Worlds apart

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Many people travel extensively without ever having any genuine contact with the places they visit, or its people. I’m sorry, but the waiters and masseuse at your five-star resort do not count as contact with the locals.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not judging. After working hard the whole year, I also relish going to an exotic, relaxing, quiet, self-contained place where I do not have to mingle with the masses. I do, however, feel guilty when I have my children in tow and remember the adage of “travel broadening one’s mind,” and wonder if I should be making more of an effort to introduce my children to life beyond the resort grounds.

When facing this internal conflict – relaxing vacation for me, or a working holiday for the enrichment of the children – I make sure the former wins by arguing: “They’re kids. How much can they really learn from a short holiday?”

Well, it would seem, quite a lot.

Horse sense

This summer, in a fit of maternal saintliness, I decided to sacrifice my (well-earned) week lounging by the swimming pool and at the spa, and instead booked a four-day horse-trekking trip to Songpan – a mountainous region at the border between Sichuan and Tibet.

Now, horse trekking might sound fun but, believe me, it was no picnic. Just getting there took great effort, including a seven-hour bus ride from Chengdu. And this was not your silver-tray, white-gloved-service type trek. Everyone was assigned a horse, which we had to help take care of. We slept in tents and ate our meals by campfire, without a single modern amenity in sight.

My trekking group included: my daughter, my dad and me; two Chinese couples; one Frenchman; one Israeli couple; a Dutch woman and our five guides. At the end of the trip, every single one of us hurt in places we didn’t even know could feel pain.

OK, I’ve made it sound horrible. It wasn’t. It was actually pretty fascinating. The scenery was awe-inspiring, the whole getting-back-to-nature thing was very special, and travelling with a diverse group of people made for very interesting campfire conversations without the distractions of electronic devices.

But the most interesting conversation was between my father and my daughter during the interminable, seven-hour bus ride back to Chengdu.

Audrey: Grandpa, why do Chinese people like to refuse and reject and say, “No” all the time? Every time I offered the Chinese people a snack, like my candy or a chocolate bar or crisps, they said, “No”. But when I offered it to the Western people, they always took some.

Oh, and one time, the Chinese man asked his wife if she could pass him some water. But since she was far behind and I was next to him, I offered him my bottle and he refused it.

Grandpa: This is just the Chinese way to be polite.

Audrey: Really? I think it’s rude to say no all the time.

And did you notice how the Chinese people (here she begins to forget her grandpa is Chinese) can’t stop and relax or be quiet? They keep themselves busy all the time – taking videos and photos, even when they’re on the horse; then they talk, eat and take more photos and videos when they’re off the horse.

Even at night, after riding for so long, they are talking and tidying up their tents and cleaning themselves … they can’t stop for even one minute. But the Westerners just sit around, drink their tea and chit chat.

Grandpa: You’re right! I have never realised that. I suppose everyone relaxes in their own way.

Audrey: Hmmm … I think I prefer to enjoy myself like a Westerner. (Long pensive pause)

Chinese people are actually super-clean, right? I used to think they were dirty because they spit and litter more in Hong Kong than people in France. But I saw that when the guide gave us our bowls and chopsticks during meal times, the Chinese people would use their tissue or a wet wipe to clean it before they used it – including you, Grandpa. But the rest of us did not.

Oh, and remember that day when we had to use our hands to eat the steamed bread and the twigs from the tree to eat the salad? The Chinese couple took out their own spoons! They brought their own spoons! And I also saw the other Chinese couple – they brought their own sheets to put over the sheets provided by the guides.

Grandpa: Of course! We Chinese people care more about hygiene than Westerners. I noticed that young Frenchman wore the same socks and T-shirt for the three days! So dirty!

Audrey (in a very knowing voice): Yes, but he did not spit.

Grandpa (stumped): Er … yes, well, that’s a different issue.

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Audrey: You know, Grandpa, I would never want to be a tour guide in China. They are not really guides – they are like servants!

When we were on holiday in Combloux (a mountain village resort in the French Alps), we went on a horse-riding trip too, and we had to do everything! Everything! Brush the horse, feed it, tidy up all the things ourselves, make our own meals. Our guides just told us what to do, and chit-chatted with us. They behaved like they were our friends, yet they expected a tip at the end.

Our Chinese tour guides did not say much, but did everything. They filled our drink bottles, made our meals, made our beds, set up our tents, looked after the horses … they behaved like they were our servants. We did not have to do much at all.

Why is that, Grandpa?

My dad and I were speechless. It seemed that by taking a super-observant, impressionable child into different cultures, we had thrown up a whole load of questions, for which we couldn’t offer any off-pat answers. Could Audrey’s observations be just some of those cultural enigmas that no amount of travelling and mind-broadening can solve?

Let me ponder that while sipping sangria, lounging by the swimming pool or beach on my next trip and I’ll get back to you.

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