Tag Archives: travel

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)

Peru – The Traveler’s Ideal

7 Jan

The View from Machu Picchu

Within every region of the world, countries are known for different things, and staggeringly diverse Latin America is no exception. In Latin America, Brazil is known for its party culture. Costa Rica is known for its accessible natural beauty. Bolivia is known for its indigenous culture. Overall, It’s not always the case that, to a traveler, a country seems to have just about everything a traveler could want. But it’s exactly the case with Peru. If a god could design a country to be interesting and ideal to travelers, there’s a decent chance that country would look something like Peru.

Since December 12, I have been exploring this incredible country. I had my first impressions of the country in Lima, where I visited Huaca Pucclana Pyramid and tried some fine Ceviche. Afterwards, I took an overnight bus to Arequipa. Arequipa is a high-altitude city at the foot of El Misti, a large volcano whose famous snows sadly disappeared five years ago due to Global Warming. From Arequipa, I took a 3 day trekking tour into Colca Canyon, one of the greatest natural wonders on Earth. It is the world’s biggest canyon, home to Condors and various types of Cacti. Indigenous people live in villages in the bottom of the canyon, where local tour groups stay overnight between hiking days. After I got back from Colca Canyon, I took a six hour bus ride over to Puno. Puno is not a particularly pleasant town, but it’s a good place to spend a few days in, as it is the base for seeing the Uros and Taquile islands. Then I took another 6 hour bus ride, this time to Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, now known for its blend of Spanish and Indigenous culture. I went on the Salkantay trek, a longer but less pricey alternative to the Inca trail. Afterwards, I took a wildlife tour to the Amazon, specifically the edge of the Manu reserve. The wildlife is breathtaking. There’s a staggering variety of species. The most memorable to me were the bullet ants, the monkeys, and the macaws.

Peru does culture and sights, and it does those very well. No other ruin in the Americas is as famous as Machu Picchu. Peru is also home to other ruins, such as Huaca Pucllana in Lima and Kuelap in the north. Peru has great food too, from Alpaca steaks in the mountains to Ceviche on the coast. Peru also is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. The coast, amazon, and andes all have incredible landscapes and opportunities to experience nature. The tourism infrastructure for trekking and other types of tours is well set-up.

Peru’s cuisine is very good. It isn’t as renowned as that of the French of Chinese, but a trip to Peru is a far greater culinary experience than say, a trip to Ireland or Poland. You have to try Cuy (guinea pig). it’s expensive and there isn’t much meat, but it’s very tasty!

Peru’s culture has a fascinating blend of indigenous and colonial influences. There are three languages: Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. While Spanish is spoken almost everywhere, adventurous travelers can try out speaking a bit of Quechua in the Andes region. The indigenous peoples of Peru, in some places at least, still wear traditional clothing which varies from village to village.

Peru is also relatively safe compared to its northern neighbors, such as Ecuador and Colombia. There is a far lower violent crime rate, and the worst that happens to many travelers is being pestered by unprofessional tour guides in one of Cusco’s squares. You still should be careful though.

Peru was my first time in South America (the last inhabited continent I had left to set foot on), and it did not disappoint. I’d highly recommend it for any adventurous traveler!

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!

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.

Five Recommendations When Doing Travel Research

18 Sep

There’s a lot of potential advice someone could give to someone doing travel research. “Go to place x, Don’t go to play y!” or “Place x is overrated, place y is better”. As travelers, we often think our opinions are right. We often get a confirmation bias from hearing others who had the same thoughts as we did about a certain place to visit, and this reinforces our travel preferences, even if we realize that many other people we talked to had a completely different opinion. I know I’m not the only traveler who has made this mistake. The important thing is to be aware of it and to apply this awareness to research. Here are five things I think travelers should do when doing travel research, in order to get a variety of points of view and form an educated decision on where to go.

1) Talk to lots of other travelers and the locals, but take EVERY person’s recommendations with a grain of salt

Many new travelers look up to experienced travel writers and get only advice from them, and act as if their preferences are supposed to be the same as those of the more experienced traveler. They understand the basics of travel, but assume that because one tourist says a place isn’t worth visiting, that it won’t be worth visiting for them either. I’ve also talked to a lot of people who think that if they meet one local from their destination who says a major sight is overrated, it’s completely unworthy of visiting. By making this assumption after talking to one local person, the person is falsely and offensively assuming that every local has the same preferences, and also assuming that locals should see a country through the same lens as a traveler.

For example, I knew a Russian girl in my High School who told me I shouldn’t go to Russia because of its social and economic problems, and that life in the US was better. She was probably right from her own perspective, but because she’d been raised in Russia, she didn’t see Russia through the same lens a backpacker did. For me, it didn’t make it unworthy as a destination though. St Petersburg and Moscow are two of my favorite cities in the world. If I’d only gotten advice from her though, I may have completely been turned off of visiting Russia.

The bottom line is that everyone should get travel advice from a variety of people, both locals and tourists, no matter what the first people they talk to say

2) Use a variety of online and print sources

Online sources, like in the world of writing academic essays, have advantages for travelers. The articles are more easily kept up-to-date, and there are online communities too, which can have a variety of helpful voices about each destination.

But the good old paper book is in no way outdated for a traveler. A paper book cannot run out of battery, or make you stand out as a wealthy person who can afford the latest technology. Lonely Planet and Rough Guides Books are frequently updated in each edition and a great investment for any traveler.

