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The tourism industry portrays itself as something which bridges barriers between cultures. While this can be true to some extent, the demographics of the modern tourism and travel writing industries have their roots in past western colonialism and the privilege westerners enjoy. White people, especially white men, who are well-off and love to travel have a lot of societal advantages that they may not be aware of. As a white man, I think it is important that we respect other cultures when we travel, and that includes encouraging more diverse groups of peoples’ perspectives in the travel industry. T his blog post is about how privileged travelers can do more to support more inclusive practices in travel writing, and to be aware of their privilege when making decisions about how to act in foreign places.

Travel is a great thing that can break down boundaries between cultures. I have personally learned a huge amount from traveling. But over the course of my time at college, I’ve begun to think more about the privilege I have as a white male from an affluent background.

My first time I gave this thought was when I turned in my first draft of an essay paragraph for my Fall Semester college writing class. My paper had been an introduction, and a description of being the only person of Western European descent on a train in Ukraine, and how exhilaratingly adventurous I felt. My professor, when she was grading my first draft, wrote a note that encouraged me to consider how my viewpoint was a privileged viewpoint, and that my travel writing should acknowledge this at the very lest.

My first reaction was a sigh of exasperation, after all, I felt that my professor had been upset at the fact that I was an avid traveler, and I was honestly kind of offended. I loved a lot of things about being in Ukraine – the architecture, the food, the language, and all that. How could I be somehow offending someone by saying that?

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized – she had a point. Plenty of people in western countries have to put up with being the only person of their race in a room of people every day. I’ve learned that, for many people of color in western countries, due to historical legacies of racism and intolerance, being the only person of your ethnicity in a room is not an exciting, adventurous thing – it can cause anxiety that some have to deal with every day. White Americans are in a position of privilege where being the only person of their racial background in a room is an “interesting” experience, not a difficult one, and not one that regularly have to put up with in America. The way I wrote could have been more considerate of that.

I find some of the so-called “social justice warriors” at my university to be very extreme. Some are so politically correct that they just don’t think it’s ever ok for white people to write about issues that affect other groups of people at all. Many are less extreme.

But overall, I feel that when it comes to how modern travel writing portrays other cultures and places, there’s a lot that needs to change. A lot of lonely planet books, while they are great for tourists, have a tendency of feature culturally-demeaning cliches (even if well-intended). And despite the rising numbers of tourists from outside the western world, many travel books still feature western perspectives on the country over locals’ modern perspectives. At its best it can be cliche, other times it can be downright orientalist and exoticizing. At the end of the day, travel writing is a business, and many travel guides are in it for the money. But as western travelers, we should be aware that many books cater to our perspective. And we should make more of an effort to bring other travelers’ voices into the mix. Because travel is not just for white people. It shouldn’t be, and we should do more to encourage inclusiveness in backpacker communities.

1) Promote more blogs of people of color and LGBTQA+ travelers in travel media.

The way privileged white westerners experience non-western countries is not the same as how many people of color experience them. Growing up in a privileged background at home can warp your perspective on other places. It doesn’t mean your perspective is less valid, but there are things that marginalized groups of people experience which can teach them about the world through a different lens.

I’m not going to say what those things are, because, as a white person, I don’t know the intricacies of them. It is not my place to guess how people of other backgrounds experience travel. But I know one thing, let’s get real: when you come from a position of societal privilege, there’s bound to be differences in your worldview which affect perspectives and experiences while traveling.

Non-white travelers exist, and their opinions on places should be valued just as much. Despite rising numbers of non-western and non-white travelers, travel media remains largely white-dominated, which is ironic considering that travel can be a great way to bring people together. While white people can never completely relate, we can listen. Representation in travel writing matters. This blogger, on her blog, (Oneika The Traveler) (she is African-American), writes about why it is important that travel media becomes more inclusive of non-white people: http://www.oneikathetraveller.com/lack-black-travel-blogging-travel-media.html

2) Stop using orientalist words like “authentic” and “exotic” to describe non-western cultures.

If you look at a typical travel guide’s introduction description of a western country, you can find a lot of cultural cliches for sure. The laid-back atmosphere of France, the open, diverse geology of the US, all that. The most prominent photos will often be photos of famous sites, or gorgeous landscapes.

