died, move in to the next island province because your job required you to. For most Filipinos or Southeast Asians, traveling is not a lifestyle, it is life.
Back in Lombok, we wanted to do the sailing trip; but it would cost each of us 2 500 000.00 Indonesian Rupiah ($180.00, €165.00, Php8 500.00). A weekly salary or less for most westerners. A monthly salary for most working Filipinos. Most Filipinos, I must note, live below poverty line and earn less than Php50 ($1) a day.
But when the half-drunk or stoned agent in one of the many tour agencies in Senggegi (Lombok, Indonesia) said, “No worry, mister, it’s not dollars,” Tobias got annoyed. I made it worse when I said, “But I’m like you, I’m Asian.” Tobias later on argued that he works hard for his money, and he knows I do too, and he simply wants the real value of and for his hard-earned euros, regardless of where he is. He got a point. But the agent was not entirely wrong either. Perhaps he has been on this trade for quite sometimes and often heard from travelers that the sailing trip is cheap and he knows IDR2.5M—which has so many zeros that I myself sometimes got confused—has only one zero in dollars/euros.
But my point is completely different from theirs. One, the agent thought Tobias would be paying for my share. Second, he thought all travelers earn in dollars/euros whose market value is priced a lot higher than the developing countries’ counterparts. Tobias and I had a heated conversation on this, and he pointed out, “You earn in dollars too.” I must admit that I do earn in dollars (online content writing) and pesos (teaching); but I am speaking in behalf of my neighbors and relatives who could hardly make both ends meet, who sees traveling as a form of privilege and extravagance.
At the end of the day, we ditched the idea of joining a sailing trip (participants are unsurprisingly all westerners), despite the fact that we were able to haggle it down to IDR 2 100 000. 00 ($150.00, €140.00, Php 7 200.00), which is still cringing.
Everytime I encountered someone posting something like: sell everything, leave everything behind, and travel the world, I wonder to whom he or she addresses this. It must be his/her fellow westerners, who may not be as privileged in their own lands but become one once they set foot in the so-called dirt-cheap Asia. It must be their fellow middle-class friends who just like them have moneyed parents. When everything fails, the parents are there to help.
From the perspective of a developing country citizen who happens to ache for places, I cannot help but ask myself—is it really possible to leave everything behind? How about the restraints, the limitations of a third-world passport? How am I going to fund the trip?
This is an excerpt of Jona’s article “What’s Wrong with Leave Everything Behind and Travel the World”
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