ONE OF the ironies of modern life is that it has become possible to see the world without ever having to leave the creature comforts of home. But there is another, often more rewarding alternative. Poverty is worth a visit.
A middle-class American traveler tends to look for shelter, transport, entertainment and food not too different from the U.S. norm, and usually finds it. Local spectacles are "developed" to resemble all others in the life style they offer visitors. Even wilderness hikes provide white wine and cheese.
But in my view individuals, families or small groups ought to sally forth from these enclaves, especially in the Third World. There is not a nation worthy of the Less Developed Country title that does not offer a comfortable base of operations, and from there the traveler can move through a descending hierarchy of accommodations, restaurants and night games as far down into deprivation as he or she can bear to go.
Why bother? I believe that it is good and even necessary to have the fastidious arrangements of one's everyday life occasionally wrenched into absurdity, even irrelevance, by the more basic arrangements most of the world makes daily. In our relative wealth, we don't know our own personal flexibility or the great freedom of style we have here. We are also blind to the wondrous ability of humble people to rejoice in mere life.
As a reporter on a story on the hunt for oil in northern Peru, I once spent several days in a jungle area of the Amazon basin there. While jumpsuited helicopter pilots in aviator sunglasses rule rain-forest transport, the Peruvians in the river towns -- who lay pipeline and build the oil platforms one plank at a time -- are lucky to get a dry place to sleep. Dressed in rags and sweat, they drink themselves to stupor every night and live only for the paycheck, tiny though it is. Great rejoicing greeted my arrival at one camp: they thought I was the weekly prostitute delivery.
Incompletely cleansed of jungle mud, I took a night flight and slept from there to Rio de Janeiro. As I climbed out of the taxi at the hotel, a woman stood on the steps dressed completely in gold lame', her high-fashion hemline a ragged line from hip to calf, her flashing eyeshadow matching the glittery gold handbag under her arm.
It was another planet from where I had just been, and the mere existence of fashion, in simulated rags, no less, and the fact I would soon be dressed to the teeth myself, struck me as hilarious. I burst out laughing in her face.
This experience had the psychological value that always comes of recognizing oneself in an apparently alien being. I had identified with the poor Peruvians and then again, ironically, with the fashion plate, creating in the synthesis a more complex view of the world, my culture and myself. Such harmless but gut-level learning cannot be predicted, and it does not occur in resorts where all is designed to be predictable.
There is nothing basically dangerous in Third World travel. Given a choice, even the poorest people prefer to be in a clean place and to eat wholesome food, so these two basic travel needs are always available somewhere even in the meanest town, usually for comparatively little money. There are thieves everywhere, but people are generally just trying to get along and they welcome the diversion of a foreign traveler more often than they harbor any evil designs.
Amazing things can be survived, often accepted, and occasionally even laughed at, and if the poor can do it, the observant voyager may discover personal talent. The enduring fascination of travel is this constant lesson, and the more unfamiliar the conditions the more stirring the evidence.
It is said the rich of Calcutta often step over corpses in the gutters as they leave their homes. That may be shocking, but surely commuter trains speeding from Manhattan through the South Bronx are only a high-tech version of the same thing. People will always conserve personal resources in the face of bottomless need, but it is instructive to see where one's defenses rise and where they do not. There are places where people cuddle puppies as they kick children out of the way.
In fact, years of work and travel in the world's outback can jade a person to poverty, which always looks painful and soon scars the bleeding heart past feeling. But the fundamental differentness of the less developed countries always finds a moment to sneak up and move any human traveler.
This spring I was pacing back and forth in the doorway of the huge, raw, bullet-holed cathedral in San Salvador, waiting impatiently for the archbishop to get through his sermon and start the political homily I had come to hear. Hesitantly, a small old man climbed the steps to come in, his plaid cotton shirt ragged at the elbows and frayed at the collar, his battered hat clutched before him in seamed and claw-like little hands.
His face was the face of the Third World's rural poor, ravaged by disease and decades of thankless, sun-baked labor behind scrawny oxen in someone else's fields. I had seen hundreds of identical peasants that very morning, noting nothing but the label. Far worse poverty and suffering of many kinds had left me grim but dry-eyed in a dozen countries.
But this man's rheumy eyes were full of hope, and he knelt and stood again in that blasted cathedral, drawing something, somehow, from those ritual words far more important than politics. I nearly burst into tears, gripped again by the endless wonder of human coping.
It works the other way too. The poor of the world laboring in their small circles enrich us by their marveling at our freedom, our riches, our sheer gall at being for a moment where they are. We see ourselves in their eyes, and we grow grateful for our own puny problems.
Years ago four of us drove in a rented, game little station wagon from Lisbon to Istanbul, following the coastline as closely as possible, sleeping in, on or under the car six nights a week. Somewhere in Yugoslavia we parked on a dirt road half a mile from a highway and were washing up at sunrise when a truck came by. It was a big garbage truck, and its driver was so astonished to see men and women in their underwear on his route at 6 a.m. that he drove right into a ditch.
So there we were as the sun rose, shoulders to garbage truck, pushing it out of the ditch, and afterward sharing a schnapps and laughing in pidgin German with the driver. We were really going to Istanbul? Traveling like that? He wanted to come along. He could hardly bear to leave us.
Our motto that summer was "every day brings something new." It can be true of any voyage, but in the Third World, I promise you, it is all but guaranteed.