When you look at non-western countries travel books, there is a very different tone. Typically, the photos featured are more likely to be of people in traditional clothing, as opposed to in books for western countries where the photos featured are of sights and landscapes in the country. Carelessly, there is liberal, orientalist use of the words “authentic” and “exotic”.

This is a big problem. Travel should be an activity which teaches people about cultural differences and cultural similarities in a balanced manner. It shouldn’t fetishize and hype-up the differences that exist between western and non-western countries, especially when those differences can be a result of decades of colonialism, oppression, and poverty.

3) Write about differences between regions a more well-rounded way

A lot of travel writing that compares different world regions does it in a compartmentalizing, demeaning manner. Europe? Go there for the culture! Africa? Go there for the national parks! When we reduce different regions of the world solely to their roles in fulfilling travelers’ wishes, not only do we look overlooked travel opportunities, but we also reinforce stereotypes that are rooted in colonialism and orientalist.

We need to acknowledge that there is more that a traveler can enjoy in Africa than Safaris, as there is more a traveler to Europe can enjoy than sightseeing. We need to see regions for what they are, beyond just what the tourism industry in those places promotes.

4) Respect the culture when you go abroad!!!!

This should be obvious, but it isn’t to many people. It’s extremely upsetting for me when I see people disrespecting the culture of a non-western country. When I was in Japan, I came across a white american man in the guesthouse I was staying it who would bark basic questions in English (the receptionist didn’t understand well) and wouldn’t even bother to learn “please”, or “What is it?” in Japanese. Learning the language of a country where it is important shouldn’t be a cool bonus thing travelers do. It should be expected .

Also, when I was in Peru, there was one woman on one of my tours who talked about the people in very belittling ways, and kept trying to take photos of indigenous Quechua-speaking children when the families told her they didn’t want to be photographed. She also made lots of tasteless remarks about Inca people believing in evil spirits. It was extremely tasteless to me and to other travelers. It is just not okay.

Another important point: If, when we are abroad, we only notice things that confirm our pre-existing ideas of cultures, we are not being open minded at all. But some travelers do that. And that’s not ok.

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The bottom line is that, I think there are things about travel writing which are overdue to change. The world is not static, and travel writing shouldn’t be either.

Below I have some good blog posts with interesting perspectives on travel and privilege:

http://inedibleroots.tumblr.com (blog which takes a critical look at the western-oriented nature of the tourism industry, the commodification of culture, and features writing with perspectives of non-white travelers)

https://feminismandhappiness.tumblr.com/post/56842139860/im-tired-of-seeing-white-people-treating-poor (a post about why traveling is not a cure for racism)

Respect in Developing Countries: 7 Behaviors Travelers Should Avoid

20 Jan

This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I recently got back from traveling around Peru for a month, and as it was my first major trip in a developing country, I’ve taken time to think about the most important tips for being respectful while traveling in developing countries.

I think that in rich countries, people get an image of poor countries as being hopeless places. When positive trends take place in developing countries, the US media doesn’t report on it, unless the supposedly positive trend is that white people are going over to help them. By watching the news footage of whatever tragic event has recently happened in a poor country, or by seeing charity ads with poor, starving African children, you wouldn’t know that extreme poverty has decreased from 30% of the world’s population to 10% of it since 1990. You wouldn’t know that Sub-Saharan Africa has several of the world’s fastest growing economies. You wouldn’t know that literacy rates in developing countries have seen incredible gains in the past 50 years. You may know that many Africans have no access to clean tap water, but you wouldn’t know that more Africans have mobile phone service than have access to clean tap water.

We get such a warped view of developing nations in the media, to the point where even when well-meaning backpackers visit those countries, they are influenced by this, using travel as a chance to confirm their pre-existing biases rather than learn things they may have otherwise not learned.

For example, a person may go to a country in Latin America and have no problems getting around on buses most of the time (as I did). But as soon as they have one experience sitting on a delayed bus with a driver running late, they see it as evidence of the “laid back culture” of Latin America. And so, it makes them feel adventurous, as if it’s an interesting story to tell. But if these same people had more delayed bus rides in the United States, it wouldn’t be about a “laid back culture”. Instead, they’d be complaining about America’s infrastructure problems nonstop, and talking about the failures of the US government to build High Speed Rail and improve the nation’s congestion problem.

