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#199 Carrying their own luggage

January 14, 2013

The Devil, as always, is in the details.  Dancing with the locals (and wearing their clothes and eating their food), untreated PTSD, being best friends with the driver, partially learning the local language, and even going native a bunch of times, can only take today’s Expat Aid Worker part way down the path towards full expat oneness with those that many insist on referring to as “intended beneficiaries” (so as to clearly differentiate them from “unintended beneficiaries”). To traverse those final steps requires the EAW to come full circle, to return to embrace the interconnected nuances of international aid, and one’s own small but crucial part in the grand ballet that includes the full panacea of “key stakeholders.”

Thankfully, there remains an opportunity for the EAW to demonstrate his or her undying solidarity with the poorest of the poor,  ram home the point that she or he is not some ordinary pansy fresh from a cubicle at HQ, and also – somewhat paradoxically – demonstrate understanding and appreciation for the importance of keeping that reported global overhead low. This opportunity presents itself every time she or he passes through an airport or checks into/out of a hotel or guest house. Despite its humble appearance, this opportunity — the ritual of luggage handling — is more complex and laden with symbolism than almost anything else the EAW does.

It’s a familiar scene: 15 or 20 guys, maybe in uniform, standing around the luggage carousel, clutching the last of the luggage carts. For only 50,000 dong they’ll shepherd the EAW’s bags all the way through customs to the waiting driver in the NGO SUV. Or later, at the (small, but safe and reasonably priced) hotel, before the EAW has even finished checking in, there will be a small scuffle over who, exactly, will schlep the EAW’s bags across the lobby to the elevator.

Should the EAW support the local economy by paying the 2,000 Riel? What if the EAW hasn’t changed money yet? Will a dollar bill work? How many kwanzas in a euro? Sort out the cost of the porter at the desk or later, once the bags are in her/his room? If the EAW tips too little, it might be a life-threatening insult. If the EAW tips too much, it might set a dangerous precedent. Is the porter “legal” or “black market”? After the angst generated by having a poor, local person do her or his menial labor, few things drive EAWs around the bend faster than being taken advantage of for a few pennies or the vexing notion that they may have inadvertently contributed to corruption.

Few people outside the aid industry truly understand the complexity of what EAWs must do even before they’ve gone to their first life-saving meeting.

just carry your own luggage

just carry your own luggage

Sadly, the complexity doesn’t end there. In a time when the “value add” of EAWs is increasingly under negative scrutiny, the issue of who carries the luggage comes with additional baggage attached. It helps to understand that EAW incompetence and EAW neediness while in the field are often mistaken for each other. So when the Country Director needs a reason to help that highly functional but at times abrasive expat find work with the competition, the final nail in her career coffin might very well be something like, “… and she can’t even get her own luggage into the teamhouse…”

Or, on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to matter so much if the targets aren’t being met and the spreadsheets don’t calculate properly and the beneficiaries are rioting at distribution sites, all attributable to the EAW’s incompetence. So long as he is known for carrying his own luggage, he can bask in the warm, comforting light of a reputation for being “low maintenance” and “culturally aware”, all of which by extension “add value.”

Finally, whenever the financial environment is one of declining revenue in the context of fixed costs, it becomes incumbent on the EAW to conserve costs. 200 pesos per porter per bag X 2 bags X 4 trips per year X 300 EAWs traveling to/from monitoring visits = 480,000 pesos, which is… well, a lot in USD. What if an auditor or journalist were to discover the amount of donor dollars being wasted on nothing more innovative than EAWs paying local people to carry their luggage? That $3.00 is half of one locally produced fuel-efficient stove. And you can’t put a price on lost impact.

So really, for the sake of everyone, it’s better to just carry your own bags.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Tania Lynne Greener Sidiqi, MS LPC permalink
    January 14, 2013 10:33 am

    As always great :) I would NEVER allow ANYONE to Carry my luggage….this American Girl is taking care of herself all the way…I am definitely low maintenance and it has nothing to do with not wanting to pay someone and everything to do with SECURITY….I have seen too many episodes of Locked up Abroad not to take care of my own luggage…. ;) besides, I despise expats who walk into foreign countries and think they are immediately VIP… get a grip or go home ~

    • February 2, 2013 12:47 am

      Hi Tania. Have you tried this approach in India? :-)

  2. oleron3 permalink
    January 14, 2013 11:55 am

    Please tell me this is tongue in cheek. I have NEVER schlepped my own luggage, and I don’t travel light. I think of paying porters as a very small way to support the local economy. That’s the way they make a living. What’s wrong with you people? Get real, little American Girls and Boys.

    • oleron3 permalink
      January 16, 2013 10:44 pm

      J., you sly devil. You deleted your post, which said: “No. Every other post on this blog is tongue-in-cheek except this one, which is 100% dead serious. What do you think?” [It did, however, make into my e-mail inbox. I suppose that makes me a sly devil, too and I believe I’m in very good company.] I was asking Tania Lynne, MS LPC, if her self-righteous post was tongue-in-cheek. Apparently she was dead serious. Unfortunately she was dead serious. To my utter shock and dismay, she was dead serious. What the hell is an LPC? Licensed Professional Cretin?

