Travel and Social Privilege: Inspire others to Do Great Things

By Canadian standards, we are  am not rich – more like middle of middle class. A family with two kids, living in a 1000 square foot house, drive a small car, and a couple of bicycles. In September 2014, my wife and I put our jobs on hold, rented out the house, sold the car and many other possessions, and started a year long travel adventure.  Why ?. We were getting fed-up with the day-to-day routine of going to work/school, and the rat-race of driving the kids to/from activities, tired of endless comparisons to other families  (’they do this, and that, and their kids are super awesome athletes…’), and also we wanted our kids to get a better understanding of the world, and a better appreciation for what they have. Career wise, I need a break. Sitting in front of a computer for 7 hours a day has a way of sucking the life out of me. A year long is what my soul needs to get a new perspective on your life and to see if I want to get back to my  old job or make a career shift.

So – back to the here and now in Cambodia. We are staying in a small village along a rural road. It is really sinking in. As I walk the street, I see how people live. There is garbage along the street, many people wear worn out clothes, the houses look dirty, the air is the smell of sewer and burning household waste, and fresh drinking water is non-existent. There are few cars – nothing more fancy that a beat-up old Honda. Most people have motorcycles and there is enough room for a family of four, or a large pig on the back, several large bags of rice or corn. It seems that no load is too much – if it still runs, than load more bags of rice. Despite all this, people still say ‘Hello’ and wave at me. I politely wave back, though deep in my gut I feel this horrible sickening feeling. Guilt makes my stomach cramp. Why do I have clean clothes, a choice of food (other than rice everyday), a car, municipal garbage pickup, and a decent house with clean water, flush toilets and a septic system; yet they have none of this. In a better frame of mind, I would like to photograph what I see, though pulling out my camera makes me feel like some ignorant tourist looking at them as if they were in a zoo.

The local school does not have any computers (even though one class is called ‘the computer room’), hard wooden benches, no craft materials, no text books, no workbooks, only a well used whiteboard and a couple of very faint markers, no resources for teachers and often no teachers. During this year away, my kids are home schooling (some call it road schooling). They have their school curriculum on their iPads (one for each kid), a pencil case full of markers, pencils, notepads and access to the internet.  For the first time in my life, I feel very rich and privileged. Not simply because I have money to travel here (airfare from Canada), and accommodation is $10-15 USd per day, and food for a family of four another $10-15 USd per day, more importantly, I feel enriched and very privileged to be on this journey and living these experiences. Here rural in Cambodia, the average annual income is a mere $135USd (Farming – Resource Development International www.rdic.org/farming-page.php). They would certainly never have the opportunity to travel as I do. I am indeed privileged — born to middle class parents, got a good education, am endowed with skills, talents and desires unlike anyone else on the planet.

 

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Social Privilege and Guilt…

It is a real privilege to travel like we do and the inequality of this privilege is something I consistently struggle with. I am assuming you are privileged too, with access to a computer and the internet to read this. When it comes down to it, most people in rural Cambodia do not even have computers, approximately 75% can read or write their own language and a tiny percentage can read or write english (Dec 04, 2014: http://www.voacambodia.com/content/cambodia-facing-ongoing-literacy-challenges-128470623/1356695.html).

I know I should not make comparisons with my own lifestyle and should not feel guilty, though is gets to you. Being here and seeing this it gets under your skin. Yes, it is a luxury to be able to have all the comforts that I have at home, and to have sufficient disposable income to visit travel to other countries.  I am not saying that travel is a bad thing. Tourists (like me) traveling to and within other countries are buying airline tickets, staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, traveling by taxi, and taking adventure tours (zipline, elephant rides, white water rafting etc). Each one of these activities means that local people are getting money, money to feed their families and supporting the local economy and improve the quality of life of those people less fortunate than yourself.

But – we all know that most money goes to the company, and only a small percentage of the money filters down to the staff. The folks behind the hotel facade, those that clean the rooms, do the laundry, wash the dishes, get the groceries etc..they are missing out on what they really need. Yes, they have a job, and your money does help them to feed their families and pay their rent. Is this sustainable ?. Yes, sort of.