When Western tourists visit developing countries, they can contribute to local businesses and help their economies. But they can also give locals a sour impression of westerners, sometimes deservedly so. I think that in developing countries, it’s especially important to respect local norms and respect the people.

And so, this list is of 7 problematic behaviors westerners should avoid in poor countries.

1) Taking photos of local people without permission

This is problematic because it violates the privacy of people, and also turns human beings into “props”, or trophy pictures for your Instagram profile. It’s important to remember that when people take these photos, they often selectively choose the most “exotic” looking people in the most “exotic” places. In Peru, hardly anyone takes photos of the local people in Miraflores, a wealthy suburb of Lima. But many people take pictures, without permission, of rural, traditionally dressed indigenous people in the Sacred Valley region near Cusco. And since that’s the image that many westerners get of Peru, they don’t realize the fact that wealthy suburbs exist in the country too. This contributes to the problems with how developing countries are perceived by westerners. No one ever goes to wealthy places in the US and takes photos of the “strange Americans going to work in their business suits”. So neither should you do that with people in developing countries, unless they really want you to.

2) Making tasteless jokes or remarks

You’d think that travelers who go to developing countries would know better, but unfortunately, many will make tasteless or downright racist remarks or jokes, often to other tourists, about how local people live. On the first trekking tour I did in Peru (in Colca Canyon), there was one woman who kept making offensive jokes and remarks about “primitive native people believing in evil spirits”. This shouldn’t be happening. Traveling should be an experience that teaches people how insignificant we are as individuals in this world of seven billion, and how millions of people are fine living differently than we do. Sadly, some travelers don’t realize this.

3) Choosing tour companies that don’t have ethical business practices

It’s important to research the business practices of companies that offer tours. Make sure tour companies give back to their local communities with the money they make from tourists. Not all of them do. For example, In northern Tanzania, there is a lot of competition among safari companies, and many have unethical business practices. These practices can include racism, a lack of commitment to preserving wildlife, not giving back to locals, and cutting corners with safety.

4) Volunteering to do work that locals could do themselves

In March 2012, The Atlantic magazine published an article called “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” by Teju Cole. See the article here . It talked about how a voluntourism industry has grown massively in the years following the Haiti Earthquake. Many westerners who want to do good in developing nations will pay money for the chance to volunteer in a rural village for a couple of weeks, laying bricks for a local school, taking pictures with the kids, and then going home with a huge ego and idea that they are a hero. It may sound harmless, but it really isn’t. The problem is that in many of these communities, the work tourists do is work that locals could do themselves. When tourists do this work, it contributes to the problematic “white savior” narrative and takes work opportunities away from local people. So unless you have a really specialized skill that no one in the local community has, it’s best to avoid being a “voluntourist”.

5) Ignoring Local Customs and Etiquette

In developed nations like those Western Europe or Japan, American tourists are made fun of for being ignorant and not knowing the local customs. And while it annoys the people who live there and do business there, it is often given a pass. But when you ignore the local customs in a developing country, you are doing more harm, leaving the people with a very sour view of the few Western tourists they get (relative to developed nations), and sometimes leading them to lose faith in the ability for tourism to help their communities. Vang Vieng in Laos is notorious for attracting backpackers who go tubing, party, and trash the place while ignoring local customs. This has really hurt the locals’ relationship with the tourism industry. Just don’t be another neocolonialist. Learn basic etiquette.

6) Eating the same food you could eat back home

This isn’t common among all backpacker circles, but still does happen. There are people who will go to Southeast Asian countries and eat cheeseburgers, pancakes, and pizza, and only eat from touristy restaurants. Sometimes it is because people don’t want to venture outside their comfort zone, but It’s often because of an irrational fear of local food. It’s usually very safe to eat local food as long as you do your research on food safety beforehand, and avoid places where locals aren’t eating.

