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Stepping into a Culture When Should a Traveler Act

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- Sometimes in travel you will see maliciousness, poverty, suffering, intolerance, and ambivalence in the local cultures that you can only deem by your own standards as being cruel. This is a normal part of traveling. Sometimes you will feel compelled to step in and help, most often you know that such action is to no avail. Knowing the balance between these two extremes is part of the wisdom that comes from long term travel.

I just read a story the other day about how an American volunteer tried to stop a lynching in rural Guatemala. He very nearly got lynched himself.

Getting over the hero complex when traveling is something that comes with time, miles traveled, and experience. Though at the same time, you are still not invisible in the places you pass through, sometimes the hero complex sneaks up on even the most hardened travelers.

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My friend Stubbs from Buffalo told me this story once of how he was sitting in the front seat on a bus in China. He was an old China salt by this time, he knew of the tendency of the bus drivers to slam on the accelerator before the people getting on the bus are able to get seated. So when an old woman got on the bus, Stubbs’ awareness of his circumstances were peaked. He knew also of the East Asian tendency to treat old women impatiently in the public sphere.

Stubbs could foresee that the bus driver was going to take off quickly and the motion could potentially knock the old woman off her feet.

When it happened, Stubbs stood up and caught the old lady in his arms before she could hit the floor.

The old lady called Stubbs Jesus and sang church songs to him for the rest of the ride.

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I was walking down the cobblestone streets of Copan Ruinas a few years ago when I came across a couple of young blond girls from the USA. They could speak no Spanish but they were trying hard to communicate with a local boy who just happened to not be wearing any shoes. The girls asked me if I could translate. I agreed.

To my horror these girls had scooped this boy up from the streets of his hometown and were trying to coerce him into going out to a tourist restaurant with them. The girls said that they wanted “to do one nice thing here that they could always be proud of” for the little boy. They were trying to feed the poor.

The poor did not want to be fed, the little boy just wanted to get away.

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I saw a drunk sleeping in a busy road a couple of weeks ago in Suchitoto. He had one full leg, the other was gone at the knee. He was dirty and passed out, sleeping in a road that busses speed down when leaving town. The drunk had positioned himself right over the lee side of a small hill, the buses would have a hard time seeing him. He was wedged up against a tight spot where the road narrows between a restaurant and a small hillock. The drunk was out cold.

I watched to see if anybody would tell him get out of the road or at least wake him up. People walked by him, stepped over him, and kept on walking. Some turned around for another look at the drunk who stood a reasonable chance of being run over. From the way the people looked at him as they passed, it was evident that this was not a normal scene. It is normal for drunks to pass out all over the sidewalks here, but rarely ever do they position themselves in the road. The passerbys rubbernecked it as they went by him.

I walked away, too.

Drunks usually don’t get ran over when they sleep in the road. It is not my problem, this is not my country.

But something compelled me to return. I did not want to walk back down the street and find the drunk guy with a tire mark running linearly down his body. I did not want to deal with the guilt of this guy being run over when I could have at least tried to get him out of the road. Shit, I played hero.

Like I said, this guy only had one leg. If he had two, then I probably would not have bothered — there is no way that I am going to wake up a sleeping drunk that could attack me. I figured that no matter how abrasive the attack, I could sidestep a one legged man.

I walked up to the drunk and called out to him. Nothing. I called again. He was out. I kicked him. He was like a mound of silly puddy. I kicked him harder. He woke up.

I asked him if he was alright, I told him to get out of the road. He listened.

I saw this guy crutching himself down the street the other day. He smiled big at me and said hello. I am not sure if he remembered me. Maybe.

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These are three situations of foreigners momentarily stepping into the cultures that they were traveling through in the attempt to, ultimately, do a good deed, to do what they felt was right. In the above situation, Stubbs observed a pattern, was aware of his surroundings, and acted — saving an old woman from face planting upon the floor of a bus. In the second scenario, a couple of young American girls assumed boldly that the people of Honduras are poor and needy, and that it was their job to feed them. In my circumstance, I saw a man who was not in conscious control of himself in harm’s way.

Where is the dividing line between action and inaction when traveling? When do you step back and claim cultural relativism and when do you assert yourself? What should be a local’s affair and when should you act by the hand of your own common sense to help someone in need?

It is folly to think that another culture is by default majestic, wise, thoughtful, higher than your own, and that any aspect that seems callous or cruel that you observe in it is because you lack the proper understanding to see clearly the true wisdom behind it.

It is also folly to believe that other cultures are somewhat less than your own and that the people of the world need your wise ways and stellar morality to save them.

It is perhaps bloated arrogance to think that it is your responsibility help other people, but it is also cold heartedness to sit back and watch an old lady fall on the floor of a bus just because everyone else does. Perhaps there are times to step back and accept the cultural patterns as they are laid out before you, and perhaps there are times to act when you know that you could easily help another person in this world.

Where these lines are, I cannot tell. Though I do believe that this is another exercise in travel, a test of your mettle when the socialization of your world meets another head on. In the end, it is my impression that it does not matter too much if you act or if you don’t. Ultimately, the only lasting effect is how you feel about yourself.

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, El Salvador, Intercultural Conflict

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Cincinnati, Ohio, USAMap