How do we travel well? Is it possible to travel well in an unequal world? These questions may have pricked your conscience as you’ve planned a vacation or adventure. Here to answer them is Dr. Anu Taranath.
For decades, Anu has taught about race, identity, power, global issues, international feminism and travel. With her book, Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, Anu has taken on this complicated topic to help readers navigate their experience in a perspective of accountability. Anu joined us on the Tough Girl Podcast to share her experiences with travel, belonging and social work.
How do we travel this unequal world in a more thoughtful and intentional way? Let’s dive into what you need to keep in mind as you travel.
1. Open Your Eyes and Build Stamina
How do we travel with the knowledge of our privilege? Global inequities have privileged some identities at the expense of others and that is uncomfortable. How could it not be? While we aim to be well-intentioned, it’s easy to fall into a guilt trip as we build awareness around privilege.
If we haven’t built our muscles around privilege, we can feel very fatigued as we travel. Learning more about this work is like going to the gym. It can help you build stamina to notice differences and hold space for them to create openness.
In Anu’s travels, she’s noticed the great access, wealth and opportunity she has in her life, often in contrast to the community she’s traveling in. It’s not easy to see others suffer. However, if you close your eyes and dim your ears to your surroundings, you simply stay in your own bubble. That means you learn less about what it means to be in this unequal world.
2. Reserve Your Pity and Discover Dignity
While you may travel through a community with less resources, no one deserves your pity. Instead of holding onto your privilege and focusing on pity, consider how people have held onto their dignity and resilience in the midst of great challenges.
These stories are ones we don’t hear of enough throughout our travels. Yet, they allow us to feel a sense of the significant spirit that exists in the world. Noticing this ability to overcome and persevere can be an important part of travel.
We don’t want to displace our guilt and discomfort onto the local people we meet when we travel. Unfortunately, that’s what happens all too often. But there’s no justice in that. Focus on the spirit of those around you and you’ll travel in a different light.
3. Pause Before Travelling to Volunteer
Where does the idea of volunteering in a third world country fit into mindful travel? Before we embark it’s important to pause, Anu relates. It’s wonderful to want to use your privilege to help others. Yet, if you look at it from a larger perspective, it makes less sense. What does someone from a highly resourced country know about community life in Kenya, India or Bangladesh?
How can you help in another country without an understanding of how the globe works? Too often, volunteer work is centered around the idea that inviting people with resources means they bring the resources themselves and will magically transform a community.
Too many times, these volunteer experiences leave the volunteer feeling generous and the community with little to nothing. It can also dangerously reinforce the idea of white saviorism. By encouraging people with only a surface understanding of aid, little change is had and greater dignity is displaced from actual community members.
Before engaging in volunteer travel, start a conversation about ethics. We want to help but we aren’t sure how. Just having that conversation can make a trip more meaningful. Mindful travel is the goal.
4. Move Your Point of Focus
“Ethics is never only a checkbox,” Anu shares. “If you do A, B, and C, you're good to go and you don't have to think anymore. Ethics is a more murky and rich space of discussion, conversation and reconsideration.”
Ethical travel may come from understanding your place in an unequal world. How are you going to use your privilege? Ethical travel involves getting more comfortable with your discomfort. Redirect your gaze from focusing on your guilt and your discomfort to focus on the communities you’re meeting and learning from.
When you do that, you can think about their lives and dignity and opportunity and resilience in more thoughtful ways. If we want our travels to matter, in a more ethical way, we will have to take the focus away from us, and put it onto the communities we are visiting.
5. Work with Changemakers
However much we’d like inequity to go away, we generally aren’t capable of that on our own. By working in collaborating and in community with changemakers we can be a part of making life better for more of us.
“Everywhere in the world, there are people who are making life better,” Anu says. “That feels incredible to me. It's hopeful, it's resilient, and it makes me stretch and know that I have compatriots all over the world. So while I'm thinking about some difficult topics, I'm also really grateful that I'm part of this community of changemakers around the world.”
Be a part of something bigger than yourself. By joining with a community of changemakers, you can make a bigger difference together than you would alone.
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