7) Becoming a pretentious, “enlightened” narcissist after your trip

Look, I’m sure three month trip in South America was great. You learned a lot. You gained a lot of knowledge about the world. But it doesn’t make you superior to your friends back home. It doesn’t give you an excuse to be a pretentious narcissist. Travel shouldn’t just be about you “finding yourself” (whatever that means), it should be about the places you go and what you learn about the world from it. An insecure person becomes an arrogant know-it-all after traveling, who talks about travel when it isn’t wanted. A happy, knowledgable traveler should become more humble after traveling, as they learn more and more that it’s impossible to know everything about the world. Listen to what friends back home say, especially if they’ve had a different travel experience then you. And don’t dismiss those who love to read about other cultures but haven’t traveled much. Travel is a great way to learn about the world, but it isn’t the only way. Travel is a privilege and costs a lot of money too. Many people can’t, no matter how many articles on the internet talk about someone who “visited 100 countries for free” or how “Anyone can travel if they put their mind to it”.

So there you have it. These are seven very problematic behaviors to avoid in developing countries. It’s important to keep these in mind as you travel and plan future travel.

How to write a “you must go to this off-the-beaten-track, authentic country” article.

11 Dec

(NOTE: This is satire. The post uses a fictional country for the purposes of satirizing travel literature)

In Eastern Europe, wedged between Poland, Kalningrad, and Lithuania, is a small country called Slobana. Slobana may not have the top attractions of Rome and Paris, but increasingly, travelers are flocking to this undiscovered gem.

Slobana is a small country with a population of 100,000 people. But its culture is ancient and mysterious and alluring.

Why this country has remained off the tourist radar for so many years is a mystery. Surely, the Western european countries can’t be that much more exciting, right?

The rock of Slobana may be its top attraction. This small stone, slightly brighter than most, encrusted onto a wall on a church is a national symbol and a great source of pride for its people. The people even have a ceremony on christmas where they put a christmas tree in front of it and sing prayers. The origins of this ceremony and the stone itself go back to pagan times but no one knows for sure what it comes from. The rock of Slobana may not be the size of the eiffel tower, but as the 100 backpackers who visit each year tell you, it packs just as much of a punch.

Perhaps the best thing about Slobana is the fact that so few tourists go there. Often, you will be the only english speaker on the bus. You can get off the bus in any town, and the hospitable locals will greet you with respect and show you their hospitality. Bed and breakfasts exist in Slobana, but they are different than other countries’ bed and breakfasts: they are called Kogalogs, and they are more ingrained into the local culture than in neighboring Poland. Some women in the villages even wear traditional dresses to this day. The only other tourists you’ll see are adventurous backpackers. Getting to know the local culture is extremely rewarding.

Next time you plan a trip to Europe, consider Slobana! Don’t just go to the Londons, the Romes, and the Parises! Try something truly authentic and off the beaten track!

At home nowhere – and happy that way

1 Dec

I feel at home nowhere – and I hope to keep it that way as long as I can.

This Fall was my first semester at college. I attend the American University in Washington, DC, and will graduate in 2019. It’s a moderately small school with around 7,000 undergraduates. I’ve settled in quite well. Not without problems, such as the anxieties over future jobs and the occasional disappointing test grade. But overall, my social and academic college life is on to a great start.

As the semester winds up and I’m anticipating my trip to Peru later this month, I’ve been thinking about the concept of home. I’ve been to parents houses in New York and Boston a few times this semester, including on Thanksgiving. But each time, I have felt no more happiness to be home than any other time during the past five years of my life. If anything, it has felt strange to be home. It’s strange because a few things are different than I remember, but for the most part the home and the surroundings are the same. And I don’t like sameness and routine in my life. I like things to change. I want the town to be different each time, wherever I am. I have felt no less strange then I do when I step off the plane in a foreign country.

I have fond memories of being in both my mother and my father’s houses and going to school in the Boston area. My parents are both great, loving people in their own ways. But I don’t feel homesick or nostalgic for my past like some of my friends at college do.

I don’t think this is about my family situation, school situation, or anything from my teenage years. I think it’s just my personality. I love places, but I don’t feel a special attachment to any place in particular. I just like seeing everywhere I can, but as an observer, not a resident.

