Vagabonding Case Study: Tracey Mansted

Tracey Mansted unnamed

 

hungryheads.org

Age: Tracey – 50
Mike (husband – 47)
Imogen (10)
Indira (9)

Hometown: Rainforest near Byron Bay, NSW Australia

Quote: Albert Einstein said “If at first an idea does not sound absurd, there is no hope for it”  – which I think equally applies to thinking and learning about new things as well as to taking huge leaps of faith like traveling long term with your kids. As a family we like the idea of “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

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Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 17, 2015
Category: Vagabonding Case Studies

The negative impact of mass tourism

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In my experience, some of the most difficult things about travel have been facing the realities of mass cultural exchange, swallowing my pride, and recognizing my part in it. Don’t get me wrong, there are incredible benefits to cultural exchange and connecting with people across cultural boundaries is the number one reason I travel. But when lots of people from one culture start invading the space of another, funny things start happening. Mix in heightened demands for creature comforts that the visiting group is accustomed to and things can start to get ugly. Perhaps the easiest place to see this play out is at mass sporting events.

In 2010, I spent a monsoon season in India. I spent months walking between rural villages and tandas, asking questions about education, and questioning everything I thought I knew about human rights agencies. After months spent sweltering and questioning (mostly myself), I found myself in New Delhi, sipping a “mocktail” in a gloriously air conditioned restaurant. I felt as though I had reached the end of a marathon. Air conditioning was literally the only thing on my mind. Well, that and a shower that was actually hot and didn’t require a bucket. I fell into a chair by the window and sat, motionless, thinking about the previous few months.

Down below me, on the street, a few dozen people were working furiously to erect a building. I noticed them after a few minutes and watched their fierce determination. I counted the number of kids I saw. 10…11…12…13…. They littlest among them were sliding in and out of impossibly small nooks and crannies and I quickly found myself hoping none of the bricks that were being thrown around would accidentally wall them into forgotten spaces or, worse, collapse around them.

I asked someone what those people were building and, without a glance, he told me they were getting ready for the Commonwealth Games. Having spent several months wandering dirt paths and not being a sports fan in the least, I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained and told me, with a laugh, not to worry. They’d certainly be done in time! At least, he claimed, things were looking nicer around the city.

After paying, I drifted out on to the street and noticed things I had been unaware of on my way in. The kids laying bricks to fix the holes in the sidewalks, the men scrambling as fast as they could, bent under impossibly heavy loads, desperate not to lose their pay by falling behind. I went back to my hotel to pour over news reports and learn what I could about the games. India was already facing criticism for not being “ready” for the games and many were saying they never should have been given the responsibility of hosting. In the weeks and months to come, reports of human rights abuses (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11218833) would finally begin to gain mass attention. I say finally because, from what little I saw, it should have been the first thing anyone had concerns about.

At the time, the media enjoyed making India seem like the worst games host in history. With many outlets reporting that New Delhi was far from ready to host, some countries even delayed the arrival of their teams at the games. The biggest story of those Commonwealth Games seemed to be India’s struggle to make them happen.

But India isn’t the only country to face harsh criticism for their handling of large scale sporting affairs. Brazil’s World Cup in 2014 and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are just two other events where the host country also received backlash for human rights violations. But does all of the criticism lie with the host countries? Shouldn’t we be considering why the host countries work citizens to the bone to produce “world class” venues? One Toronto journalist raised a legitimate question- during those Sochi Olympics was all the complaining justified or were some of the visitors just accustomed to being little more pampered than is possible in developing nations?

Hosting large scale events has an undeniable draw for developing nations. Tourists are sure to stream into the country and bring their tourist dollars with them. There is a very real human desire to be a part of the “in” crowd and to prove you have power and ability. That human desire translates to governments who bid for the right to host these events. Once they win that bid and the reality of having tens of thousands of foreigners with high comfort expectations descend upon their country hits them , they get to work making sure they do everything they can to avoid being plastered all over the media as inept and poor. Everyone knows these countries are struggling when they put their bids in. Every single person who votes knows the very real challenges of getting a city ready for such events. But we still give them the bid. We still celebrate their win and then shame them when they struggle to get things together in time. Why is that?

It seems most people see the benefits of mass tourism on an economy without difficulty. But we struggle to see the very real strain that same tourism puts on developing nations. We mock them when they fall short of Western standards and roast them for human rights abuses that we pretend we didn’t know would be the outcome of intense international pressure to measure up. It’s not very often that we turn the mirror on ourselves and wonder if we had a hand in the turmoil. There is a very real pressure that is inflicted on a host country to keep everyone visiting from abroad safe and comfortable. When the expectations are higher than what the host country can provide, we laugh at them instead of wondering if we are getting lost in our own biases on what “comfort” looks like. When the host country uses labor barely making slave wages to erect stadiums, we chastise them and pretend we didn’t se the reality of their work conditions before they even won the bid. When they clear entire slums to make way for parking lots, we pretend we never wondered how an over-crowded city was going to make room for those lots.

I’m not suggesting any of these games stop happening, nor am I suggesting that developing nations don’t have the right to put bids in to host. But we do need to take a fair look at the negative impact of mass tourism on developing nations and these large scale sporting events are a great place to start having the conversation.

It’s a difficult balance and one I recognized with new clarity after that particular trip to India. I want to see these places, to experience new cultures. But in order to do that responsibly, I need to temper my expectations and biases of what “comfort” is and what being a “good host” looks like. I also need to remind myself not to get as lost as I did that day in my own thoughts and to make sure my eyes are open to what is going on around me. After all, I can’t even begin to look at mass tourism’s impact if I am not wiling to acknowledge that individuals, like myself, make up those masses and individuals are the ones who will make choices that create a sea change.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | April 9, 2015
Category: Ethics

“The Tramps,” by Robert W. Service (1907)

Can you recall, dear comrade, when we tramped God’s land together,
And we sang the old, old Earth-song, for our youth was very sweet;
When we drank and fought and lusted, as we mocked at tie and tether,
Along the road to Anywhere, the wide world at our feet.

Along the road to Anywhere, when each day had its story;
When time was yet our vassal, and life’s jest was still unstale;
When peace unfathomed filled our hearts as, bathed in amber glory,
Along the road to Anywhere we watched the sunsets pale.

Alas! the road to Anywhere is pitfalled with disaster;
There’s hunger, want, and weariness, yet O we loved it so!
As on we tramped exultantly, and no man was our master,
And no man guessed what dreams were ours, as swinging heel and toe,
We tramped the road to Anywhere, the magic road to Anywhere,
The tragic road to Anywhere, such dear, dim years ago.

Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 6, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

Vagabonding Field Report: Hanoi, Vietnam

In northern Vietnam lies this gem of a city where French food and fashion meet Vietnamese culture and vermicelli. Sometimes overlooked as it’s not as big of a hub as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi offers a taste of authentic street food and genuinely good prices.

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Cost per day:

Hanoi has a huge range of hotels on offer from $4 a night for a shared dorm to much, much more at some of the fancier establishments in the French quarter. We’re at a solid $14 USD a night which has a western bathroom/shower and includes breakfast. With only a few minutes walk to the old quarter, we’re at the heart of the city and don’t need to rent scooters or bicycles. For lunch we eat street food, sitting on tiny child-sized plastic stools along the sidewalk: maybe a bowl of phở or a sweet and savory bun cha, each costing somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 dong. A bowl of fruit salad mixed with coconut cream, tapioca balls, and jelly cubes with crushed ice will only run you about 20,000 dong as a sweet snack to tide you over until dinner. