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Gary Younge
Solidarity, not pity

I wonder what ever happened to Alexandru Cristea. I came across the teenager on a railway platform in Brasov, a small town in Romania, less than a month ago on holiday. When I first saw him he had his hand in my friend's bag and was liberating her purse. My partner shouted at him and he sheepishly took the purse from under his jacket, apologised, handed it back and started to walk off. Our eyebrows were still raised by a mixture of shock and relief, when another man approached us and asked what had happened. We shrugged and said nothing. "Did he steal something from you"? he asked. "He tried," we said. "But we got it back." We turned around to board the train to the dull thud of punching and kicking.

The man, who turned out to be a policeman, and one of his colleagues were beating up Cristea as other passengers skirted around the scuffle and carried on their business. They led him across the adjacent track, treating him to the odd whack in the stomach as they went while we shouted at them to leave him alone. The last we heard of Cristea - we found out his name later - was the thump of his head as they hit it against a nearby train. As the chorus of closing doors signalled our imminent departure we were left with a choice. Stay and see if we could help the boy who tried to help himself to our friend's money - thereby missing our flight home. Or get on the train to Bucharest in the knowledge that we had just been instrumental in abandoning someone to the summary injustice of a police force which has not been reformed since the days of the Securitate.

The decision was as difficult morally as it was straightforward practically. And so we chugged towards Bucharest wondering what we could do to check up on Cristea's fate; and what we could have done to salvage some self-respect and dignity from our hapless role in his beating and possible incarceration. For a pursuit intended to help you unwind and tune out, a holiday can be quite ethically exhausting. True, there are many easier and more fun places to go than Romania. But there are few, if any, that do not present a challenge. Even those who went to sun themselves in the Balearics earlier this year found themselves stranded at airports in the middle of a local dispute over pay and conditions.

Their experience, like mine, reveals a contradiction inherent in the nature of what a holiday is supposed to be. The very notion of "getting away from it all," presupposes that there is somewhere to "get away to" - a place where reality has been suspended and relaxation elevated to the status of a basic human right. A mythical place, for those who can afford it, where you transcend participation in your own, familiar, world to observation of somebody else's.

The fact that no such place exists does not make it wrong to go looking for it occasionally. But it does suggest a likelihood that the search could, at any moment, implode under the weight of its own escapist fantasy. The poorer the place is that you visit the greater that likelihood will be.

Travelling to the developing world is one of the clearest means to understanding the stark obscenity of globalisation. International capital has ensured that nowhere is either safe or sacred: we are participants whether we like it or not. In many countries, the change rummaging around in the bottom of your bag could feed a family for a week. That is true whether you travel or not. But once you do that truth becomes inescapable. Like a meat-eater in an abattoir, you are faced with the awful reality of what you always knew to be true but had rarely been forced to confront. And before you know it, every small task then becomes fraught with meaning. You go out to buy a pair of flip flops which you know cost 25p. The man charges you £1. On the one hand the difference is minimal and you're on holiday and would rather avoid a row -especially since the 75p will mean a lot more to him than it does to you.

On the other, you know full well you are being ripped off. Worse still, if tourists start paying four times the local price they will trigger inflation and distort the economy. Doctors and professors start selling flip flops or working in hotels, as they are now doing in Cuba, because they make more in tips than they did or ever could in a salaried profession. Your goodwill gesture could be crippling a health service or contributing to a teacher shortage. What began as a quest for cheap footwear ends with a sensation that you are walking over hot coals. Left there and you would have displayed one of the most overabundant and unproductive resources known to the British, liberal middle class - guilt. A response that will equip you for little more than to pity the poor; wince at your wealth; and then bolt for the beach and a cold beer.

Left there and travel is limited to geography and isolated from the intellect. For you will have avoided the realisation that your wealth is directly related to their poverty. One of the reasons why Romania is so poor - there are many - is because the former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu insisted on paying off the nation's foreign debt to the west. These efforts, alongside his anti-Soviet tirades, earned him an invitation to Buckingham Palace where he was presented with the Order of Bath. Vice-president Bush hailed him as "the good communist". The more you learn the more Cristea's lighthanded antics start to look like a crude form of wealth redistribution or belated reparations. But what little I saw of Cristea did not suggest he was some Robin Hood, poised to scatter his pickings among the poor; but a petty chancer unlucky enough to get caught. And while there was little we could do for him on the platform in Brasov there is plenty that we might do now that we are back.

For the poor don't want pity but solidarity. And, in the wake of Genoa and Gothenburg and the run up to the World Trade Organisation meeting in Qatar, there is no end to the variety of meaningful actions you might make to show it. Holidays might seem like a strange place to get radical but for many they provide a first hand, prima facie example of what might otherwise appear arcane.

It is time to make a resolution in the middle of the year, before the tan fades and the awkward memories with it. Join an organisation campaigning against globalisation, such as the World Development Movement or Globalise Resistance; against poverty, such as Christian Aid or Oxfam; or defending human rights, such as Amnesty; or defending asylum seekers. Come back and do something sensible, before Cristea gets out and does something really stupid.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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