Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why I Hate "Travel"

I just watched an episode of The Bachelorette.  Not something I would normally do, but I just happened to be in one of those moods where I was willing to watch whatever recommended to me.  One thing I noticed:  a couple of times, a male contestant tried to impress the bachelorette by mentioning that he liked to travel.

Everyone likes to travel. Everyone puts that down as a hobby. People think it makes them look so sophisticated, worldly, and wise. There are a number of reasons why this annoys me, the first being that I see it as a form of elitism. Who doesn't like to go to new places? People who say they enjoy traveling think it makes them unique (it doesn't). But not everyone can afford to travel. To emphasize the frequency with which one travels is both to highlight that one has the financial privilege to do so, as well as to suggest that one is somehow a better, more knowledgeable, or more "well-rounded" person for it. (This follows the general rule of only holding those experiences that are exclusively open to well-off people as valuable to human enlightenment and "cultural awareness.")

This elitism/classism has historical precedent and, in fact, the typical attitude toward travel smacks of residual colonial mentality.  First, there is the practice of exploiting other people (the Other) for a sense of personal edification and fulfillment.  In the Colonial Era, merchants, missionaries, anthropologists, and adventurers treated the non-European world as their personal zoo, in which they could study all of the human specimens in their natural habitat and use the knowledge they obtained to understand their own past (note: non-European societies did not, in fact, live in a "state of nature" equivalent to some stage of Europeans' past). Similarly, particularly on these reality shows (those which, like The Bachelorette, film in "exotic" locations), one hears people talk about how they like to "learn the culture" and "experience local traditions" (only for the sake of their own edification of course).  Almost always the reference to "culture" and "traditions" presumes that the "locals" are disconnected from the rest of the world, that they have no history of their own, that they basically inhabit some strange, isolated and timeless realm wherein they are stuck repeating the same habits and practices for all of eternity.  World Travelers presume that the lives of other people can be reduced to a motley collection of foods, clothing styles, rituals, random landmarks, bizarre behaviors, and odd beliefs. By sampling all of these strange and new things, World Travelers hope to get in touch with some inner, primitive humanity that they share.

However, when World Travelers visit other countries, they rarely stray too far from the luxurious resort areas and tourist zones (they may make their token trip to a market or something so that they can "experience local culture"). They don't learn about how colonialism unfolded in that particular part of the world; how neo-colonialism continues to shape the political and economic conditions; what different "local" people think about their position in the world, about the role of tourism, about the hardships and joys that they experience on a daily basis. The purpose of travel is not to build relationships, to bridge gaps, to better understand other people and the big picture that unites all of us. It is to sample things, to have new experiences, to say that one went to this country and ate this food and knows this list of facts about the Culture (assuming such a Culture exists).

"The only way to know is through trials of strength. 'Knowledge' is the state of this battlefront." - Bruno Latour (The Pasteurization of France)

Travel is a form of conquest. It entails a perception of "knowledge" and "understanding" as a collection of discrete, disembodied "facts." To become an educated person, one must master as many of these facts as one can (essentially cramming as many of them into one's brain as possible). Travel aids mastery by bringing a person closer to the material embodiment of "fact," to a more "authentic" manifestation (the same purpose served by museums - and perhaps not a coincidence that travel so often involves museum visits). Hence, Travelers learn about a land and its people by visiting all the key landmarks and historical sites, not by sharing mundane experiences with the people who live there.  Often planning for a trip involves picking out all the attractions from a book or guide that will allow one to feel like one has seen everything "important."

Furthermore, by ignoring global structures of inequality and current conditions of poverty (particularly the case in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia), whilst staying in fancy hotels and eating at expensive restaurants, Travelers are participating in direct relations of domination with those who serve them. I have heard a number of people from the Caribbean express unfavorable attitudes toward tourists. To them, it feels like a continuation of slavery when they have no economic option other than to wait upon rich white people, for a pittance. The tourism industry impoverishes local populations (in part by causing price increases), hinders self-sufficiency and promotes further neo-colonial dependence upon the industrial core. It causes crowding during peak seasons and degrades the environment in myriad ways. And often, it forces people to portray themselves in the unflattering way that tourists imagine them.

[And then, of course, there is the even more directly physical dominance that occurs when U.S. and European tourists use young women and children for sex...]

Rather than serving as a means to heighten understanding of other peoples' experiences of oppression, travel commodifies oppression and rebrands poverty as something "exotic" or "quaint."

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