Using Social Privilege to Inspire others to do Great Things…

Think back to those families in rural Cambodia. I could give them money to buy some new clothes, or money to buy clean drinking water.  Would this solve the problem ? For one, I would also be poor, and my money could only help a small number of the needy people. There has to be a better way. What can WE – the privileged world travelers do?. Being privileged is not my fault. We can sit on our rear ends and do nothing (and feel guilt about it), or find a way to help others.  I like to believe that if we, the privileged, travel with a purpose that we can make a difference in people’s lives. One way, is to find ways and means to expand freedom and opportunities for others by volunteering. Some folks call this ‘volunteer tourism’. Volunteering in a school, and passing on your skills accomplishes so much more than simply giving money. Back to the here and now; I am in a small village in rural Cambodia teaching English to children ages 5 to 12.  It is an amazing way to soak up the local culture while also providing a benefit that is better than renting a room in a hotel. One day, these children will be able to read and write english and have the opportunity to get well paying jobs, instead of simply making enough money to provide for their families. That being said, we are not teachers, although we have both taught children (including our own) on a add-hoc basis. We are both fluent in English so there is nothing extra to learn or research before class. The children are keen, and motivated, and in many ways more enthusiastic to learn than kids in my own hometown. Here, there are no computers, no text books, reading books, a chronic shortage of whiteboard markers and a seat-of-your pants curriculum. Despite this, this is by far one of the most rewarding experiences, particularly when the kids still want to be your friend, and actually thank you for teaching them.

Like many people we are traveling to foreign destinations to better understand and appreciate other cultures, and gain a better appreciation for what we have. We are privileged to be able to travel to foreign destinations, though what we see, and smell may bring on a feeling of guilt – why can we travel, whereas these citizens in those lands may hardly have enough money to buy enough food, or clothing. The feeling of guilt can be erased by providing opportunities for the people (and not simply making a donation). Take the time to make a difference in their lives by teaching them a skill so they they can be inspired to do great things. Before your next trip, consider ‘volunteer tourism’ as a way of using your privilege in a in positive and meaningful way, so that one day, those people can have the opportunity to get well paying jobs, instead of simply making enough money to provide for their families.

 

 

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Stewing

In culinary terms ‘stewing can best be described as the process of combining solid food ingredients that have been cooked in liquid and served in the resultant gravy. Ingredients in a stew can include any combination of vegetables (such as carrots, potatoes, beans, peppers and tomatoes, etc.). While water can be used as the stew-cooking liquid, wine, stock, and beer are also common. Seasoning and flavourings may also be added. Stews are typically cooked at a relatively low temperature (simmered, not boiled), allowing flavors to mingle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stew).

No – this isn’t a blog post about cooking, though the analogy can be used to describe my emotions and physical state.  Although I have taken a Thai cook class and a basic sense of what ingredients and spices are added to the typical Thai meal, in this case, the solid food in this stew is me and my and my family (and mother in-law), traveling for a month in Thailand. We are not used to the heat in south east Asia, to the analogy for stewing in the heat is quite true.

Add some Thai spices; shallots (Culture), garlic (language), green and red chilies (history), dried or fresh coriander (religion), Thai chili powder (festivals), galangal (wildlife-elephants, poisonous snakes and giant insects), green peppercorns (interactions with other tourists), lemongrass (soldiers in the streets – carrying flowers and bottled water (not guns), turmeric (missing friends), kaffir lime leaves,  and fresh basil (incredibly gently and polite people).

As in a typical stew, we have added large amounts of bottled water to the broth, and beer ;>

All those spices need time to simmer and blend to allow the flavors to mingle.

Even after a month in Thailand, the flavor of the stew is not quite right. Too Spicy or Too Sweet ?.  My taste buds can’t seem to get it right; and my heart and emotions need more time to stew and enjoy all of the Thai spices and flavors.

Day 56: Beautiful Bangkok – in black & white and color.

Three days in Bangkok is definitely not enough. Add in some serious jet-lag after a flight from Toronto (Canada) to Abu Dhabi (UAE), then onward to Bangkok.

Wow – Bangkok is absolutely amazing. We only saw a tiny part of the City, and what we saw is so diverse and sensory stimulating; sight, smell, taste, sounds and touch.

The tiny part of Bangkok that we experienced was the Pranakorn district, and we explored Khao san Road and the cultural sites in the Rattanakosin area including The Grand Palace, The Temple of The Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho), The Royal Ground,  The Democracy Monument and the Chatuchak Weekend Market.

The next post will have photos from Wat Pho, ‘Temple of the Reclining Buddha’.

All photos taken with a Fuji X-series X-Pro1 with Fuji 18-35mm, or Fuji X-series X-E1 with Fuji 14mm lens. Some of the photos are in black  & white, and some are in color,  with notes below.

