Tag

conscious travel

Africa, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Don’t Take My Word For It

Everything I have ever written, everything I will ever write, represents an infinitesimal slice (mine) of an infinitely complex whole.

I may speak of the universality of experiences such as fear, joy, loss and love. And I do believe in the value of sharing knowledge. But still, someone else’s words will never be enough.

A single truth only brings us so far.

I can write that it is Saturday, that I am in Muizenberg, South Africa, that the sun is hot and high for so early in the day. And that is all true.

I can write that I am sitting at one of the southernmost edges of the world watching the waves roll in against a backdrop of rocky peaks; that the wind and my hair and the sky taste of salt; that my shoulders ache from surfing; that seashells crunch under my feet as I walk. And that is all true.

But this information is mine only. What of yours?

The Buddha was fond of saying, “Don’t take my word for anything; go find out for yourself.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) In the Jewish tradition, debate and inquisitiveness are encouraged. We are not to simply take another’s words (or even doctrine) as truth, but rather—to fall back on a much-overused phrase—to discover our own.

I believe much of the world’s wisdom boils down to this:

Go and see.

Today, I was going to write a snapshot of Muizenberg, a small coastal town just a thirty-minute train ride from Cape Town. But I changed my mind.

You can Wikipedia that, and I think this is more important.

“Go and see” does not necessarily mean, “Drop everything and go travel the world.” Although, if that is within your means and your calling, I certainly recommend it.

“Go and see” means, “Experience the world—any world, your world—for yourself. Don’t just take my word for it.”

Perhaps you won’t venture to the southernmost edge of the world, but touch the edge of something.

Maybe you won’t be crossing international borders, but find a limit, a frontier, and surpass it.

You may not “watch the sunset from every coast,” but you can watch the sunset every evening—and if it’s the watching that counts, then that’s kind of the same thing.

There are many ways to seek, many ways to wander, many ways to cross borders; I share only mine. And while I hope you enjoy seeing a certain world through my particular gaze, I also hope you will go and see, because these words, these truths, are only the beginning.

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

White Spaces: Combatting Racism with Subtle Awareness

Here’s a totally irrelevant picture of penguins to lighten the mood…

Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town

The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.

When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.

While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…

A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.

Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.

So.

The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.

To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.

Situation One:

You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.

Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:

> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.

> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.

> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?

Situation Two:

You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.

Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.

> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.

> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.

I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.

And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.

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conscious travel
Nature, Travel Advice

This is What Conscious Travel Looks Like

I wrote this for a masters application, but I think it’s worth sharing with more than a few admissions officers! What follows is an incomplete, but nonetheless important, analysis of the social, political and environmental issues facing the growing international tourism industry—and what we can do about them…

***

The tuk-tuk driver is angry. The passengers are drunk. Instigating.

They don’t want to pay. Too much. A crowd of other drivers and tourists collects around the ugly scene. It’s past midnight.

The situation nearly escalates to blows before friends of the passengers pay for them, and the tuk-tuk driver withdraws, hardly pacified. A bitter tasted remains in the air as the crowd disperses.

Everything wrong with a global, multi-billion dollar industry comes to a head in these few moments. Economic disparity. Cultural ignorance. Tension: between tourist and local. Competition: between local and local. Anger: everywhere.

In several years I have witnessed an excess of these scenarios; it is difficult to choose just one.

Tourism is the fastest-growing industry worldwide, surpassing oil, agriculture and automobiles. Many economies already depend on it, and more will join their ranks as the global middle class continues to expand, nurturing a growing curiosity about other people and other places. International tourist arrivals are forecasted to reach 1.8 billion annually by 2030—up 66% from their current levels.

If anyone thinks tourism is a frivolous area of concern, now would be the time to think again. The industry has a far-reaching impact, touching environmental, social and political sectors with long, insistent fingers.

Now, there are meaningful, constructive, sustainable and mutually beneficial ways for tourism to develop in a community, and then there is everything else.

Unsustainable tourism looks like luxury hotels in Zanzibar that truck in their drinking, washing and toilet water from the mainland (the island was never made to support such population density), and then flush it into the no-longer-so-pristine Indian Ocean. Unethical development looks like private tour companies in Shanghai that exploit local peoples—foreign tour operators organizing for tourists and expats to visit local homes, schools and community centers in order to offer clients an “authentic” experience, yet forgetting to allow those local communities the privilege of self-representation. Economically-damaging tourism looks like property costs rocketing in Cape Town—rendering the cost of living in the city prohibitively expensive to most South Africans, while European visitors happily pay top-euro for short-term rentals.

