How many among us have made the trek back to a favorite destination of years past and realized that, well, it just isn’t the same anymore? The bus drops us off in the sleepy surf town we remember fondly from our first backpacking adventure and we wonder where that Roxy store came from. We hop off of planes and out of cabs and are amazed to see teenagers, clad in jeans and Abercrombie t-shirts, hanging out at Mcdonald’s where women in Saris used to dole out samosas from a road side stand. Dirt roads that once flooded with every rain are now paved and outfitted with perfectly placed gutters. Little girls who used to sell flowers are now young women, married, and calling after children of their own- children who will never sell flowers to help their families make ends meet.
We sit in our favorite restaurants and coffee shops (because, thankfully, some of those are still standing) and reminisce about the crazy party hostel that once stood where the Marriott now towers and the place on the corner where you used to be able to by a $1 beer to enjoy while you watched the sunset on the beach. We whisper that the taxi drivers have certainly figured out how to fleece the tourists and pray that the charm that has always made this place special doesn’t get erased completely. Mostly, we are just happy that we saw this place as it was, way back, before all the change happened.
Sometimes it’s sad to return to a place and realize just how much has changed. You miss what you have romanticized and forget about that miserable night you got infested with bed bugs at that crazy party hostel. There is something very human in the desire to return to a place you “know” and wrap yourself in the comfort of familiarity. Change can wreak havoc on that comfort.
But there is a wonderful side to all of that change. Perhaps one of the most beautiful things that traveling affords us is the ability to see the world for the ever evolving organism that it is. Yes, things change. Yes, things we remember and love may not always be there. But isn’t that knowledge actually wonderful? It reminds us that the world is only “as it is” for this moment. It will never be like this again. We can wait until “someday” to travel or we can do it right now, knowing that “someday” will never look like today. As an added bonus, we can travel today AND “someday”, and our experiences will be inexplicably similar and different all at once.
The only real certainty is change. Travel gives us space to explore what that change means (and looks like). Eyes that have come and gone and come back again have the privilege of seeing change in a comparative manner. Minds that have explored new places and returned have the ability to put change into a global context and see history playing out before their eyes. Individuals that have returned have the opportunity to discover how change might even be shaped by the most positive and intentional parts of our collective humanity. We are so very lucky to see our world, as it is, no matter what it looks like in this moment. Because what is right now, is ours- just for this moment. There are no guarantees that it will ever look, fell, or pulse exactly like this again.
The world is changing, as it always has. So, then this is the perfect time to get up and explore our world. You wouldn’t want to miss what it looks like right now, would you?
Should you ever travel to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, there’s a good chance you’ll meet Francisco in the city’s humid, touristy colonial zone. Barefoot, emaciated, and filthy from sleeping in the street, Francisco looks far older than his 19 years, and his wavering gaze carries a look of hardened desperation.
I met Francisco — or, rather, he made it a point to meet me — when I was sitting on a bench near Independence Park, on my first full day in the city. After chatting me up for a few minutes (asking how I liked Santo Domingo, and inquiring about my favorite baseball teams) Francisco got down to business. “I’m homeless,” he said, “and I haven’t eaten all day. Can you give me 100 pesos for some food?”
I’d sensed this was coming, but something seemed a little suspicious about Francisco. “You speak great English,” I said. “You must be educated.”
“I’m not educated,” he said. “Not really. I lived with my uncle in New Jersey for a couple years, but they made me leave the country after 9/11, and it’s hard to find work here in Santo Domingo. Please, 100 pesos is nothing for you. It’s not even three dollars.”
This was true enough — and it was obvious that Francisco had indeed been sleeping in the street — but I’d never been comfortable handing out money to strangers. “I haven’t had lunch yet,” I said. “Come to the restaurant and eat with me.”
