The politics of travelling – part 1

When I first envisioned this post, I imagined a well-researched essay-meets-article on the problematic behaviours of some so-called travellers and holidaymakers. I wanted to give you a list of sources and writers that explain culture clashes and the ultimate triumph of the White Western perspective. I still want to do this, but I think it may be a bit more relevant once I have actually gone on a long trip and potentially experienced some of the behaviours we’re about to analyse.

So instead, here is a list of things I’d like to avoid doing while I’m away, but which I’ll end up doing anyway (probably).

1. Go to a party for travellers

Although a part of me really really wants to go to a Moon Party and dance the night away, I have a feeling that the evening wouldn’t be as romantic as the name suggests. Talking to a friend about travelling, we discussed how many people seem to go on the same trip but never meeting.

Some will go to Colombia, or Thailand, or Vietnam, and stay in the same places, eat at the same restaurants, and have the same drinks. While there’s a sense of beauty and satisfaction in doing what “you’re supposed to experience”, to me travelling has to mean a little bit more.

I don’t want to feel that my experience has been manufactured. I love to travel because I get to be a fly on the wall in different cultures. I want to try new flavours and give up control over my surroundings.

Wine Tasting
Wine tasting in Napa, California

Do I think I’ll manage to avoid this? Probably not. Most likely I’ll end up in places that have been designed for people like me, and that’s also OK. I hope I do have the courage to stray out of the beaten path occasionally and discover new things.

2. Take pictures of all the instagrammable features

I love photography. Once I told my therapist that it was the only thing that made me feel whole. And I stand by it. When I hide behind the camera, I feel like all my worries and insecurities simply vanish into thin air. Only my eyes and my fingers exist, trying to get the right shot.

I wouldn’t call myself a photographer yet, my skills are definitely rusty. But this is how I want to practice while travelling.

I want to avoid taking the same pictures I’ve seen in magazines or on social media. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. Say, the Taj Mahal or the rice terraces in Bali. But sometimes you can take your tourist shot home with a different perspective.

This summer I want to get better at photography. I want it to be the excuse to climb a couple more metres or befriend someone. I want to have a better eye, and capture the moments that can go unnoticed.

View of Trinidad, Cuba

To me, good photography is about not being lazy. It’s about getting closer to the subject and making sure you design the moment as well as respecting it. And that’s why I want to avoid the same spots everyone loves and photographs. I want to see the rest.

3. Pretend I’m going on a health craze

Ok, so this could be a post on its own. We could talk about the yoga retreats in India and Bali, or the “vegan festivals” in Thailand or anything smoothie related in South East Asia.

I won’t pretend that I’m all for this. Because I’m not. When I was studying at the LSE our professors presented the concept of Orientalism, originally coined by Edward Said. At its core, orientalism tackles the way Western society portrays Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. This way we can understand the different “South East Asian” archetypes that are prevalent in modern media. For example, the Toothless Wise Man or the Vulnerable Young Girl in a Sari.

Image from Eat Pray Love (2010)

Aside from these personifications of Asian cultures, one of my biggest pet peeves is the health craze. One quick Instagram search for “Bali food” shows smoothie bowl after smoothie bowl. I can understand the fruit is abundant but, is that really Indonesian food? I think not, and Instagram somewhat agrees with me, as you can see below.

I’m absolutely guilty of trying “exotic” diets that will make me healthy (I was a raw vegan for 6 months once upon a time), but during my visit, I hope to just try the food. Food and cuisine are at the core of a nation’s culture and self-expression, so missing out on its flavours would feel like a wasted opportunity.

4. Be complicit in feel-good tourism

A couple of months ago National Geographic published an article that made me scream “YES!” but also tore apart my conception of tourism. The article, Inside the Controversial World of Slum Tourism,  walks the flakey fine line between what helps a deprived community and what exploits it.

Although not in any sort of official way, my friend and I first encountered this issue when we travelled to Cuba in 2016. The difference between the tourist-ready areas and the residential neighbourhoods was staggering, and turning a corner would bring us into what felt a different world.

Backstreets of Havana, Cuba

In the beginning, we loved it. It felt like we were seeing the “real Cuba”, not like all our fellow travellers. But soon we realised we were intruders. Our presence in local markets was received with suspicious silences and photographing façades, cars and local didn’t feel right.

My favourite part of travelling is straying off the beaten path. Taking a wrong turn and seeing something I didn’t expect. But I’m also acutely aware that there are some places I’m simply not welcome.

I come from a region fuelled by tourism, and I can understand the appeal of “living like a local”. However, there’re also the places where locals want to keep just for them – an unshared gem of their culture and lived experience.

Rooftop in Shanghai, China

How am I going to avoid being complicit in poverty tourism? To me, it’s as simple as asking myself the question “who is this benefiting?” and respecting the agency of people around me.

How many of these are you guilty of doing? Have you ever thought about how you travel? Am I just being a snob?

Let me know in the comments! See you soon!

1 thought on “The politics of travelling – part 1

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