I have observed all of these trends up close. Working in media and travel, I regularly witness the negative impact of tourism—and the narratives around it—on local communities. I observe traditions warped to a narrow, outsider’s view of what they should be; competition for American dollars festering amongst former friends; natural havens destroyed by overeager and under-planned development; real, complex history and conflict glossed over by an appealing portrait of tropical paradise.

Initiatives in sustainable tourism, ethnotourism, slow travel and community-driven tourism are numerous and promising, however.

As I see it, for the travel industry to move forward—toward promoting cross-cultural understanding, integration and peace, and away from perpetuating disparity, conflict and ignorance—it must proceed in the following ways:

>> Industry professionals must empower local communities to represent themselves—their stories, traditions, spiritual practices and identities—and move the typical industry narratives far beyond the usual stereotypes and generalizations. Words like “authentic,” “real,” and “untouched”—frequently used in marketing by tourists, professionals and locals alike—must be scrutinized for the rigid cultural portraits they propagate and the complexities they belie.

>> Local communities must leave space for multiple storylines, idiosyncrasies and complexity to coexist. The wealthy, privileged male perspective commonly embodied by local leaders in tourism is not the only one. Creating space for female voices, religious and ethnic minorities, and other less favored stories to be heard—diversifying tour guides, business owners, service industry professionals and marketing materials—will be a crucial element of inclusive development.

>> Both local communities and industry professionals must seek to integrate education, interaction and meaningful connection to place wherever possible. It is not enough to gloss over conflict and offer an artificial, romanticized image of a place and its history and people. Moving beyond one-line summaries and fantasized, fetishized representations of otherness, we begin to foster true cross-cultural awareness.

>> Foreign visitors must seek out experiences of cultural exchange and learning. The power of asking questions, listening (with open ears and closed lips), and maintaining an open mind and heart cannot be exaggerated. Good intentions are not enough; tourists have tremendous power to change industry standards by demanding sustainability, social justice and cultural awareness from the industry they fuel.

In addition, growing numbers of Chinese and African tourists—both domestic and international—are introducing a new demographic into the industry, with all the challenges that entails. Any initiative in sustainable, socially conscious travel must take into account the varied cultural norms and values of a shifting clientele. Working to understand the market they wish to influence, industry professionals will better develop it to positive effect.

Lastly, in particularly conflict-prone regions such as Israel and Palestine or post-conflict regions like Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is crucial to take into account the intersection of political events—past and present—and international tourism. Much as one might try, a visit to a foreign country does not occur in a vacuum. The political climate and history of a place are unavoidably relevant to the foreigner, impacting as they do the development of the tourism sector, the on-the-ground experience of the visitor, and the very identities with which one interacts. Moreover, the foreigner acts as a mirror and ambassador, influencing, at the micro level, global awareness and perception of a given place. Given these considerations, we cannot underestimate the power of 1.8 billion people moving around the globe to reflect and influence political, social and cultural dynamics.

The responsibility for further development lies not only with industry professionals, nor only with local communities or foreign visitors. Indeed, only with a concerted effort from all three sides will this massive modern entity act as a positive force for understanding, tolerance and harmony.