Francisco agreed to come, though he seemed vaguely disappointed by the proposition. When we got to a nearby cafeteria, he suggested I just give him the 100 pesos, claiming he could get bigger portions at a restaurant in a poorer neighborhood. When I suggested we go to this restaurant together, Francisco said it was too far away to walk, and asked again for 100 pesos. I refused, and when our sandwiches arrived, Francisco continued to goad me for money. Eventually I became irritated, and slapped down 50 pesos.
Francisco took the money, finished his sandwich, and was gone in under a minute, leaving me to deal with the sickly mix of emotions I feel whenever I wind up in such situations: anger, pity, resentment, guilt.
Over the course of the next week in Santo Domingo, I slowly discovered just how ill advised my investment in Francisco had been. Contrary to what he’d said, there was no shortage of work in Santo Domingo: Most all of this physical labor was done by Haitian immigrants, who toiled in the heat while the likes of Francisco lolled in the shade and hustled tourists for money. Moreover, I began to notice that the colonial zone was home to other, more needful beggars: amputees; elderly blind men; women with painfully withered limbs. Francisco, who was young and able-bodied, had likely used my 50 pesos to invest in a brief chemical high — glue, most likely, or possibly some cheap form of speed.
I share this incident with Francisco not to preach some tidy lesson about dealing with the needy as you travel, but simply to illustrate my frustration at the moral ambiguity of the whole beggar issue. Indeed, after ten years of traveling in developing nations, I still have no hard and fast system on how to respond to beggars. Usually, whether or not I give depends on some combination of my mood, the appearance and persistence of the beggar, and whether or not I have small change. And, regardless of whether I give money or choose not to, I always end up feeling a little guilty.
This sense of guilt, I believe, is at the heart of the whole traveler-beggar issue. Life is not fair, after all, and traveling to poor countries (or seeing poor people in rich countries) only underscores this fact.
Still, handing out money solves few problems. Who, after all, do you give to? Everyone? Only the worst looking cases? And how much? And how often?
Moreover, this very sense of guilt is part of the “marketing” for hustler-beggars and needful beggars alike — and that’s why children get forced into beggary, drug-addled mothers beg with sickly babies in-hand, and tourist zones invariably attract hordes of disheveled panhandlers. With the rise of urbanization in the past 50 years, some people can make more money begging in the cities than toiling in the countryside. And, in many parts of the world (perhaps most famously in India, Kenya, and among the Gypsies in Europe), begging rings are tied to organized crime, and very little of the money actually goes to the beggar herself.
Thus, while I offer no universal solutions as to how to deal with beggars on the road, my travel experiences have taught me a few principles to help navigate this sadly common and difficult situation:
1) Spend some time in the community before you give to beggars
This was perhaps my primary mistake in dealing with Francisco. Not only will a few days of immersion in the local culture give you a better sense for which beggars are and are not truly needy — it will also give you a sense for the spending power of the local currency.
Moreover, a little cultural familiarity will allow you to see how locals react to beggars: when they give money, and how much they choose to give. Most of the world’s spiritual traditions have time-honored practices for helping the needy, and following these local religious protocols is often the most culturally appropriate way to give money. In less religious societies, such as those in Western Europe, state funds are often available for the homeless and indigent, theoretically eliminating the need for hunger-based beggary.
Donations to local charities and NGOs are another solution for helping the needy in a given community — though you should research aid organizations carefully, since many such agencies are notorious for siphoning money into bloated administrative overhead.
2) Practice skepticism
My second mistake with Francisco is that I failed to practice proper discernment when I chose to give. This in mind, try and donate to those who truly need it (physical deformities are usually a reliable indicator of need), and try to avoid putting money into the hands of hustlers. Any able-bodied beggar who is too aggressive, charming, accusatory, persistent, melodramatic, or (in non-Anglophone countries) good at English is probably working a scam, trying to raise drug money, or avoiding legitimate work.
