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From the Publisher’s Desk – Don’t venture beyond the pretty facade

By Keith Whitson

I love travel, but unfortunately I haven’t done as much in the last few years. Cruises are top on my list because once I get checked in and on board, I don’t have to worry about a thing except which activity I would like to do next and which food to gorge myself on next.

I have often gone on cruises alone and enjoy the time to myself or to even reach out and make new friends. I have also repeated some of the cruise destinations. In doing that, I don’t try to rush off at every port and see all there is to see. I just go to the places at each stop that I know I enjoy the most.

When getting off the ship at a destination port, tourists are generally faced with shop after shop of gifts to meet the needs of bringing back something to everyone back  home.  These shops are not a good representation of the location and many gifts may have not even been made there. Beyond this “Hollywood production set” of a misleading facade is where the true culture lies.

I like to go off the beaten paths, wander the back streets, find interesting people to talk to and see the true inner heartbeat of how people work and live there. I have even had invitations to relax by the pool at some tropical spots.

For some reason I never see danger. Maybe I am much too naive. However, all of that changed when I visited one particular country. The area beyond the tourist section was run down. The streets were filthy with trash stacked up in alleyways.  It was certainly not the image they wanted tourists to see.

Advertisements painted on facades held a glimpse of what was once a vibrant area. The extreme heat and the lack of upkeep had taken its toll on the signs. I could still barely make out the images through the curled and peeling paint shreds of sun bleached hues.

Desperate mothers were on the streets trying to sell eggs to make some money.  Tired, elderly men were sitting on door stoops making the best of another day identical to the hundreds prior. Dirty children were kicking a can down the sidewalk.

One back street led me to an elderly man who was waving a basket. He sat on a bucket, which was turned upside down, outside a dark doorway. It was apparent he had to work outside for better lighting. Still, his weary eyes squinted to focus on his handiwork. The man’s weathered face and hands were an open book to the harsh reality of his daily existence.

I stopped to ask if I could make his photo. He nodded in agreement. I positioned my viewfinder for the best angle to accent his character and pushed the shutter. Instantly he stopped his work, held out his hand and in broken English said “One dollar.” I was a bit stunned but still knew that $1 to him was probably like $100 or more to me. I gave him the money, smiled and walked on to the end of the street.

As I turned the corner, I glanced back once more to keep the visual image of the old man fresh in my mind. It was a mistake and something that to this day I regret.

We often take things for granted here and are so blessed that we don’t realize the harshness of other countries. I wasn’t aware that anyone was watching when I gave him the money but obviously they were.

I looked back to see several young boys rushing up to the old man, demanding the money. He tried to refuse but they roughed him up and I saw him begin to bleed. After useless pleading, he finally handed the dollar over. They took the basket of his skilled handiwork, which he had spent many hours making, and stomped it flat with their feet, completely destroying it.

I saw the boys look my way and I immediately proceeded along. My heart was racing with fear for me and grief for him.

As I walked on I was saddened by the poverty of the country. Maybe I would have been better off to have stayed within the picture perfect tourist area, only viewed what was presented to me and come away with a happy misconception. Yet, I had allowed myself the opportunity to see the reality.

It was pointless to try and see anymore of the back streets for fear of encountering more violence or witnessing more grief. Plus, it was getting close time for me to get back to the ship.

I thought if only I could help that elderly man. It was then as if a miracle happened. I passed a small shop where the owner was standing outside. He noticed my camera and offered to buy it at the equivalent of $1,500 U.S. dollars. It was far more than I had in it and I had been wanting to get a new one anyway. I could give the elderly man a portion. I agreed, but then he replied “April Fools,” which I, in turn, say to readers of this column.

This story is true up through where I gave the man a dollar. After that it is all false. I hope I fooled a few of you this year.