In today’s postmodern world, the prevailing paradigm is that travel abroad can solve all your problems and help you find your soul. There are so many stories of people who quit their jobs and sold everything to travel the world. These individuals see travel abroad as some kind of spiritual odyssey to find their true selves buried under the trappings of their capitalist, consumerist societies (overflowing wardrobes, sleek cars, fancy houses, stashed bank accounts, and/or full-time jobs).
For these travelers, foreign countries become exotic stages for personal quests. They head to the jungles of Borneo even though they are afraid to step into the concrete jungles of Harlem. They travel to Italy, India, and Bali with well-thumbed copies of Eat, Pray, Love. They climb Macchu Picchu just to snap selfies with the ancient city in the background and think they travel off the beaten path when nameless thousands have trod before them.
These individuals clamor for “experiential travel” in cultures that are wholly foreign to their own. These travelers become cultural voyeurs, taking random pictures of things they do not understand, unwittingly exoticizing the people they claim they want to get to know.
No other photo says this better than that National Geographic shot of an ordinary Afghan girl in a refugee camp. Seventeen years later, photographer Steve McCurry and journalist Cathy Newman track her down. They confront the nameless girl, now a woman, to tell their version of her story.
In “Afghan Girl: A life revealed” Newman writes:
“She remembers the moment. The photographer took her picture. She remembers her anger. The man was a stranger. She had never been photographed before. Until they met again 17 years later, she had not been photographed since.”
“She cannot understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes.”
Sharbat Gula, formerly known as the Afghan girl for almost two decades, is justifiably angry. In 1985, her terrified gaze earned profits for National Geographic and accolades for McCurry.
According to Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan in Tourists with Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, most travel writing tends to be ethnocentric. People, places, and cultures become the exotic backdrops to bloggers’ quests to find themselves. Through the traveler’s lens, local people become caricatures and landscapes become sterile and photogenic, stripped of unsavory histories.
For example, many foreign travelers romanticize my home country, Trinidad and Tobago, as a place of friendly locals and pristine beaches without seeing the reality: pollution, crime, corruption, and other Third World problems. For others, India becomes the land of spiritual enlightenment, without recognizing its real issues of poverty, sexual violence, and gender inequality.
Similarly, do we stop and question the motives behind our travels? Holland and Huggan point out that travel writing is sometimes an expression of the traveler’s economic advantage and power over the host people and culture. When travelers boast about how cheap South East Asia is, do they realize that it’s so cheap because they are so economically privileged? What about the locals who live in these destinations and can’t afford to live like kings in their own countries?
Because of their economic advantage, traveler identities soon become enmeshed with how many countries they can tick off off the bucket list. Haven’t we seen/heard this charade before?
“So how many countries have you visited?”
“Oh really? I’ve been to one hundred. Have you ever visited Namibia?”
“You haven’t traveled unless you’ve camped in the desert there.”
We need to stop commodifying travel in this way. Countries are more than just stamps in your passport. Travel isn’t a contest for people to one-up one another with more outrageous experiences/off the beaten track destinations. Peoples, places, and cultures are more than what we see with our myopic personal lenses and travel should be more than a hodgepodge of voyeuristic impressions on the ‘gram. Travel should challenge us and what we believe in. It should force us to interrogate how we perceive others and how we are perceived. It should change us for the better.
What do you think? Share your comments!