Children who beg are always a tough call, since it’s natural to feel sympathy for them. I almost never give to child beggars, however, because child beggary is so often tied to organized crime and familial exploitation. Moreover, even if a given kid is begging independently of opportunistic adults, I find it best not to reinforce this behavior at such a young age. Some travelers suggest giving pens or other educational supplies to child beggars, but I find this strategy a tad credulous. Better to give school supplies (or money) to an actual school or aid agency in a developing country than to presume these items will go to good use at random.
3) Don’t be afraid to say no
It’s better to give out of conviction than guilt, so don’t give if you truly don’t want to. Some travelers I know even have a policy of never giving to beggars at all (reasoning that their donation stands to create as many problems as it solves), and this is as legitimate a way as any to deal with the situation. Beggars realize that what they’re doing is a numbers game, and that not everyone who walks past is going to give them money.
4) You’re not saving the day
Giving money to a person on the street may make that person’s day a little better, but rarely will it do much to actually change his or her life. Individual travelers are rarely more than a fleeting presence in the lives of beggars, so keep things in perspective, remain humble, and don’t condemn those travelers who choose not to give.
5) Be courteous
It is perfectly normal protocol to ignore beggars in a given situation (they’re used to it), but don’t lecture them on how they should live their life or spend their money. In other words, remember the essential humanity of the needy as you travel, and don’t presume the presence of beggars is somehow an affront to your vacation. After all, as a traveler you are a mere guest in a faraway place, and they have just as much right as you to hang out at a given landmark, a public square, or tourist attraction.
As we travel around the world, one of our most important goals is to connect with people and find out what common threads exist that bind humanity together. It is so very easy to categorize people and to explain away the worlds ills with generalizations and dinner table chats on politics.
But who are the individuals who inhabit our earth? Who are the people we talk about dismissively during those dinner table chats, sandwiched somewhere between the main course and dessert? How are they affected by the grander conflicts of our world? What do we have in common with them?
Does the key to changing our worst behaviors as a species lie solely in seeing people as individuals who are very much like us?
Recently, I had the honor of meeting a woman named “Katerina”, who chose to share her experiences during a very dark period in Guatemala history- a period many have categorized as genocide. Her experience is her own and her perspective is uniquely hers, though many suffered in a similar fashion.
The period in Guatemalan history Katerina talks about is very recent history. It was a period of brutality fueled by politics that affected the lives of every Mayan, every Guatemalan, at the time. Out of sheer panic over the possible spread of Communism, the US played a now well-known role in the events during this period, supporting a brutal regime and fueling anti-indigenous sentiment in the country. Guerrilla groups cropped up (some backed by Cuba) and, in their zeal to fight brutality from government backed groups, often tormented the local populace in their own right. The results were catastrophic with hundreds of thousands of people killed or “disappeared” and many more tortured and brutalized.
I was barely alive when this all took place but, as an American, I cannot help but feel remorse and utter helplessness over the horrific experiences Guatemalans were forced to endure due in part to my country’s politics.
Katerina said, in part:
“They would come in the night. They would burn buildings and start fights. No one had arms to protect themselves but they would still come. They would kill men, women, and children- they didn’t care. It didn’t matter if they were guerrillas or military, they were all the same.
My family was one of the lucky ones. There were police in disguise all over our village but my family had no one with the guerrillas so we escaped much of the problems. People where I lived were always afraid. The military was always demanding free food that we could not afford to give. They would rape our women; kill people as they went about their daily lives. My mother protected us fiercely and somehow, none of the females in my family was ever raped. The guerrillas were always causing problems and they were not much better than the military and police officials.”
Can you imagine what she is saying for a moment? Close your eyes and imagine strangers coming in the night and killing your child. Now imagine those strangers are dressed in the military uniform of your own country. Imagine that the greatest achievement you reach as a mother for over a decade was in protecting your girl children from being raped. Imagine, on top of all of this, that you have absolutely no idea what is going on.