I am happy for people who are different then me and feel happy with their lives at one place they call home. I sometimes wonder if my parents wish I envy them, since they spend a lot of money for me to travel. But I don’t envy them. I’m comfortable in my own skin. My late high school days of anxiety, a desire to fit in like everyone else are over.

In 2 weeks I will be flying to Peru, ready to visit the last inhabited continent I have left to set foot in. I will be updating my blog regularly with travel advice about visiting the most prominent country of the high Andes.

I’m 6 feet tall, travel abroad more than a couple of times a year, and have only flown economy class. But here’s why I will never complain about air travel

12 Nov

There’s a lot of hassles that today’s Americans (and people in other developed countries) love to write about and be angry about: dealing with banks’ customer service phone-lines, the cost of rent in cities with a decent number of jobs, the corruption in politics, and the cost of college. Many of these are things that they should rightfully be pissed off about. But if there’s one of these types of hassles that gets way more criticism about its modern form than it deserves, I think air travel takes the cake.

People just love to hate the airlines. Airlines, to be fair, can do shitty things in certain individual situations. Illegally discriminating against customers in wheelchairs, suggesting that passengers pay to use the toilet, and having non-white passengers kicked off planes for no valid reason are terrible things that airlines in developed countries have been guilty of throughout the last couple of decades.

What bothers me is when people complain about the general state of modern air travel. Air travel, as the popular narrative goes, was so much better back in those good old days (the boundaries of which can range anywhere from the 20s to the 90s, depending on who you talk to). People dressed nicer. Economy seats had more legroom. The TSA wasn’t a thing. Full meals were served in economy class on domestic flights. Air travel, back then, had a sort of magic to it that came with its novelty as a new invention.

What is never said by these people is that in those days, smoking was allowed on planes, safety standards were overall much lower, far fewer flights were available, airfares were far more expensive, and many passengers would pass the time by getting drunk if there was no inflight entertainment.

Need I say more? Yes, I think I should.

I would love it if there was more legroom on flights. But I’d far rather be able to get a safe, affordable flight where I know that I will not be inhaling cigarette smoke. I also love the fact that wifi is being added to more and more flights.

Yes, flying can feel like a hassle relative to most first-worlders’ typical living circumstances: it’s a 1-15 hour stretch we have to endure in a cramped seating position, away from our bed or our home. But that doesn’t mean we need to teach ourselves to view it that way. For thousands of years, humanity could only dream of the passenger flights we have today. Now that we can fly, we should appreciate our progress rather than complaining about the legroom. And it shouldn’t be something anyone takes for granted. There is still plenty of the world’s population that has never flown.

Am I unusual? Maybe. I am a bit of an aviation geek, so there’s a bias there. But I also think we should be glad that we have the opportunity to fly 30,000 feet in the air and go to new places. That reality, not the legroom and food on past flights – is the true magic of air travel. And today, it’s accessible to more people than ever before. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

To my generation (and others in the US): stop assuming the worst about people with different beliefs. Just stop.

8 Nov

For the past two months I’ve been working through my first semester at college. I go to American University (AU) in Washington DC. So far, college has been a great experience that’s taught me a lot of things. I’ve had great experiences that have been very educational. I’ve met many people from places all over the US and the rest of the world. I’ve taken very interesting courses, and I’ve had a lot of interesting discussions. Interesting, in both good and bad ways.

Let’s start with some background: AU is one of the most politically active colleges in the nation. Generally, the college leans left-wing. My generation is seen as very liberal compared to previous American generations, but AU takes millennial style liberalism to a real extreme. Among the left-wing at AU, there is a vocal number of students who get called “SJWs” by other students.

The term “SJW” is not just used at AU, it is an abbreviation of “social justice warrior” that has become a mocking term for vocally left wing individuals. Many who get ridiculed with this insult are well-intentioned, well-meaning people who want to make the world a better place. But like in many demographics, there is a minority that has hurt the overall reputation.

