In Guatemala, in the beautiful old colonial town of Antigua, I met an elderly Swiss couple. Now retired, they were traveling around the world through the husband's network of contacts built up over many years as a journalist and diplomat. They told me that the purpose of their travel was to see traditional village life before it vanished under the impact of modern communication and culture. They said that the greatest threat of the modern world (aside from nuclear war) was the disruption of traditional values by western education and culture.
They said that in the Third World the great mass of humanity, though they lived in poverty, were content, because they compared their situation to those around them in their village. Those who were better off were not that much better off, and there were always some people who were worse off. And there was no reason to think things should be different, because things had always been this way.
But all this is changing. Today, Third World governments are pressing education into remote villages. Even more disruptive is television, with its vast load of incidental information about life in the outer world -- what they seen in the background in a telenovela, for example -- so that today villagers are be able to compare their life with life in the capital or in the West. When they see what life could be, their poverty will become unbearable. De Tocqueville once observed that people do not rebel because they are oppressed, but because they see that their oppression is not inevitable. When the village people of the Third World see their poverty in comparison to life in the West, then, said my Swiss gentleman, all hell will break loose.
I have no idea how prescient the gentleman was. The process has been on-going for many years and all hell has not yet broken loose, at least in Latin America, and my knowledge of traditional African and Islamic and Eastern societies is too sparse to comment there. And should all hell ever break loose, there is no reason even for persons involved to realize that they are revolting because their life isn’t as good as the people they have been watching in the telenovelas.
What does this have to do with travel? Not much, which I think is a worthwhile point to make, for we travelers do not seem to be much part of the problem. We may be dumb and ill-mannered and otherwise not influences for good, but we’re not one of the big players.
And to save the virtues and stability of traditional life are we to get rid of education and television in traditional societies -- and perhaps demographically-disruptive life-extending western medicine while we are at it -- or do we accept that global values are going to reach into every corner of the world? That young people will be no longer content with the well-stocked larder of the forest, but now want money to buy motor scooters and sneakers? That they will tire of the elder's story about how the crocodile ate the moon and want instead to go to the city where they have clubs and music? Do we call for internal passports in Third World countries to control interchange between the city and the countryside to prevent the spread of destabilizing ideas? Or do we accept that the entire weight of the modern world bears down on traditional life, and travelers like ourselves, however sensitive and well-intentioned, are irrelevant to what is going to happen. That we might as well go now -- however we travel -- to see what is left of what once was before it is gone forever.
Or before all hell breaks loose; whichever comes first.