“In Chichicastenango, there were military and guerrillas everywhere. No one knew where these people were from, they were strangers. The guerrillas dressed in the typical, local clothing of the Mayan people in Chichi and so the military was constantly coming after the Chichi people. But these guerrillas were not from Chichi, they were strangers who dressed like the Chichi people to fool the military. No one in Chichi knew who they were. It was very dangerous for the local people.
In the time of the guerrillas, there were still a few foreigners coming in and out of Guatemala. A friend used to drive these foreigners from Guatemala City to the Panajachel area. Along the highway between Guatemala City and Pana, you can often see sacks filled with crops, lining the side of the road, waiting for pick-up. One time when this friend was driving these foreigners, there was a stretch of road that had sacks upon sacks but there was not one single person around. The foreigners asked the driver what was in those sacks because there were just so many and the driver told them it was likely potatoes.
They dropped these foreigners off in Panajachel and turned around to head back to the city. On their return, they noticed the sacks were still there. They went on for what seemed like kilometers. The driver’s helper convinced the driver to pull over and see what was in those sacks. There were just too many and there was still not one single person in sight. When the driver pulled over, he opened the bags and discovered the heads of indigenous people stuffed into those sacks. Who knows what happened to the rest of the bodies of those people.
Why would anyone do this? It was political. It was always political. We had no freedom of expression. We were stuck in the middle of violence that wasn’t ours. It’s always the same but now the problems we see are different. There are really no more guerrillas now but extortion is a very real problem these days. But it’s always political.”
Why would anyone do this? How could they do this to fellow human beings? Simple. They stopped thinking of Katerina and her community as human. The perpetrators created a political problem, a threatening philosophy that happened to wear indigenous Mayan clothing. Katerina and her community became “collateral damage”. Today that political problem wears a turban and has a beard. Collateral damage still exists and lately, it seems to exist far too often at Middle Eastern weddings full of children and families.
I wonder sometimes what clothing our political problem will wear tomorrow? Who knows.
“The guerrillas and the military were all the same to us. They all wanted something, they all did bad things. The military would tell us we had to have documents [identification] an then the guerrillas would come and tell us “no documents!” They were always fighting. They decimated us financially. We are still struggling to support our families after all the fighting. We work harder to earn [the equivalent of] one dollar. Kids to take care of, no land, no work. When you live like this, you end up with no love for life.”
When you sit sit across the table from a woman like Katerina, sharing a warm empanada, and listening to her story, it is hard to view her, or her community, as anything but human. They are not a political talking point, they represent no ideology. Katerina, her family, and her friends are people. People who woke up one day to torture, rape, violence, murder, kidnappings, and abuse around every corner.
Travel brought me to Katerina’s table and her face is the face I will always imagine when I here the words “those people” fall off the lips of someone discussing politics at a dinner party. Those people have names, faces, feelings, and terrifying fears because of political ideologies. We create enemies, reasons to wage war, and imaginary barriers that divide humanity into “us” and “them”.
But there is no “us” and “them”. The very concept is an illusion.
Katerina is, at her core, absolutely no different than me. There is nothing at all stopping the horrors she faced from showing up on my doorstep tomorrow….. or yours.
Travel creates space for clarity. It pulls away the curtain of political ideologies and forces us to think for ourselves instead of internalizing the agenda of our next “leader”.
It creates the space to see our own hypocrisy and to see the simple facts in those situations we make far too complex, in a never ending search for justification.
Travel forces us to look “them” in the eye to see if our justifications, political talking points, philosophies, and biases hold up.
It creates the conditions where a citizen of, arguably, the most powerful country (currently) on earth can sit across the table from a descendant of one of the most powerful civilizations in history and discuss the very simple fact that there is absolutely no difference between human beings- no matter what corner of the earth they call home or what period of history their society inhabits.
When our common humanity is illuminated and we accept that there is no “us” and “them”, it becomes impossible to ignore the “collateral damage” anymore.
“Me, I am lucky. I like my work. I work everyday between my two jobs and I get one day off every 15 days. I don’t drink, not at all, for 9 years. My kids, my spouse, and my family are more important to me. But what about the others? They work in ways they weren’t meant to for money they do not care about. The kids are forgetting our culture. They drink to feel better. What about them?
