Friday, 20 June 2008

On travelling

'travelling' is one of those practices that has always left me with an uncomfortable feeling.

'backpacking' 'exploring' 'going to see other cultures, broadening one's mind, experiencing the world...

in a week in which one of my friends embarks on a lifelong dream, doing community work in Rwanda, (for which i totally respect and admire her) i am reminded of a young man, albeit older than myself, who, at a party, spoke of his general greatness and superiority that he gained on an expensive round the world holiday.

I'm torn, she is going somewhere she has dedicated so much of her time and energy to a fantastic cause, something she knows a lot about and genuinely cares about, he, at 18, spent a great deal of money on a holiday. both are travelling, expanding their worlds and meeting new people, new cultures, new ways of life, the former as one with fantastic intentions, the latter as an observer of questionable use and motive.

I don't think i can fully describe the arrogance of this young man, and his pride in having avoided 5 star hotels in order to sample the 'real' lives of people, by staying in 2 star accommodation, and haggling with locals for art, instead of shopping at the more official tourist outlets. I guess a similar mindset to his was this:

"I wasn’t a “tourist” doing a “tour” of Indonesia. I was a “traveller.” Maybe even an “adventurer.” My companions and I sought out sights and experiences that were “off the beaten path” (the clich├ęd nature of that phrase alone should have tipped us off to how much our supposed independence was in itself a kind of conformity). We hired guides with cars to take us to weird little villages and deserted beaches, quiet restaurants and cheap inns—places that Indonesians themselves actually used, or so we thought. And when we bought souvenirs, we tried to find authentic Indonesian stuff, not the cheap t-shirts and masks and pots and feathered things that were clearly made for those other “tourists.”"

on the other hand, i cannot do justice to the passion with which my friend commits herself to the cause she is now working for.

I read a blog piece this morning found here, which describe the privilege of those with money, (and white skin, though there is an interesting debate on if this is the main factor in their actions) and the entitlement young backpackers feel to snoop into and observe the lives of others, without giving anything back, almost like a one way interaction.

this hit a nerve with me, and my recent complaints about my kitchen. (stay with me here!) my kitchen can be clearly seen into by the large numbers of staff that work around the building, and all of those in the flats above. when i venture out in the morning for a nice cup of tea, in my dressing gown, i understand that people can see me, can watch me in my own private space/home, judge me, take parts of my life without my permission, tourists, if you like, into my home life. I do not feel i have the right to go to their homes and look in, to ask their names, or ask what they do in their own kitchen. I am the subject, the thing they look at and almost, what they own.

when backpackers move off the path of tourists in the hope of seeing something (someone) new, they intrude, unasked into the private lives of people who did not ask to be watched. their beaches did not ask to be explored, nor did their homes, land or settlements. what right do we (does anyone) have to look?

young backpackers crave adventure, experiences, stories they can go home and tell people about at parties, they want to tell you they've seen what poverty looks like, they are a man of the world!!

but are they? what do they really know?

and what do i know? less than them, perhaps, i know what it's like to be the subject, if only in my incredibly comfy little abode on an infinitely smaller scale.

i don't think i will ever go travelling in that sense, thus depriving some people of the tourist money that may keep their economies going - can you do right for doing wrong? i doubt it.


miss snowmantle said...

ermmm... they're giving something back by buying local goods! money made from official tourist products isn't directly going to the people, they're going to government and big business, and who knows where that money is ending up really. i don't see what's wrong with travelling "off the beaten track" and seeing what the 'real' indonesia (or any other country) has to offer. u don't get that from staying cooped up at a 5-star resort and only going to places in the offical dull hotel guidebooks

for example, see this blog by 2 americans who went travelling for 8 months:

is what they did so terrible? did they really intrude into people's lives? they were met with friendly faces everywhere they went (except when they met a snobby Brit, oh the irony!)

mintspy said...

true, it's hard to tell exactly what the best thing is to do though, i often hear the positives about travelling and obviously everyone's experience is different, but the same. when i was a kid and we went camping, the local kids would sometimes be really cool, and other times really scary and threatening to holiday makers. the nicer ones would often say that they got annoyed with holidaymakers acting as if they owned the place etc and i wondered how that translated across countries and continents.