***

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

The Gift

Several days ago, I sat in a matatu (bus) plying the main road of Diani, Kenya. On my way to Diani Beach Hospital for a precautionary Malaria test (I don’t have malaria, Mom, you can exhale).
A muzungu (a sight far more common on the coast than it had been upcountry) boarded several stops after. Hale and tan in the way that Northern Europeans tan—russet, rather than gold—he must have been around 70. His thick white hair and beard shone starkly amongst the rows of shaved Kenyan skulls.
He sat by the door, and when we stopped to let off passengers, he held out a coin (50 kesh—50 cents—, I think) to a small boy a few yards away.
A man carried the boy over to accept the gift. As the matatu began to roll away, the white-bearded man said in a thick (Dutch?) accent, “It’s for him [the boy]! Not you—him!” Thus ensuring that his gift would not fall into other hands, he sat back, satisfied.
This foreigner bestowed his gift with the ease of frequent practice. His manner brought to mind other tourists I have seen in other places, of a similar ilk.
Simply put, something about the gift—or rather, its giving—bothered me.
Two years ago, far up in the Himalayan foothills, very small children would emerge from nowhere, holding out phantom hands and pleading eyes, and ask me and my trekking companions for “candy! candy!” or, even more baffling, “ball-oon. ball-oon.”
From whence had come this peculiar fixation with candy and balloons? Well, from other trekkers, of course. Foreign hikers toting bags of candy—and balloons—to give to children along their path.
There is something presumptuous—maybe—about giving unsolicited gifts to strangers. An assumption that we as outsiders know what is needed, and by whom. That we have a right to give when and to whom we wish, without asking anyone’s opinion. A whiff of a lingering imperialism, perhaps. (Of course, now these children do ask, having learned from experience to expect bounty of visitors.)
I am reminded of a class I took on Jewish Ethics 10 years ago, about which I have not once thought in the interim… According to Maimonedes, there are eight levels of charity. The greatest, you may or may not have guessed, is to support another Jew (this merits another conversation entirely). The lowest, naturally, is to give unwillingly.
Ringing in at number five: giving before one is asked.
This may all be a bit off point, but Western altruism in Africa has a long and problematic history of unsolicited giving, unscrupulous giving, and giving without once thinking to ask what is desired or needed by the recipients.
These sorts of giving smack of colonial condescension. Translated into 18th century garb, the image of the foreign man handing money to a Kenyan child becomes that of the beneficent overlord deigning to notice a black child, reaching down magnanimously from his carriage with the gift.
I do not think I exaggerate so greatly in this leap of imagination.
Sharing food and games in Phnom Penh.
Surely, you might say, I don’t need to ask to know that a starving child needs food, or that a village with no well needs potable water. Yes, there are certain basic needs, but no, you can’t assume that you know best what they are and may thus dictate another’s priorities.
In some touristic destinations, poverty is rampant, and in advising visitors to these places, study abroad or travel guides will usually take one of three tracks:
1. Don’t give anything to anyone. Not to beggars, not to children, not even to new friends. Just don’t, because one friendly gesture of generosity will call upon your head a veritable surge of unanticipated requests.
2. Bring gifts that are useful—flashlights, notebooks, clothing, etc.—to give to hosts or friends. You will be offering something worthwhile, not a symbolic gesture doomed to sit on a shelf beside its untouched kin.
3. If you are going to give a stranger something, give them food. Children, especially, almost certainly need it, and your gift will not be misused or appropriated, as money so often is.
Other responses include: giving to a reputable non-profit, thus ensuring (in theory) that your money will be well spent; sponsoring an individual’s schooling; or offering skills or instruction, which has no (or greater) monetary value.
I don’t have a set position on the question. All of these suggestions have merit. Personally, I am disillusioned by the distribution of spending in corporation-sized non-profits, and I much prefer the work of grassroots organizations that work in tandem with local communities. I love the option of sharing food; I think it is the most human of acts, and almost universally understood and appreciated. Sharing skills—if you have them—equally so. Material gifts are tricky. I lived with a home-stay family in Kathmandu who had an entire shelf of unused gifts from other guests like me—picture books, snow globes, and salt-water taffy, all untouched and unopened. I don’t know about the worth of gifts that serve no function beyond expressing gratitude for hospitality.
And then, even if you do ask a community what it is they want, you will not receive a unified answer. Children may indeed want bicycles and candy—and balloons. Male elders will not seek the same help as women; each may have different priorities.

But if you want to help the “poor, starving children of Africa” (a platitude which, to my absolute shock, some tourists have actually employed), don’t throw up your hands in despair. I think doing good begins with good intentions. Do, however, leave your presumption, your condescension and your self-importance at home. Be mindful of these complexities in your giving.
~
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Asia, Culture

What is Cultural Immersion? I Don’t Think It’s This…

“When I’m in a new place, I don’t want to go to the tourist places; I don’t want to go to museums. I want to see real things.”
Thus began my tour of Nanxun, a water village 1.5 hours outside Shanghai. Our guide, Stacy, began her introduction loudly, Midwestern inflection un-dampened by seven years in China.
Here we go, I thought. I would not be sleeping as I had hoped, for all 18 participants would be introducing themselves next. I’m not sure I had ever been on a real group tour like this before, but that weekend I had the distinct pleasure two days in a row.
Will I do it again? Quite unlikely. Am I glad I went, if only for the wealth of new writing material to come of it? Oh yes.
As our bus hiccupped out of Shanghai, the platitudes rolled on. Introducing her partner, Mike, Stacy continued, “Of course, because Mike is Chinese, he’s good with numbers and dates and things.” 
Chinese towns, people and art, on this tour, were only authentic if over 80 years old.
Those who know me are aware of my crusade against terms like “real” and “authentic.” Last year, after months around tourists bemoaning the loss of “real” Tibetan-Nepali-Indian-etc culture, criticizing restaurants, cafes and people who were not “authentic” and congratulating those who were, I lost my taste for such judgments. After reading a large amount of literature on these discourses, I am convinced that “is it real?” “is it traditional?” and “is it authentic?” are the wrong questions to ask.
Our first stop in Nanxun, naturally, was for toilets. We pulled up outside a large, nondescript hotel where around 40 staff reluctantly moved through their “morning exercises”—something resembling the bastard son of the Macarena and the electric slide. They looked especially mortified to have an American, camera-laden audience, and I couldn’t find the spirit to take any pictures. After all, we all know the miserable feeling of dragging through forced routines.
Indeed, much of the day felt disturbingly reminiscent of an elementary school field trip I and my two aunts didn’t want to be on. We were the disruptive kids at the back of the bus.