We still have problems after what happened.”
Yes. We certainly do.
Most of us travel so that we can see the world, get out of our “box” and explore another culture, or corner of the world. If we wanted everything to stay the same, we would just stay home! It boggles my mind when I see travelers who spend their entire time abroad trying to recreate home and, essentially, avoiding the local interactions they claim to want.
There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with staying at the Hilton, eating at McDonalds or shopping at the Dispensar Familiar (a box store that is owned by Walmart but is masquerading behind a “local” label) but don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re having a local experience, or contributing to the local economy when profits are funneled into big corporations “back home.” There are some simple ways to have a more “authentic” experience wherever you happen to be traveling and to make sure your dollar goes further within the local economy as well. Here are three of mine; perhaps you have some of your own to add:
1. Stay local
Sure, you might book that first night by the airport with your travel miles card, but after that, stay at a family run hotel or guesthouse. Go one step further, and stay somewhere not recommended in the guidebook. Those places are getting a big bump by virtue of their write up in Lonely Planet, but there are likely several other very good places run by families who have generations invested in a particular place that will stretch your buck and add depth to your journey. We’ve found, across the board, that these sorts of places yield “insider” information and recommendations if not personal invitations to explore with new found friends, the proprietors. You’ll also find a very interesting subset of traveler frequenting these places, they’re the people you want to meet, I promise you.
2. Eat where there’s no english menu
That is to say, eat where the local folks are eating. In Merida, Mexico, this might mean walking deep into the mercado, flipping over a five gallon pail and bellying up to the tile bar with the roadwork crew to eat the plata del dia. No need to know what you’re ordering, they only serve on thing per day. I guarantee your money isn’t padding the pocket of the big red clown with preternaturally large feet.
3. Hire a local
It’s possible that the slick looking “Green Travel” agency on the strip in Champasak is genuinely locally owned and operated, but I’m not betting my money on it, based on their advertising. If you have the time and the patience, track down a guy with a boat and book your own ride down the Mekong to the next town. I promise you’re paying extra through the agencies, and that money is probably not being invested the way you wish it was. Look for opportunities to hire local people to teach you things. Hire the Mayan woman who comes knocking to teach you to use a back-strap loom. Hire your cyclo driver in Hue, Vietnam to take you on his motorcycle out into the hills, he’ll bring two of his friends if you have as many people as we do, and it will be a cross-cultural party!
4. Send out your laundry
Okay, here’s a fourth, I couldn’t stop at three: Send out your laundry, and not through your hotel. The laundries that have hotel contracts are doing well, making lots of money. Take a walk, look for the hole in the wall that looks like it’s run by a mother-daughter team and give them your business.
How ‘bout you? What are your best tips for making sure your dollar stretches within a local economy and is spent to the betterment of the community you’re visiting?
Having recently been in Memphis over Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend, I realized once again that few things make you feel connected to history like being near a historic landmark on a significant anniversary. In this case, it’s the thought-provoking National Civil Rights Museum on the birthday of the great icon of the movement.
Ironically, the site is located not at the place of his birth but the place of his assassination. The façade of the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered by white supremacist James Earl Ray in May of 1968, is all that remains of the low-rent building. Left just as it was at the time of King’s murder, the façade remains eerily frozen in time: a tacky 60’s turquoise-and-yellow sign stands in the parking lot. Nearby, a wreath marks the spot where King’s life was taken as he relaxed on the balcony outside room 306.
It’s not just the site of his death that draws visitors; the museum complex attached to it is the real attraction. Built in two phases over several years, the sprawling, state-of-the-art space—much of it underneath a hill adjacent to the motel’s dingy façade—features listening posts, artifacts, records, and archival films detailing the civil rights activists’ efforts to win equality for all. Aside from the physical relics, a 12,800 square foot expansion project called “Exploring the Legacy” offers compelling insight into King and the movement he led.
