A Paradox of Travel: Embracing Local Friendliness at Face Value

by Brian Carroll on February 21, 2013

In most large cities or towns that I've lived, anonymity is the norm.  While we all have our family, friends and/or coworkers who know us on a personal level, most other people just pass through our lives as "strangers" - people we don't know, most likely will never know and quite often, will never see again.  Hundreds of these strangers pass through our lives everyday without much thought or interaction initiated by us, that is, unless we need something from them. So when that interaction is flipped, and a stranger engages us out of the blue , our "skeptic detectors" go on alert as we assume that they too must ultimately want something from us - be that something as innocent as help with directions, as opportunistic as a phone number for a date or as blunt as a financial handout.

My tuk tuk driver in Cambodia - a good guy

A fair number of times during my travels, I've perceived such friendliness initiated by locals to be a thinly veiled attempt to get something from me - most likely money. But every once in awhile, an interaction initiated by a stranger has no underlying motive of self-interest, which conflicts with our traditional worldview.  When this paradigm is challenged, we don't always know how to evaluate it with anything other than entrenched skepticism, which unfortunately, diminishes the true value of such kind acts simply for what they are - as I've found firsthand during my travels. During my first day exploring Bangkok, I was walking toward a tourist area known as the Grand Palace by myself.  Five minutes into my walk, I was stopped by a Thai man, asking my name, where I was from and generally engaging me in some friendly conversation.  While on the inside, I was skeptical of the reason behind this interaction (due to tourist scams you read about), I wanted to remain polite, at least initially.  The Thai man told me that today happened to be a holiday and as such, if I stopped a specific type of tuk tuk, I could pay $1 total to have him drive me around for the entire day - all due to the fact that it was a national Thai holiday.  Now, not being a Thai holiday expert and seeing this interaction as too good to be true, I was very hesitant - my thinking was, this stranger must see me as a western tourist, whose alone - the perfect scam opportunity...  After chatting for a few minutes though, I decided to take what he was saying at face-value and give it a go.  He helped me wave down a tuk tuk and explained to him in Thai what I wanted to do and what the cost should be (I again was skeptical if this was some sort of ruse, especially when he spoke in a language I couldn't understand to the tuk tuk driver).  It so happened that it wasn't and that this man, out of his own kindness, just wanted to help a fellow stranger with information that he had, which I am ultimately grateful for, and to be honest, a bit surprised about still, as it seems so out of the norm in today's society. Coming across such simple moments of genuine kindness with others is refreshing and helps me to believe that despite all the negativity and sensationalism that seems to surround our lives in the media, at the end of the day, if you get out and actually meet people, most are kind-hearted, well-meaning and just trying to get by in their lives.

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