3) Learn the historical context of the sights you visit

The Eiffel Tower is a beautiful sight in of itself, but before it was built, locals didn’t predict it would be appreciated that way. The historical context of any major sight, from Machu Picchu to the Louvre is fascinating to read about if you have the right attitude. There are many places online where you can read about the history of tourist sights, or you can watch art history Youtube videos on Khan Academy.

Another good use of historical context is to make less immediately spectacular sights more interesting. A small old church in the middle of rural England may not be the Roman Forum, but if you read about why it’s there, the history of it, and the influences on its architecture, it can be made to be almost as interesting.

4) Keep up-to-date

Look at the US or UK state department website, especially if you are going to a poor country. Go on forums frequently. Is there a protest going on? stay away from where it is. Is there an election going on? stay away from the country if it has a history of unstable elections. While the state department travel advisory page has a political agenda, and its descriptions of frequent crime in some countries should be taken with a grain of salt, there’s no doubt that it’s an important resource for at traveler.

5) Keep in mind that even small trivial matters can be different in a foreign country

I remember one time when I got on a city bus in Kyoto, Japan, and became very confused as to why people were piling in at the back of the bus and paying at the exit on their way out. I thought it would just be a city bus that was the same as anywhere else, but I didn’t know what was going on. Being unaware of small differences like that in transportation can really make you stand out as a dumb tourist, and make you more of a target. Bottom line is : if you don’t think you need to research little things, you haven’t done enough research!

How white privilege exists in travel

6 Sep

Race, gender, and ethnic issues are a tricky topic. They enflame internet trolls, they are used by politicians to divide people on issues, and they are issues where even well-intentioned privileged people can give the completely wrong impression to less privileged people.

For a white male traveler, privilege is a difficult thing to confront. We like to think that anyone can travel if they want, and that the world is perfectly open to you, as long as you aren’t hung up on how the US media portrays other nations. We write pretentious blog posts that emphasize how there’s a common humanity in all of us (a major pet peeve of mine), without stopping to think about how our way of life is, to some degree, dependent on our privileges.

Because I am a white traveler, I wanted to write some examples of how white privilege manifests itself in travel:

  • I am more likely to come from a family that can afford travel
  • I can walk around in a western or Eastern European city knowing that people are not going to be violent to me simply because of my race
  • I can go to a country where nonwhites are the majority, knowing that I will be a respected, privileged guest who locals are interested in getting to know
  • My passion for travel is not assumed to be “special and unusual” simply due to my race.
  • My way of speech and accent is considered “proper english”, the standard to which nonwhites’ english speaking ability is measured up to.
  • I can go through the US customs and immigration line without being suspected of being a terrorist

There are countless other examples too. But my point is, white male travelers need to realize that they are privileged, and when they see travelers of other races being treated badly, they need to do something about it and speak out, not just post on Facebook about what happened.

The Far East of Europe: Seven things Travelers love about Visiting Ukraine

17 Aug

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Ukraine’s not an easy place to travel, but it’s worth it. My last post was about the unique challenges of traveling in one of Europe’s last tourism frontiers. But why visit if it’s a challenging destination? This post explains some of the joys of visiting Ukraine.

1: Stunning Architecture

Few countries have more interesting architecture than Ukraine. The architecture of Ukraine is stunning, from the wooden cabins of the Carpathians to the grand palaces of Lviv. Ukrainian Architecture has a long history and varies tremendously from region to region. Some is more Russian influenced, and some of it is more Central European influenced.

2: Beautiful Countryside

Ukraine’s small towns are unspoiled, have few tourists, and in some regions have beautiful surroundings. The Carpathian region is the best example. A trek, bike ride or even bus ride through this region will give you a taste of one of the last truly untouched regions of Europe.

3: It’s Cheap!

In a country where youth hostels are $6 a night in the most touristy city, one can expect Ukraine to be cheap. Many people talk about Eastern Europe being “cheap”, but only in Ukraine and east of it is this perception truly still accurate. Coming from Hungary or Slovakia, your money will go much further. You can easily get by on $30 a day.

4: The Fascinating History

Ukraine’s history is long, and filled with influences from within its own culture and from the surrounding countries. It swung back and forth between being influenced by Central European culture and by Russian culture. Today, the country’s multicultural history is evident in its regional differences.

5: The mosaic of Slavic Cultures

Some neighboring countries, such as Poland, are quite homogenous, but Ukraine is a Slavic mosaic. Every region of Ukraine feels different, thanks to the outside influences of neighboring countries as well as the different landscapes and architectural styles. There’s the Russian-dominated East (don’t visit right now!), the Polish-influenced west, the diverse range of cultures in the Carpathians, the classical Ukrainian centre, and the Tatar and Russian-Influenced Crimea (don’t visit right now either!).

6: The Hearty Food

I’ll admit that cuisine from this world region is not my favorite, but it’s definitely quite filling. The food served is meaty, starchy, and somewhat stodgy, but it’s very cheap. Lviv and other major cities are home to Georgian restaurants, whose cuisines are by far superior to Russian and Ukranian cuisines according to most travelers and foodies.

7: The few other tourists

It’s rare now that a former USSR country lacks tourists. Czech Republic? Packed with tourists. Hungary? Packed with tourists. Poland? Also packed with tourists. But Ukraine, like the Caucasus, is yet to be discovered. You’ll sometimes have the museums all to yourself, and there are still restaurants in the Carpathians which have never seen a foreigner.


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