I want to take time to seriously address this comment, because it’s something I thought about a lot while writing this piece. In a lot of my other travel pieces, I’ve talked in detail about my close friends in these countries, and the ways I’ve tried to help them, and the frustration I’ve felt when I realize how deeply flawed “the system” is.
At the same time, my empathy for my friends in these places doesn’t preclude me from enjoying my time there. A lot of the things you point out as being cruel or heartless — bargaining with the cab driver, for example — are things I do on the advice of my local friends, and with the lessons of personal experience.
When I first started traveling in places like these, I behaved the way a lot of first-world tourists do: I paid whatever price I was asked. When people asked for more, I gave them more. I apologized constantly for any misstep.
You know what happens when you act like that? You get robbed. First you lose all the money in your wallet, and then someone — quite possibly a corrupt police officer — marches you to an ATM and makes you empty your bank account. You go home penniless, unable to help anyone. And the locals — including your local friends — laugh at you for being so gullible. This isn’t a nice truth, but it’s a truth that just about any experienced traveler will confirm for you.
When I realized that, I wised up. I paid what my local friends advised me to pay. When someone I knew had a problem, I did everything I could to help them fix it — but I stopped offering help to strangers on the street, who usually made a grab for my wallet when I lent them a helping hand.
And despite all this, I’ve never had much interest in going back to the clockwork countries. I prefer haggling with cab drivers and dodging thieves on the street and helping my friends every chance I get. And you’d better believe I’m having fun doing it.