Upon entering a foreign country, you’re immediately faced with the unfamiliar – new faces, new languages, new places, new culture. At times you may appear like a lost puppy with no direction. You aren’t fazed by the unknown, however. This is all part of the adventure.
At times you find your way without a soul to guide you in the right direction. Other times you have the fortune of bumping into a friendly face that so kindly offers to help you. It can be as simple as pointing you toward the nearest taxi stand or as grandiose a gesture as offering up a room to stay in overnight.
As a traveler, you welcome the hospitality. You realize there are actually decent, genuine people in this world. That is, until the issue of money pops up.
As an American, you are often pegged as wealthy. You yourself may feel like a poor backpacker who needs to scrounge for three meals a day and watch every single cent you spend. But to others – especially those in developing countries – your perception of poor will never compare with their own.
You are perceived as rich merely because you have the funds to travel outside of your own country. So, when a seemingly genuine person approaches you on the street and offers to help out a lost traveler such as yourself, the question remains: “Are his motivations true?”
Based on my own experiences, there is no simple yes or no to this question. Having lived in Costa Rica and traveled to its bordering countries of Nicaragua and Panama, I have encountered many overly friendly locals.
The man, for example, who kindly guided my friends and I to the ticket counter at the Costa Rica-Panama border. He didn’t just point us in the right direction, but he actually walked with us to the exact spot where tickets were sold. My first impression of Panamanians couldn’t have been better. Until, of course, we realized his true motivation: a taxi ride.
After our passports were stamped, he continued to help us find transportation to our final destination. We inquired about the local bus…”no, no – don’t take the bus. I have a taxi for you.” Of course he did.
Fortunately for him, we didn’t put up much of a fight in our tired state. But we all knew we were being haggled. The man was not being friendly simply to help out three foreign girls, he was being helpful for his own benefit. In reality, I can’t blame him.
He was a stranger.
But, what happens when you are welcomed – arms open – into a family? You assume that host families are providing you with a room and daily meals because they enjoy the interaction with foreigners, right? Sure, they receive money, but that can’t be the only reason behind their hospitality.
Well, this is where it gets a little trickier. I’ve been in a homestay. The family was unbelievably kind. My host mother always sat with me at breakfast when everyone else had left for the day. She brought me on the bus to meet some of my friends when I didn’t know my way around. And, she offered to open up her house to me for an extended period of time…even after my homestay was up.
I was moved by the gesture. But the issue of money arose. I was paying the school directly for my homestay. The school then paid my host family, but a lesser amount than what I paid. Doesn’t quite seem fair, right? Well, that was the policy.
So, when my host mother proposed that I go around the school and pay her directly, I hesitated. I was new to the school. I wasn’t a student. I was a teacher. This was going to be my job. I understood her point of view, but I didn’t want to jeopardize my own position.
Fortunately, I left the homestay and the school before I was forced to choose between the two. But it left a bad taste in my mouth. Did she ever really like me as a person or was it all just an act? Did she feel obligated to treat me kindly because of what she received in return? Are Costa Ricans really as hospitable as I originally thought?
The longer I stayed in Costa Rica, the more I learned how important money was. If you aren’t aware of local prices, anyone from the taxi driver to the local fruit vendor will charge you more. Only when you threaten to walk away, do they lower their price.
In many ways, it’s simply a game. How much can the local outsmart the ignorant foreigner. Why question a local who is over-the-top friendly to you?
Sometimes, even when you know you’ve been “had,” you go along with it. Sometimes, you realize that you DO have more than these people. And, sometimes, you meet those few natives who really are interested in you. They invite you into their homes, make you dinner and expect nothing in return.
They may be difficult to decipher, but when you find them, treat them well. They ask questions about YOUR life, YOUR travels, YOUR family and YOUR aspirations. These are the rare ones. The genuine ones.