Like everything, travelling presents its own challenges each day. You never quite know what to expect (which is part of the joy), although the same basic needs (shelter, food, water, and at a reasonable price) are fairly much constant no matter where on the earth you end up.
There are two things, though, that I find particularly difficult.
The first is giving bribes. I think it offends against some basic lesson that I have always been taught – that you can trust authority. So when you suddenly can not (and in fact the operating rule around here is to actively avoid authority where possible), it is quite disorienting.
Perhaps a bribe is not the right word for all of them, since mostly they were just additional payments that were required for the Customs officials to open the gate. Only one was really a bribe. They said you are missing the form you need. It is not permitted for you to exit at this border. You need to go back and get this form. But we will let you through if you give us US$20.
And they are so obvious about it too. It would be easier if they were nasty or violent in some ways. Because then it could be seen as robbery. I do prefer the people who don’t make up a story though. It is more honest to just say this is some money that you have to give me for no reason other than that you have some, and I have power to take it from you. The idea of a missing form is just a convenience that fools no one.
The second thing is to try to always take people at face value. There is a whole range of people who approach you apparently at random in the street, from children who just shout ‘hello’ and do nothing else, beggars (both straight up, with an act, or selling tissues), hello merchants (people selling trinkets whose only English word is ‘hello’ or ‘mister’), to the more difficult to assess people who might just be wanting to practice their English, but who might want to sell something too. And it may or may not be something that you actually want. And they may or may not be interesting to talk to.
And it is the latter category that make things difficult. Because you can usually say hi to the kids, either support or not support the beggars, and dodge or flee the hello merchants, but it is never quite clear how you should react to the people who might be interesting and helpful, but probably are not. From my point of view, the best ones are those who speak enough English to have a conversation (rather than a monologue, where the person asking the questions does not know enough language to comprehend the answers), and who never steer the conversation around to their carpet shop, or their range of ceramics, or the best hotel in town.
The problem is that most people are trying to sell something, and are not that interesting to talk to. And the conversation is so formulaic (where are you from? what is your name? how old are you? goodbye), although still better than I can do is just about any language apart from English, that one quickly tires of it. Add that to the fact that you could meet 10 people each day who want to have this conversation with you, and after a few days I start to look for a shortcut, a way to avoid even these encounters.
And the problem with doing that is that you miss the one person whom you genuinely would have been interested to talk to, if only you had been able to distinguish them from the crowd. And you end up not taking anyone at face value because you decide before they open their mouth that talking to them is a waste of time. Not good. After all, those 10 conversations can be funny, looked at from a certain angle. They can also provide an opportunity to practice the local tongue, if ever I make sufficient effort to develop the vocabulary.
Every now and again I meet another tourist who inspires me to try harder. Someone who always seems to have a laugh, a few more common words (David Beckham, Eminem) to elicit a nod of understanding, a camera to take a few photos of smiling children in the square of the mosque. And it is great to meet those people, cos I don’t want to be the sort of person who walks along looking at his feet for fear for catching someone’s eye.
Even travelling is something that you can improve with practice.