Violating the Prime Directive

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

This oft-used quote is great for a soundbite, and cushy for those who laud multiculturalism and globalization as the end-all for violence and division. And, in many ways, there is a lot of truth to be derived from this concept. It’s easy to believe that the best way to expand your perspective and become one with the rest of the human race is to travel. It makes sense, right? Even I encourage anyone I come across to travel to a new country if they have the opportunity, to explore places and cultures and languages outside one’s own. Rolling stone gathers no moss and all that. But, let’s be honest.

This quote definitely comes from a Western-centric white dude.

Now, the ability to travel and transverse boundaries has very real consequences. Some of them are amazing, such as the exchange of scientific and medical knowledge. Some of them aren’t so great, like facilitating the spread of disease and imperialism. Unfortunately, in ourEat, Pray, Love culture here in the West, we have undermined the varied purposes and consequences of travel to only focus on the positive, especially as it pertains to “individual growth”. We think that we can only become less prejudiced if we are forced to navigate another culture. We don’t consider the fact that, maybe, the problem is with our culture.

I have been reading two travel-logs that excellently frame this problem. The first isWanderlust, a memoir about a young white woman who travels five continents and has various adventures both carnal and travel-related. I enjoyed her frankness at first, and the interesting points of view such as her dealing with sexual harassment in Egypt and Yemen. However, something bugged me about it, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until halfway through the book. She used these adventures (and often developing countries) largely to run away from any responsibility. This was beyond the mostly benign self-help framework ofEat, Pray, Love;  this was deliberate use of globetrotting as escapism. It fed her superiority complex as she watched people “settle down”. It was the entitlement and lack of integrity that bothered me. She low-key exposed her internalized misogyny by repeatedly calling her personality “more man-like” (she frequently cheated and lied to her romantic partners) and derided those without the means to travel or change their situation. She rarely wrote of the locals (particularly the women) in a way that was voyeuristic and pitying. She made attempts to assimilate her behavior while in foreign countries, but she did not stay long enough to explore why this behavior existed or what meaning it had to the people who lived it.

This is the dangerous aspect of our Western desire for globetrotting. Exploitation of developing countries–using tourist resources for “self development” without understanding the often destructive impact of the tourist industry–is only one reason. Leveraging your privilege to run away from financial and community responsibility is another. White Americans, even women, have a particular set of privileges while travelling to different countries. Ease of travel, assurance of consulate and medical protection (how many nations do you think have reliable air-evac procedures for their citizens in nearly every country?), exchange rates, and not to mention language accommodations are few of many. And too few of us recognize those privileges, let alone resist flaunting them.

To be fair, this phenomenon touches upon the white-saviorism of development work as well. There are plenty of young people (including myself) who want to save the world. It’s very difficult not to fall into the savior complex aspect of development.

Look. I’m not here to deter people from their Costa Rican family vacation, or their desire to go away to a yoga retreat in Bali for a month. In fact, I just had my Costa Rican family vacation this summer.

What I do want to talk about is what I find to be central to international travel; it facilitates change.

Adventure Divas is the current travel memoir I am reading. Like the author of Wanderlust, the author of Adventure Divas is a white woman. Unlike the author of Wanderlust, she is a journalist who created a PBS series on women who are forces of change in their communities. She acknowledges her privilege and often confronts it as she continues to chase her own version of wanderlust. Her questions are externally focused as opposed to navel-gazing about her own life’s purpose (though she gives a little space for that, too). What are her interviewee’s motives? What do they want to change? How is their perspective different from those in the West? From men in their communities? Where are these women drawing strength?

The answers are incredibly and refreshingly numerous. She has a fascinating interview with the notoriously media-elusive Assata Shakur. I am just as, if not more, invested in hearing these women’s stories as knowing about her experience linking them together. It is clear that the author has her own motives and “gets something” from this journey. At the same time, she acknowledges that her journey does not exist in a vacuum.

There is a part of the book where she describes travelling with a caravan Tuareg desert traders, and eventually ends up at an oasis where a camel race is taking place. In her own fit of passion, she asks to sign up. The organizer (a blacksmith) resists; no woman has ever taken part in the race based on a 5,000 year tradition. She gives some thought to her role as interfering white Westerner, but the allure of taking part in a 5,000 tradition was too much to pass up. And, in the end, they let her, and she doesn’t finish last! She ends the chapter mentioning a 14-year-old Tuareg girl who said she wanted to take part next year. She writes again about how she may have just started something with perhaps serious consequences, and her mixed feelings about injecting her own ideals of feminist individualism into a culture that should have its own frame of gender development. Who knows? Our Western optimism hopes that she inspired a young girl to change the fate of her entire gender in her culture. But she could very well have simply presented a temporary irritant to a culture with survival to worry about.

This is the key element of travel, and perhaps also of journalism. The “prime directive” is a nice idea–you try not to make too many waves while traveling to strange worlds. However, as seen in pretty much every Star Trek episode (bless you Captain Kirk), this is nearly impossible to follow. In fact, it can be seen as hypocritical. This is why we can moralize about journalists who just photograph starving children, poor baby animals being eaten, and the ravages of war without getting “involved”. It’s interesting that we ascribe such responsibility to journalists to be “involved” should the situation arise, but we assume clean hands when confronted with the suffering in developing countries as we travel. Perhaps it’s the invisible nature of our own privilege as we unknowingly pay for services from exploited workers, our Western cash encouraging the whitewash of local cultures.

In truth, the apolitical nature of travel is a myth. Twain’s quote is right on that point. You cannot travel without impacting yourself or something/someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. Change isn’t always good. It’s not always bad, and it’s not always one or another. It’s not always big change, either.

Change is simply something different than what once was.

So, by all means, travel. Travel with the motive of wanting a bigger, more holistic perspective of the world and your place in it. But also travel with the knowledge that you have the privilege to do so. Maybe find a way to actually apply that new perspective for the betterment of your community, or other communities. And always, always, always be aware of the nature of your impact on the world.

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