From the Archive: The Meaning of Travel

Image: Marc Dalmunder

Learn to travel well and you will learn well on your travels

My conception of the purpose of and possibilities latent within travel has been transformed. The Worldly seeks to encourage open-mindedness, expand horizons and increase knowledge of various cultures and political systems worldwide. Travel is one of the greatest – and most enjoyable – shortcuts to personal growth, whether that be social, intellectual or emotional. Yet many, filled with wanderlust, chase a “life-changing experience” by consuming copious amounts of alcohol on the beaches of Bali with fellow backpackers; and these travellers are wasting opportunities for a far more meaningful experience.

“I want to hear the perspective of the beggar, and the views of the Prince” was how one worldly friend of mine put it to me. For far too many Western travellers, their only real acquaintance with the inhabitants of the lands they visit is with a set of personas: the eager salesman beckoning them into a rug shop in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, or the tuk-tuk driver of Thailand shouting across the street that he can give them a full tour of Bangkok for a discount price. Very few will get to know the l wellrage man or woman of these countries stripped from the personas these people develop to deal with the archetypical young tourist; to learn their problems, hear their difficulties, and appreciate more fully their humanity.

There are those who seek to travel the developing world only to take advantage of the poorer members of these foreign cultures. 40% of visitors to the Philippines, for example, who go there purely for sex tourism, like modern day sexual conquerors in the mould of Henry Morgan Stanley. To them, this article is not addressed. In Manila, there are certain areas where overweight, middle aged white men can be seen wandering the streets with young and attractive Filipinas underarm; possibly prostitutes, possibly poverty-stricken women clinging to symbols of wealth in an attempt to feed their children or better their condition – truthfully, there is often little distinction between the two. Travel a little from the red lights and sleazy bars of these areas, and you will find the trash-dump communities, where people work for eight hours or more a day picking and washing scrap bits of plastic from the tips where they live.

In Angeles City, based around the remnants of an old US-air base, American ex-service men and Australian tourists fly in on Fridays and out on Mondays, exploiting the women – and perhaps indulging in the rampant trade in child prostitution – for the weekend, and fly out in time to return to their countries, often abandoning the resulting mixed-race offspring as they flee. A 1989 documentary records an American serviceman describing the Philippines as the “sexual Disneyland of the world” for white Western men and Japanese tourists, and little has changed since then.

But for those who travel abroad to escape the confines of their middle-class (or otherwise) upbringings, there is much to be learned. Learn to travel well and you will learn well on your travels. Most pay lip-service to the idea of “experiencing the culture” of the (predominately) Latin American and South East Asian countries they visit, but that should mean more than taking a fraudulent “authentic tour” of carefully managed tribes or engaging in a “sustainable development project” in Kenya. Such projects often degenerate into mere opportunities for white saviours to plaster photos of themselves with cute African children on their Facebook page, whilst easing the conscience of those privileged individuals who find themselves amidst such poverty. This article need not re-tread the well-walked critiques of voluntourism.

There are a number of things you can do to make sure the time you spend travelling is intellectually productive and emotionally engaging:

  • Research the country you are going to visit: In the age of the internet, this is not hard. What is the country’s history, geography, and ethnic make-up? What is happening in the political realm of the nation, and what major tensions and problems in society does there seem to be? Many travel to Thailand without even first knowing that there has recently been a military coup in the country. Some still seem oblivious on returning. If you already have a basic understanding of the country when you arrive, you will know better what questions to ask, and which answers to seek.
  • Talk to immigrants from the country who reside in your home nation: You’ll be surprised what they might know, recommend and/or suggest. If they know people who are willing to accommodate you in the destination country, that can be an excellent way to break into the genuine local culture. Don’t go for hostels rammed full of backpackers like yourself – you will only be dragged into doing what you would do at home, namely getting drunk and hitting bars with other tourists.
  • Find organisations within the country itself: A plethora of organisations – from international aid agencies to local grassroots campaign groups – are desperate for outsiders to take interest in their work. It is highly likely that they will offer to show you around an area of the country, or sector of its society.

This last point is highly important. One cannot expect to turn up in the developing world and immediately understand everything one is seeing. As a PhD candidate at Monash University told me, if you just show up and wander around you won’t have the “conceptual framework” to truly understand what it is you’re seeing – you won’t have the political and cultural context necessary to ground your experiences holistically. Even in the developed world, you can often only get a surface level understanding of what’s happening in human society if you lack any guidance. For instance, to the lone traveller, Christchurch in New Zealand still appears to be a ghost town reeling in the wake of the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. One is met with deserted streets in the Central Business District, shipping containers that constitute make-shift shops, and numerous patches of land where buildings once rested. But dig a little deeper into the human networks that underlie these melancholy sights, and a renewed community vibrancy is revealed.

Members of one of the most notoriously affected areas of Christchurch, near the beach in the east, explained to me how the feelings of vulnerability that had resulted after the disaster shook many residents of the fractured city into engaging in grassroots projects to strengthen self-reliance and sufficiency in the food supply system. These projects ranged from small-scale organic vegetable patches, to use of rainwater, extensive internal household recycling, and even superb homemade beer brewing. Turning up in Christchurch and expecting to waltz into community vitality will lead only to disappointment; to discover the reality of the city, true engagement with those who live there is necessary.

Another example: in the Philippines, activist organisations of various political bents, and some international organisations, were more than happy to show me around and introduce me to communities on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. These included families and villages impacted by a plethora of issues that plague the nation, from forced demolitions to make way for sanitised “eco-tourism projects”, to indigenous communities harassed by a military concerned only with protecting the interests of mining companies. The communities welcomed me into their homes and ways of life, let me mirror their livelihoods, and explained in detail their problems and efforts to address them.

Many will tell you that a couple of weeks in a single country is more than enough. If you are in to little other than an assortment of sand and rocks, walking around a white-washed museum and taking a photo with some generic well-known tourist attractions just to say you’ve “been there”, then it may well be. But do it right, and the longer you stay in a country, the longer you feel you need.

When you begin to uncover the reality of the developing world – the shockingly nepotistic political structures that keep the division of the country’s resources wildly unequal and inequitable, the private armies, state assassinations, foreign domination, insurgencies, political complexities, true cultural quirks, positives, and warts – then two weeks is no longer enough. When you begin to appreciate the complexity and meaningfulness of the billions of real, lived lives in the developing world, travel turns from a series of Instagrammable shots to a highly enriching, illuminating opportunity to become a worldlier individual.

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