Friday, February 20, 2009

My Quandary of Traveling Responsibly


This issue has been rattling around in my head a bit lately. I think it has always been there. People have told me that I tend to over-complicate situations through an excess of empathy. And I worry that sometimes I border on unfairly paternalistic in my concern about the impact of my presence on other people. I try to recognize that everyone has their own lives that they live as best they can and from that they generate a sense of pride and accomplishment that is wholly and 100% their own. And that this self-possession is something that I can not diminish with something as insignificant as my appearance on a street corner in their neighborhood.

But I have been struck over the last several years while traveling by the relative materialism of tourists from the developed world, especially while they are visiting third world or less developed destinations. They arrive in sparkling new clothes, with lovely new backpacks carrying one or two new cameras, maybe a laptop, cell phones, pdas, chargers, batteries, and so forth, in countries where the average salary per year is less than the contents of said backpack. Perhaps even less than the cost of the backpack itself.

The places these tourists (and I include myself in this category of tourist) visit are more than happy to see us. We bring money to areas that desperately need money, provide jobs, development, infrastructure, that would otherwise not be there.

But you do not have to dig too deeply to feel that along with this welcome is a thin layer of resentment (is that the right word? discomfort at least) created by the ostentatiousness of these accessories carried by tourists from developed countries, who, in turn, barely recognize these items as anything other than the standard equipment of travel.

So there is the welcome extended and your visit graciously received for its benefit, but along with that comes a sour bite from the economic chasm between you and the people you meet as you travel.

I am not sure if I am making sense. Friends have said that I am just feeling guilty for where and into what circumstances I was born. And that potentially I am transposing that sense of guilt onto people who are independent and proud of who they are, their country and their lives. That I am being paternalistic, perhaps even colonial.

But I have had opportunities to talk to people in the countries I have visited, and I have heard them suggest that the feelings are just as complex on their end of things. Like I said, they see the benefit to having tourists come and visit, economically and politically. But they also see the incredible materialism exhibited by these tourists, and they wonder why just a fraction of that wealth expressed by giant digital cameras, laptops, cell phones, jewelry, could not instead be invested in their countries where it might make the difference for some people, not just between happiness and sadness, but between life and death.

You cannot imagine how much you stick out like a sore thumb in a third world market place. There isn't one thing about you that isn't entirely foreign in appearance. If you were dressed in dayglo orange you wouldn't be any more apparent to the people who live there.

When I worked in outdoor equipment retailing, we had some t-shirts that said something like "Leave only footprints, take only photographs." A friend of mine said he thought that in some places even footprints were too destructive. I think he used the White Mountains as an example of a place that gets so many footprints, everything is getting a bit worn away. The landscape is being changed just by the footprints left behind.

At any rate, footprints are inevitable if you go places. What I have been thinking about lately is the kind of footprints you leave. Or the depth of them. And I think this expression of materialism that is made by all the things we carry with us when we travel is a sort of footprint, a deep one that could perhaps be made a bit shallower without diminishing the experience of travel or our ability to remember what experience was had.

I don't know. I definitely have come to think less is more when it comes to travel. I have tried to reduce what I bring to what I need and not what I might need. I resolved to stop looking for the perfect camera bag and just use what I have until it falls apart. My experience on a trip is not going to be adversely affected by whether or not I can get email. Or make a phone call from a mountain top. Fill a frame with a lion's head and post on Flickr that very night. Reduce reduce reduce.

Above all, my goal is respect. If you have clothes made of gold, you don't wear them to visit your friend who has clothes made of rags. At the same time, you don't wear clothes made of rags when that is not what you wear regularly. What begins as respect can become an insult if taken too far.

And I don't expect everyone to share my concerns. Travel as you will. Just that this is something that I have been thinking about - before during and after travels - and I guess in a way I haven't really come up with a suitable answer for myself.

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