On my first visit to the museum a few years ago, Memphis sweltered under a boiling summer sun and only a handful of visitors were present. This time, as I enjoyed a friend’s wedding weekend on the anniversary of MLK’s birth, the chilly winter day saw hundreds coming to show respect for King and, more importantly, to show their children the museum dedicated to the civil rights struggle. I imagine how strange it must be for a child to learn that, just a few decades ago, a large movement of brave activists had to fight bullets, bombs, and hate to win liberties now taken for granted. The fact that this birthday celebration coincided with the second inaugural of the nation’s first black president only underscored how far the movement has come, though more work remains.
Driving through town I catch a fleeting glimpse of the site. The commotion of my friend’s wedding weekend is temporarily forgotten as the instantly recognizable motel sign catches my eye. I feel a sudden, poignant tug at my emotions as I glance to the Lorraine’s aging façade. There, just outside room 306, a small wreath lies on the cold concrete of a motel balcony, a silent testament to a profound truth: Lives can be taken, but words and ideals that speak to the better angels of our nature can change the world. And that’s worth celebrating.
Friends seem disappointed when I admit to skipping out on Thailand’s famed Tiger parks, or interactive zoos where tourists can safely cuddle up to entire tiger families. The photos are pretty cute, and there were plenty of times when I was certainly tempted. Now back in the US, I’ve become determined to uncover the truth about Tiger Temple, Tiger Kingdom, and all of the other hotspots for tiger-petting that I missed. What’s the catch? How are these trainers keeping the usually dangerous animals docile, unfazed by swarms of tourists creeping close for the perfect photo op? Are tigers truly safer in captivity, away from dangers of deforestation and poaching, or is this another case of animal exploitation for tourist dollars?
Having visited Argentina’s Zoo Lujan petting zoo in 2007, I can tell you that posing with a tiger is truly a thrill. I was giggling away with my camera, and I admit that the photos from that day at the “zoo” are some of my most unique. They certainly evoked the most questions. Of course I second guessed the sincerity of the zoo’s mission statement, especially when the teenage zookeepers insisted that the tigers (many of them full grown males) were not drugged, but “raised with love.”
One of Thailand’s parks in particular has caught the attention of conscious travelers hoping to play with tigers and also help them. Animal conservation groups and concerned travelers, on the other hand, are trying to bring down Tiger Temple for good.
Just outside of Bangkok, Tiger Temple is the oldest Buddhist school and forest temple in Western Thailand. It’s a sanctuary that began caring for tiger cubs whose mothers had been killed, and they begin taming the animals starting at just three weeks. Their tiger population continued to grow through rescue missions and on-site breeding and now there are over 90. The entrance fee is about $20, and for $30 you can take a photo with one.
The park’s mission is to raise enough tigers to eventually begin releasing them into Thailand’s forests, and to also educate people on deforestation and poaching, but many animal activists groups and confused visitors find this suspicious. Care for the Wild International claims that the Tiger Temple is involved with animal trafficking, and other critics suggest that sedatives and abuse are to blame for the their suspiciously calm temperaments. The monks in charge continue to insist that the animals are safer there; that Tiger Temple is a sanctuary that keeps them healthy and safe.
A trip to Thailand’s zoos, parks, and interactive animal attractions are tempting, but don’t forget to do your research. Have any of you visited Tiger parks in Thailand? Do you have a different opinion?
Here are some fabulous resources to check out before signing up for an animal tour in Thailand, or anywhere else in the world!
“Spirit,” wrote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “is not in the I but between I and you.” He wrote this in a 1923 essay translated into English as I and Thou. Here’s another line from the essay: “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.”