      • J. permalink*
        January 17, 2013 9:55 am

        HAHAHAHA… well, I’ve been officially busted. For misunderstanding your comment, and for using WordPress badly, as much as anything else. I confess without reservation to being a sly devil. And yes, it would seem that you’re in good company. First round is on me if we ever meet in real life. :)

  3. Tania Lynne Greener Sidiqi, MS LPC permalink
    January 14, 2013 1:24 pm

    I’m completely happy Schlepping my own luggage oleron3 and I don’t travel light either. . .I prefer to support the local economy in other ways . . . without making them SERVE me. . . besides if I’m an expat Humanitarian I am there to “help” them ~ I’m not on vacation . . . I have humility ;) :P I don’t see taking care of myself as schlepping ~

  4. Brynith permalink
    January 14, 2013 1:44 pm

    Why don’t we ask ourselves: would I have an employee of LAX or Heathrow assist me with my luggage for payment? If yes, then why not have someone in the airport anywhere else do it too? If no, they schlepp your own there too. Its funny, isn’t an often basic goal of development for everyone to be treated or seen as equals? Why not start with ourselves.

    • rhianon permalink
      January 20, 2013 3:25 pm

      Feel a bit bad for poor Tania here, getting ganged up on! I think Brynith nailed it though, do what you would do anywhere, don’t do something differently for “cred” or to hold it above someone else. I don’t give a damn whether people carry their own bags or not, but I personally don’t like having an argument upon landing about what’s a fair price to pay someone to roll around my bags. maybe when i’m older or have too many to carry it’s worth the trouble.

      it’s nice to say we should pay a fair wage and help out the local economy or whatever, but knowing that the average daily wage in country X is $2, and some dude acts offended if he gets anything less than $5 to push my bag for 5 minutes just makes me want to avoid that ordeal. it’s another argument for another blog post, but thousands of expats forking up more than a regular days wage for a 5 minute service, or paying far too much for for other goods and services can also have a negative impact on local economies, which in the long run probably outweighs the individual benefits to the minority that are profiting from the aid workers? can o’ worms…

      • oleron3 permalink
        January 22, 2013 1:17 pm

        Imagine the headlines! Largesse by EAWs Creates Parallel Economy in Third World: Baggage Handlers Are Prominent Beneficiaries.
        Oh, the guilt, the guilt, the guilt. The Horror.

  5. Tania Lynne Greener Sidiqi, MS LPC permalink
    January 14, 2013 2:08 pm

    I schlepp for myself in USA, in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, UAE, Canada, UK, etc… when I’m at home I take out my own garbage, mow my own lawn, do my own laundry, grocery shop, cook, clean, run my own errands and everything in between….it’s called work ethic…my work ethic is the same at home in my own country as it is in all countries….with that being said; I’m also a true humanitarian not working in a country to line my pockets with bribe money. . .aka so called humanitarian aid money that is meant to be supporting the local economy and the true purpose of why we have jobs ~ once again, I’m not on an all expense paid vacation abroad; I am abroad working ~ trying to do some good for humanity. . . call me silly but I don’t get off on the VIP trip; and having the locals SERVE me. I agree, why not start with ourselves ~ by taking care of ourselves so we can be better at taking care of others.

  6. oleron3 permalink
    January 14, 2013 4:46 pm

    My, my, Tania Lynne! Has it not occurred to you that by schlepping your own bags, and not giving some poor man a bit of money to assist you, that you might have deprived his family of a good meal or two or three? Surely you, as a “true humanitarian” can afford that small kindness. It has nothing to do with being a VIP. The baggage handlers are there to work, not to watch as you arrogantly drag your STUFF around. You’re insulting them by doing so. Try developing some perspective — you seem to be totally lacking in that aspect of being an EAW. Thanks for the offer: I hereby call you SILLY.

    • Sofocles permalink
      January 21, 2013 7:46 am

      Tania’s comment reminded me of a friend who worked in Cambodia for a while. She felt very guilty about having a TukTuk on retainer. She paid him $200 a month to be on call whenever she need him and with unlimited trips within Phnom Penh.

      But my friend seldom used the tuktuk for more than 4 rides a day on weekdays, usually distances that cost $1-1.5. Nevertheless, she felt that she should pay more because she was making big bucks and because the driver had, in her view, a servile attitude towards the foreign lady.

      Well, the end of the story is that when she told him she was leaving Cambodia, he insisted in organizing a little party for her with his family and some of his friends. The day of the party his oldest son came to her, commanded by he tuktuk driver, to thank her because her money allowed him to finish university. And because of that, the next child (a girl) was not taken out of school and put to work. So there. It is a matter of perspective and how you approach . If you pay fair, it is not exploitation.

      BTW, whenever I travel (business or pleasure) I budget money for porters. I do this regardless of whether I am in Boston, Cairo or Bangkok.

  7. Annie permalink
    January 16, 2013 10:22 am

    Tania, that is completely ridiculous! How can “taking care of myself” by carrying my own luggage and doing my own laundry will positively benefit “others” ??? Following that line of thought maybe you ought not to put your kids in kidergarden o/ send them to a babysitter. Pump you own gas too.
    I pay my widowed maid who has 4 years of formal education and a handful of children, the salary of a school teacher. Should I tell her, I would actually help her better by not hiring her?
    Its not SERVING if its fairly paid .

  8. Alan permalink
    January 26, 2013 2:20 am

    Love those people who don’t want to demean locals buy paying them for servile jobs. Fair enough, then find them another job. That empowers them and pays their rent and buys food, better than the current job. And while you’re about it, find out their real names and ask their opinion on the matter.

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