A ten-year-old said my shoes looked terrible and offered to shine them for 15 pesos. I bargained him down to 10 pesos and he got to work cleaning the evidence of travel off my loafers. I looked out over the plaza in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest region, and calculated the peso to US dollar exchange rate in my head — no small task, if you know my math skills. 15 pesos is 72 cents. 10 pesos is 48 cents.
I had bargained a ten-year-old down a quarter.
What was I going to do with that saved money? I would lose it in the bottom of my purse or bring it back to the US and show my friends the foreign coins.
The Problem with Shoestring Travel
A backpacker might say there is a lot I could do with 25 cents. But stretching my budget so I can fit in another waterfall excursion is not just a matter of counting quarters. Our financial decisions do not exist in isolation.
When backpackers decide to cut corners by bargaining with an 8-year-old over popcorn (shout out to myself), by skipping out on the suggested donation for a walking tour, or by neglecting to tip your jungle trek guide, we exploit people who live in poverty. We are withholding money from individuals who drop out of school to work so that we can see parts of their country they have not been able to see themselves.
This is not to say all people in developing nations live in extreme poverty, that having a travel budget is irresponsible, or that all travellers are rolling in dough and should pay London prices in Laos out of pity. I have not met any vacationers who want countries to stay impoverished.
But it is not enough to wish that a country would attain better standing in the global economy. A desire for change must be answered with personal sacrifice. When we turn our dollars into pesos, we benefit from the country’s low GDP. When a traveller remarks how “undiscovered” and “inexpensive” a country is, her positive travel experience is in direct relation to the country’s level of poverty.
Travelling is the hard-won result of saving money, leaving your job or school, and taking a leap of faith. But these are not the only factors that influence whether or not you get a plane ticket. Travel is made possible by the power of your country’s passport, the strength of your country’s currency, and your country’s history of dominance — often of countries you are visiting. Many of the countries I visit have been bombed, pillaged, or strong-armed by the USA. As a US citizen, it is an honour to be allowed into Vietnam, to be welcomed into homes in Mexico, to be thanked for coming to Ghana, knowing that people from the USA do not have the same tendency to separate citizens from their governments.
It is an honour, not a right, to be welcomed into countries where the majority of citizens cannot afford to return the visit, or worse, would be under threat of deportation.
How can you help?
There are many ways to spend money that honour the places you visit instead of capitalising on them. If you find giving money to beggars problematic, donate to an NGO in the area that pays for children to go to school. If you take pride in your bargaining skills, go for it and then give the vendor a tip after you make the transaction. If it is stressful to add intentionality to your daily budget, add it to your country budget and donate to an NGO in each country as you leave it.
When I caught myself getting petty with ten-year-olds, I realised it was counterintuitive for me to be generous on a budget I had stretched to fit a rigorous itinerary. I had to scrap that itinerary, including a couple stops in beach towns, and design one that could afford to appreciate the places I visit as opposed to taking advantage of them.
I am writing this article alongside a bowl of Mexican soup that costs $4 USD, which is the average daily income of people from this town. I could have bought tostadas for $2 and given the other $2 to a child on the street. I could have staycationed in the USA and donated all my travel money to a charity. I did not, for reasons which are somewhere between selfish and self-care.
The net inequality of the world is not one person’s fault, but it is each individual’s responsibility. You do not have to give up everything, but we can all give up something.
Consider the rationale for buying a $600 flight to bargain a person who makes $4 per day down 15 cents. Spend a little extra for fair trade coffee in the world’s coffee regions, buy trinkets from children who walk up to you in cafes, tip your taxi driver without first googling, “Do I have to tip in Nepal?” It is the 19th poorest country in the world— throw your driver a bone.
Instead of pinching our savings in order to consume more of the developing world, we should acknowledge our access to money for what it is — a privilege and responsibility — and spend accordingly.