I have personally heard of the more extreme “SJWs” say that it’s imperialistic and racist for white people to learn Spanish and eat Asian food. I think most people would agree that it’s nonsense. I think it is reasonable for people to call out the disrespectful behavior of dressing in a Native American costume for halloween. But it’s become a belief that many who criticize “cultural appropriation” are simply nasty people who are out to stop white hipsters from eating Asian food, traveling to non-western countries, or learning foreign languages. And then there are SJWs who assume that “fake white allies” are not really well intentioned, simply if they make one comment that they don’t realize is offensive.

This boils down to what I believe is a major problem in American political culture: people on both sides of many debates are quick to assume the worst in the other side. There are horrible, bigoted republicans and democrats out there. And there are those who aren’t overtly racist, but who will openly deny that white privilege exists. And there are those who know it exists, but see no problem with it. All of these types of people are wrong. There are also “SJW” types who insult white people. There are “SJW” types who think it is impossible to be a male feminist. And both of these types have dialogue are damaging. But if someone comes across as remotely resembling one of these, even through one “microaggression” people tend to jump to conclusions about who they are as a human being, and may assume that are a hateful person.

I used to think of this as being a solely tea party problem, involving the types who hate Obama more than they love America. And it’s a very big problem I have with some conservatives, that they will assume the worst in anyone who supports Obama. But if we, the left, assume that anyone who questions the Tumblr-influenced culture of political correctness is a hateful bigot, we are no better than they are. WE’VE ALL got to cut each other some slack, be polite and CHILL OUT. Society cannot function in a civil manner if we constantly call each other bigots or call each other “America haters”.

I’m a left-wing person. I think Donald Trump’s popularity among the GOP is a sickening manifestation of the worst of American culture. But I’m not going to assume that someone is a nasty, awful person simply because they say one thing that empathizes with any of his views. We’ve all got to be decent human beings, and get to know people before we judge if they are bad people or not.

it shouldn’t be about bragging rights: why going outside tourist routes is important to Educational Travel

31 Oct

Going to non-touristy places isn’t a backpacker achievement: Its a necessary part of knowing a country.

There’s a lot of cliche, overused phrases and terms in modern travel writing that can be used to describe places: “authentic” , “exotic”, and “mix of modernity and tradition” are a few examples. It gets old fast. But by far, probably the most common and celebrated is “off-the-beaten-track”.

Somehow, westerners are seen as brave and accomplished for visiting places that many tourists don’t visit. The assumption is that going off the beaten track is a great thing because the less-touristy places are not “contaminated” by the influences of western tourists.. To some extent, this can be true. But it’s not just that Western Culture takes over these heavily-touristed locales. It doesn’t just refer to the McDonalds outside Florence’s train station, nor does it only refer to the fact that there are more KFCs in Beijing than in Manhattan. These are obvious examples of western influence, but they aren’t the only examples.

Many souvenir shops and businesses in touristy places, including ones that are locally owned, try to make money by selling packaged souvenirs, food, or activities that reflect the way the locale is portrayed in American media. Many American tourists to Germany know that Cuckoo clocks are a famous item from Germany, and so, German stores in heavily touristed areas tend to sell them. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s a great way for local businesses to make money and support their communities.

But from the perspective of a traveler looking to understand a culture, this only gives a tourist-oriented impression of what the country’s culture is, that wouldn’t be too different from its pavilion at Disney’s Epcot theme park (if it has one). To understand a culture, it is important to go off-the-beaten-track. And it’s not just about seeing rural areas. Some of the the biggest cities in some countries are not heavily touristed. Now, I’m not suggesting that you spend all of your time in the US in Columbus, Ohio. But if you’re on a road trip and you want to stop over for a night, don’t feel like its a waste of time to check out places like that. Even in these places, you can find downtown enclaves with some degree of local charm.

When it’s used to describe populated places, the term “off-the-beaten-track” is not a good term to use. When we say this, we’re suggesting that only the actions of tourists can influence this populated “beaten track”.

That being said, there is still often more value in going to touristy places. After all, they often have better sights and are more geared for tourists. If you don’t go to non-touristy places, it’s not a crime. But, please, don’t act like you know much about the country. And if you do, don’t act like its an achievement. It’s really just about getting the education travel should provide. People treat it as a bragging right. It’s not. Plenty of people live and work everyday in the places you describe as “off-the-beaten-track”.


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