As we marched single file through the house of a certain Mr. Wang (a retired blacksmith well over 80 years) to see his traditional Chinese oven, all I could think was, “What is the point of this?” 
I, like Stacy, enjoy seeing into people’s lives and homes. I tend to be nosy and curious and have few boundaries when I travel. I have participated in many home-stays and exchanges. But I hope I would never be so entitled as to walk into a stranger’s home, practically without conversation, take a few pictures, and leave.
What did we all learn that day in Mr. Weng’s home? I, for one, have no idea.
Stacy has branded her tours as off-the-beaten-track cultural immersion experiences. Certainly, I saw parts of Nanxun and Shanghai that I may not have stumbled on alone, but is it even possible to immerse ourselves in another culture in any meaningful way in just 8 hours? 
I wonder.
We spent a hefty chunk of the afternoon in a retirement home with three charming Chinese women. Why? Because, “these old folks have so much wisdom to share.” Our interview, however, proved far too short to extract much of any depth. And though I did learn that I should not dry my face immediately after washing it and that “There is more food now” than in the Mao years, that was about it.
One spry and flexible 90-something retiree led us through her morning Qi Gong routine. Later, I had the dubious honor of hearing “Jingle Bells” played on traditional Chinese instruments. Still, each stop on our itinerary, our “conversations” with local people, and our glossy overviews of entire schools of religious thought struck me as more shallow than anything else.

Museums and retirees are equally “real.” Back alleys are not intrinsically superior to touristy main ways. Cultural immersion does not emerge automatically with the right combination of orchestrated meetings and exposure to dirt. Cultural immersion does not literally mean walking in and out of a local person’s kitchen. It is far more elusive. It requires more depth.

That is not to say we should give up hope of having meaningful, culturally immersive experiences when we are short on time. 
But let’s not place the things we see into two categories: real and unreal.
When we have the opportunity to engage with another culture, let’s really engage. Ask questions. Look and see and taste and listen.
Let’s decide for ourselves what is real.
What is cultural immersion? That is a big question to answer, and maybe later I will try to go into it (though I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer to give), but I am fairly certain it is not this.
~

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When Cultural Sensitivity is Overrated and Mosquitoes Should Be Killed

“Never step over people or tables. Don’t put books on the floor. Never point your feet at someone.” While we sat on cushions around the edges of the room, our Tibetan instructors listed for us the dos and don’ts of their culture.  “Don’t kill bugs; in Buddhism, you should show respect for all sentient beings.”  Girls should never reveal shoulders, knees or cleavage. Men and women shouldn’t touch. Never wear clothing inside out.  Presentation and cleanliness are very important to Tibetans. If you don’t follow these cultural guidelines, “you might make your families feel uncomfortable or offended.”

My first night with my Tibetan homestay family, my homestay father zealously attacked several bu, bugs, crawling along the wall.  My second night, my homestay sister entered the room wearing pajama shorts and an inside-out T-shirt.  Day three, my homestay father wandered around with no shirt on, and day four my homestay mother wore her chuba (traditional Tibetan dress) with no shirt underneath it, revealing both cleavage and shoulders.  Their attitude, casual at all times, did not indicate any concern for the aforementioned cultural norms.

 I observed these incongruities with amusement.  My family’s behavior, so perfectly opposite from what my teachers had led me to expect, illustrates the limitations of cultural sensitivity.  In the documentary film, “Dalai Lama Renaissance,” the Dalai Lama said, “Sometimes I really find difficult dialogue with mosquito and my pain.  First mosquito come, sometimes I give blood, the second come, then the third, then difficult.”  If even the Dalai Lama feels the urge to kill mosquitoes, then we should hardly be surprised that my homestay father, an average lay Buddhist, might do the same.  The tendency to show an exaggerated amount of respect towards cultural practices not our own, to bow and scrape, even, to what we[1]don’t understand is in my opinion a little bit silly.

Undoubtedly, our teachers’ advice proved relevant for many of my peers, but I wonder if the flood of instructions ultimately serves anyone well.  “You will make mistakes,” they concluded, “but don’t worry—Tibetans love to laugh, and they don’t hold grudges!” If breaking the rules will result in laughter, are we better off forgetting them? No; they still teach us a lot about another culture.  Nonetheless, as we worry about political correctness, cultural sensitivity and respect, I think we would be well served to not take any of it too seriously.

The view from my roof in Bouddha!

[1] By we I mean self-aware Americans, SIT students, anthropologists, etc…
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