Buber’s way of looking at our existence is, for me, helpful to consider, and it has ramifications for how we approach travel and what we emphasize in it. His essay also touches on the difference between “experience” and “participation,” the former for him being something within an individual and the latter something between individuals. I suspect you can find Buber’s influence on my own terminology in an interview at Travel Blissful a couple years ago. After sharing some particularly meaningful travel memories, I said:
It is the men, women, and children in the places we visit, not inanimate things, that allow us to relate to (and not just experience) the world. I don’t at all want to knock experience — I love it! — but it’s important to be aware that traveling in the name of “having experiences” isn’t the same as traveling to participate in the world. The one is rather self-referential; the other is more interested in being a part of a community, even if only in a very modest way.
This is my final post for vagablogging, and I wanted to leave you with these tidbits from the mind of Buber. I also wanted to leave you with one final photograph. I took it in Cairo, about an hour after Mubarak’s resignation was announced and a mass of Egyptians had taken to the streets in celebration. In the photo a little girl’s parents are holding her hands as they walk away from Tahrir Square, into a suddenly wide-open, unknown, and hazard-filled future. In looking at her face I’m reminded of why I have no interest in travel narratives in which someone is trudging through the world to conquer it or to rack up isolated experiences to cart back home like trophies. I’m drawn instead to stories in which someone is connecting to other people, carrying an interest in their wellbeing and our shared future, and can articulate that. The issues of today — and children like this smiling Egyptian girl — desperately need people, including travelers, who want to be constructive participants in relationships and history.
In the year ahead I’ll continue working on my photography, and maybe even edit some more of a book manuscript I hope to one day publish (here’s an excerpt). Blog-wise, in the near future I plan to resume regular postings at joelcarillet.com/photoblog, and I’d love to have you check in on me there from time to time. I will be in Southeast Asia most of the fall.
All the very best, everyone.
Part of the totality of a place is its politics, and in long-term travel you’ll likely pass through a variety of political landscapes that affect the lives of the people who call a place home. The Egyptian man above, for example, challenged the legitimacy of his President’s 30-year-old rule and on February 2 of this year had a flying rock rip loose part of his lip. (Interestingly, if you were to walk about 60 seconds to either his right or left, you’d find several travel agencies offering deals on Nile cruises, desert excursions, and Sinai beach resorts; they were, however, closed this particularly day, and most travelers were packed into the Cairo airport trying to get out of the country.)
Political situations are worth paying attention to, but not only in order to gauge the stability or safety of a potential travel destination. Understanding the basics of Thai politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Colombian civil war will go a long way in helping you understand a country and will help you make the most of a visit there. Sometimes, of course, we go to a place knowing next to nothing but, once there, experience something that alters the course of our lives. A powerful example of this is the life of Sean Carosso, who while traveling in Africa in 2007 wrote the following in his journal:
I yelled at thieving monkeys and saw Nelson Mandela yell from stage. Cried in refugee camps and laughed during moonlight dances. Saw a baby born and parents buried. Went south to scream from the bottom of the world and made my way north to see Ugandan children become visible. Slept in mansions and huts, ate porridge and gazelle, swam with otters, fended off pickpockets and rarely showered, stopped, or stood still.
For two months, there was death and destruction,
failure and fear, adventure.wonder.motion.
But all around was a pervasive hope moving steadily
toward what could only be described as progress
Stories of change everywhere to be found. Until I walked into the chaos of Congo.
The so-called Democratic Republic of Congo, home to one of history’s deadliest wars.
Strange circumstances led me to her doorstop, but there I stood ready to see
what she might show my western eyes.
The following is what they saw.
You can read the rest of his entry and learn about the organization that emerged at www.fallingwhistles.com/story. It’s a powerful site.
The U.S. State Department’s Background Notes is one source for a quick political overview of a country. Idealist.org is a popular site for checking out volunteer opportunities, including ones that might intersect with political issues. For example, Bustan Qaraaqa is listed there; it’s a community permaculture project based just outside the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
The photo above, which shows a gravestone belonging to one of the nearly 7,000 Allied POWs buried at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand, illustrates the difficulty we have in making sense of tragedy.
