Guilt-Ridden Travel: Why I Struggle With My Own Guilty Conscience

One of the hardest things for some people to fathom is that much of your fate in life is determined by the cards you are dealt when you are born. If you are fortunate enough to be born into a westernized culture you will find you will have access to money, jobs, ‘things’ that are deemed to give people status and feelings of self importance and worth in the world because ‘they made something of themselves’. On the other side of this, if you are born into a country that is developing, majority of the people don’t have money, don’t have opportunity to make money and live in incredibly poor conditions.

My guilty conscience again kicked in as I am laid up on a massage table in Bali. $6 for an entire hour of massage. It is really nothing. I worked very little to make that money. I probably made it while I sat there supervising kids doing silent reading for ten minutes. My masseuse Anna is telling me that she works on commission. Of the $6 I pay, she receives approximately 70 cents. If there is no customers, there is no pay. She works 14 hours a day, 7 days a week with no break.

This whole conversation came about when she asked me if I was married. I told her no and she told me she got married a week ago. I asked her if she had a party with her family. She told me that she didn’t have time. Work gave her an hour off to go and sign the papers and then she came back to work. Her husband works down the road as a builder. They have two children that live three hours away in the village with her brother as they cannot afford to send their children to school in Kuta as it is too expensive. They are lucky to have jobs that allow them to afford to be able to send their kids to school at all because many people can’t afford it. They don’t know what they are going to do now though because her brother is very sick and has been in and out of the hospital but they now can’t afford to send him back to the hospital. Rising numbers of tourists in Bali has increased the cost of healthcare here and so it is too expensive to see a doctor.

As I lay there getting my massage I take all of this in. I get relatively cheap healthcare in Australia. I have a job that pays me enough to live comfortably and send any kids I have to school. I don’t have to send my kids away to live with other people so they can get a better start at life. I don’t have to work 14 hour days 7 days a week. And if I want to get married, I could probably get some time off from the boss to organize it if I wanted out of the 20 paid vacation days that most Australians are legally entitled to a year. And yet all we do is complain. And I feel guilty about that too.

I lay there and ponder what it is I can do about it because as much as I want to just open up my wallet and say ‘take my money, I can make more, I don’t need it’, I know that this is not a good fix in the long term. So I made a decision. I can’t help everybody. But I can help Anna by going back every day that I am here, getting a massage to keep her in work and her boss happy and giving her a hefty tip at the end of each massage. At least for this month, she will have a little extra in her pocket to help with the bills without feeling like a charity case.

What is more, this understanding makes me more patient with the onslaught as I walk down the street. “Transport!!”, “You buy sunglasses, one dollar”, “manicure??”. I understand that with each call out, there is somewhat a desperation to survive and make enough to keep their families going. I met one girl who moved from Java to here at twenty because there was no money in Java. So she moved to Bali so she could make the measly $70 USD a month that classes as ‘good money’ here. She couldn’t survive at home with her family.

My options are limitless as I flounder about the world hiking mountains, sitting on the beach and doing whatever I please. In an Australian sense I don’t really have that much money, but in an Indonesian sense I have about a lifetime of their wages sitting in my bank account so how am I supposed to feel OK about this? How am I supposed to feel OK about being on a perpetual holiday when these people get no days off work until they die and sleep only 5 hours a night every day as even sleep isn’t a luxury they can afford? How am I supposed to feel about drawing the lucky straw in this life when billions of others didn’t? Guilty. That is how I feel. My conscience weeps every single time I see something like this and I know that this is reality for so many. I am merely more than just a privileged western tourist staring into the fishbowl from the outside with all my money. And then I will go back to my privileged world and not think about it anymore because it is too hard and uncomfortable to think about. If I was them, I would hate me so much. And yet they don’t. They have a graciousness about them that well surpasses the graciousness of most people I know that have money.

I can’t change the whole world on my own. I can’t change the greedy nature of mankind. I would if I could but there are some things you have to accept that you just can’t change. But maybe, just maybe, I can help one person at a time and try and make my difference that way. Maybe by imparting kindness on all people I meet and choosing where I direct my dollars I can help to make small differences in the lives of few. If everybody in my situation made the effort to do this, then maybe we could make a difference to hundreds and even thousands of people to make their lives a little easier. So I challenge you! Be aware. Don’t sweep it under the rug because it is too big or uncomfortable to deal with. Choose something small and start making a difference there. Because it is with small steps, not giant leaps that we change the world. And the world really does need changing.

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