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A typical food stall on a side street in Bangkok. On the original color photo, the sun was shining through a blue tarp causing the man’s skin to have a blue tinge. In color, the blue tinge was unacceptable and the image could not be used. Converted to black and white the blue tinge is gone, and the photo is quite usable.
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A small side street in Pranakorn district.
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Good luck trying to cross the Prachathipatai Road, and remember to look Right – then Left (opposite from North America).
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Authentic Pad Thai at a food stall on Khao san Road, in central Bangkok. In former times the street was a major Bangkok rice market, and had now become a “backpacker ghetto”; with cheap accommodation, tour buses depot, many pubs and bars, and small shops that sell everything from handcrafts, paintings, clothes, local fruits, pirated music on DVDs, and second-hand books. At night, the streets turn into bars and music is played, food hawkers sell barbecued fish, insects, and other exotic snacks.
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One of the many food stalls on Khao san Road
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Fish in bags at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Chatuchak Weekend Market is one of the world’s largest weekend markets and contains more than 15,000 booths selling goods ranging from Amulets, antiques, art, books, collectibles, clothes, food shops, furniture, handicrafts, home décor, household appliances, and pets. We saw many species of exotic birds, squirrels, and large turtles selling for 60,000BHT.
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Pet food ?? at the Chatuchak Weekend Market
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Delicious home-made Thai food at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. Food stalls are an orgy of color, which can sometimes look good in black in white, though how would you tell the food apart if they were all shades of grey ?.
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Boy selling ducks at Chatuchak Weekend Market. The original color version of this photo was had a overwhelming range of color, all of which was too distracting to the story – a boy selling ducks at the market.
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I am not sure what the sign says. Any one read Thai ?
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Pan fried Quail eggs at a food stall in the Chatuchak Weekend Market
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Inside view of the chaos inside the huge Chatuchak Weekend Market
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The Grand Palace is a complex of buildings at the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. The palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782.
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View from the ‘Bearing’ BTS station
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Above ground BTS track, and MBK Shopping Center in the distance. There wasn’t much color in the original photo – shades of bleck grey concrete. In black and white, the tones, and shades are more powerful.
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‘Old and New’. Wooden Wat (Temple) from several 100 years ago, with a modern structure (apartment building). In black and white, the orange-red-gold colors on the temple are now the same shade as the more modern, and drab colored building in the background.
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Traditional Thai show. Not sure that the show was about ??
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Boat taxi. In many ways, similar to a city bus on a scheduled route, though speeding through the canals and the fee collector wears a life jacket and a helmet.
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A busy street in Central Bangkok. I love the colors of the cars and taxis; bright pink, and bright yellow. This photo would also look Ok in black and white, showing the range of shades of gray, though in color the insane colors of the cars would be lost.
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A fancy building in downtown Bangkok – Of course, the ‘Anti-Money Laundering Office’.

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Day 55: Wat Pho (‘Temple of the Reclining Buddha’)

The Wat Pho or “Temple of the Reclining Buddha” is the largest and oldest wat (temple) complex in Bangkok, and it houses more than 1,000 Buddha images that were moved from abandoned temples in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai by order of King Rama I. Wat Pho, officially named Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimonmangkhalaram is one of the six temples in Thailand that are of the highest grade of the first class Royal temples.

The temple is renowned for the enormous gold plated Reclining Buddha image that was built during the reign of King Rama III (1824 – 51) and represents the passing of the Buddha into final Nirvana after death. The Reclining Buddha, is 46 meters long and 15 meters high and is the largest Buddha image in Thailand. Constructed out of plaster around a brick core, the reclining Buddha is decorated with gold leaf and his eyes and foot soles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The Buddha’s feet are 5 metres long and are divided into 108 arranged panels, each exquisitely decorated in mother-of-pearl illustrations of symbols by which Buddha can be identified like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories.

There are 108 bronze bowls in the corridor indicating the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. Visitors drop coins in to each of these bowls in belief that this will bring good fortune, and to help the monks maintain the wat. The sound of these falling coins is quite distinctive and can be heard throughout the temple.

Now – on to the photos.

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Side view of the Reclining Buddha

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Yes, All the photos are in black & white. Why ?

1) The color versions of the photos do not show the stark beauty of the gold plated Reclining Buddha image or the intricate paintings on the walls. You simply have to go there yourself, and don’t simply look at on-line photos. In black and white – you have to use your imagination.

2) The photo are also in black and white because there were so many jack-asses inside the temple, photographing the Buddha  using the flash on their cameras. Flash-Flash-Flash…..and more Flash, Flash, Flash…..on and on. This is really disturbing – and for me really the flash really destroys the moment of appreciating the Reclining Buddha.  How can appreciate the beauty, when the other tourists beside are taking a bunch of photos, and each time the flash reflects off the golden Buddha and blinds you !.

So – end of my Rant. Other tourists, don’t be a jack-ass, and try to be considerate of others !.