Last week two talented photojournalists, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, were killed in the Libyan city of Misrata. In the past several days articles and tributes have painted a picture of men, one from England and the other from North Carolina, who traveled often, traveled relatively light, and traveled for a purpose.
In a New York Times article titled War, in Life and Death, David Carr writes, “Tim and Chris were very different men who died because they had something in common: each thought it important to bear witness, to make images that communicated human suffering and send them out to the world.”
“Many people have died in the recent wars the two men covered,” Carr continues, “and we should not make the journalist’s error of elevating the deaths of Tim and Chris above those of others. But beyond the personal loss for their families and friends, there is a civic loss when good journalists are killed.”
I certainly feel the loss. I’ve been in the habit for some time now of visiting Chris Hondros’ website to check out his images, appreciating what they say about the world, about our neighbors. My favorite (if I can use the word for something so tragic) is the iconic photo of a little girl in Tel Afar, Iraq, terrified, with her parents’ blood splattered on her face and clothes. In 2007, Chris recounted the incident on NPR.
This post is not a call for all travelers to head off for the Tel Afars and Misratas of the world. It is, however, a gentle reminder that travel can be about much more than gear selection and budgets and beach parties. It is also about the question of Why? What might we learn from people like Chris and Tim, who were often asked why they did what they did and could give a profound answer? How can we incorporate that into how we experience the world?
Reflecting in Vanity Fair on his friend Tim’s death, Sebastian Junger says, “That’s also part of what you died for: the decision to live a life that was thrown open to all the beauty and misery and ugliness and joy in the world….What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.”
“Right now Egypt is like having a fast pass at Disney. People should come over.”
These are the words of Rick Zeolla, the general manager of the Cairo Marriott, quoted last week in a New York Times article titled “Tahrir Square, Egypt’s New Tourist Draw.” In that same article, the general manager of the Semiramis InterContinental said that his guest today are asking for rooms with a view of Tahrir Square rather than the Nile. “The early guests we are seeing are more independent, well seasoned and globally focused travelers,” he said.
There is indeed a strong case to be made, on several fronts, that now is the time to visit Egypt. True, lines are currently non-existent at tourist sites. But the stronger argument, I think, is that what is going on now in Egypt — i.e., a transition from autocratic rule to what the majority of Egyptians hope will be democracy — is no less stunning to behold than the gazillion blocks of stone that form the Pyramids of Giza or any number of other ancient monuments in this land. I visited the Pyramids last week and they were nice. But it was even more fascinating to sit in Saad Zaghloul Square in Alexandria, or Tahrir Square in Cairo (above), and watch teenagers, Muslim and Christian together, give railings and curbs a fresh coat of paint. To be sure, they often did a lackluster paint job. But I wasn’t focused on their painting skills. I was focused on the spirit with which they painted and worked together, on the dreams they had for their country and communities.
Seldom will you be encouraged to visit a country to watch people paint curbs and pick up trash. But if you’re a reader wondering where to go in 2011, I’m doing precisely that. Come to Egypt to watch mediocre paint jobs. Come to watch Egyptians, who often meet and coordinate through Facebook pages, as they pick up trash from sidewalks. Talk with them. Watch their faces and laughter and eyes. Listen to what they have to tell you about pride and freedom and service. In saying this, I’m not romanticizing the challenges Egypt faces — they’re pretty darn huge. I’m just saying that something remarkable is happening here, particularly with many young people.
Some travel warnings will encourage you to stay away a while longer, and many brochures will only suggest the ancient monuments. But consider coming anyway, and coming primarily to meet and watch Egypt’s vibrant, beaming youth in the city centers. They’ll tell you Egypt isn’t just ancient ruins; it’s a place still under construction.
For a beautiful video welcoming visitors back to Egypt, check out “From Egypt with Love“.
For more of my images from Egypt in February, including the demonstrations and celebrations, visit my Flickr set called Cairo, Egypt (2011).