The average tourist in Third World countries seldom comes into contact with the real culture that they are lead to believe they are visiting. You fly into an International airport, are picked up and whisked to a hotel where your comings and goings are regulated by the hotel staff – through activity bookings – or the tour or travel companies that take you to allegedly see the “real” country. Even a walk into town on your own reveals little because, if it is a tourist destination, every business, street vendor and beggar in town knows the “tourist” rap. It is a world created and designed exclusively for the tourist trade. Not that you necessarily should escape the tourist confines. It’s a comfortable world and provides a fun way to forget work and responsibility for a while. But if you’re an adventurer who understands risk and it’s potential rewards, or if you are planning on residing for any length of time in a Third World country, then you will learn something valuable by stepping over the fence.
In much of the Third World, the moral framework that governs business, government and personal behavior has little intersection with First World values. Property theft, in some countries for example, is barely a crime, and unless you are a person of some importance, the police will take no interest in a reported theft. It’s tacitly assumed that if you care about your stuff, then you’ll do whatever it takes to hang onto it. If it gets stolen, then it’s your fault for not taking proper care.
In the world of business there is only one moral imperative -caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. If you are cheated in business, then the moral attitude suggests that you shouldn’t be in business, or that you need to get smarter. There is virtually no enforcement of contract law and business fraud of any kind is seldom prosecuted. As with the attitude toward theft, it’s up to you to avoid being cheated. Business people who are defrauded are considered fools, and few such people, in order to avoid widespread contempt, will ever divulge their misfortune.
Anyone who has traveled through Mexico or any part of Central America by car will be familiar with the Federale checkpoints stationed strategically distant from towns or villages. They are ostensibly there to restrict drug trafficking or prevent other crimes, but the soldiers, really, could care less. They themselves smoke the dope and bump the coke that they confiscate, and have far better things to do than uphold the law by standing in sweltering heat and sun for ten hours when they could be napping back at the station. They are there because they have families to support and have to make an honest buck. A cold coke or beer plus ten pesos is usually enough to get waved through, but an incorrect attitude or a false step will invariably result in an unpleasant day for the traveler. A wise traveler familiarizes themselves with the checkpoint protocols and adheres to them.
Likewise, if you have ever lost a wallet, or been robbed or otherwise abused in Central America and go to the police for help, you will be familiar with the blank expressions or bizarre double-talk with which you are greeted. The Police, from their perspective, are dumbfounded that someone disturbed them without proper “documentation”. Documentation is the ammount of paper money that will motivate someone to do something. Proper documentation will get quick results, if only in the form of arresting a random Rasta dude if no other real help can be given. Frequently, though, the results are quick and efficient. The Police know all the thieves and their habits by name and type, and, motivated by the documentation, will do their best. It wouldn’t do, after all, to get the reputation of accepting documentation and not delivering. It would be seen as rude and dishonest.
Or, in some countries, maybe you’ve had to wait in line for a travel permit, passport stamp, or other mindless formality while dozens of people behind you, or lounging to the side are called in ahead of you. You are acknowledged only after waiting a few hours and making a scene. It’s because when you signed in you forgot to pay the “sign-in fee” to the bored looking attendant at the front desk.
There are hundreds of such examples that can make traveling in the Third World less enjoyable than it needs to be.
If you are interested, here are a few telling links about corruption in Belize.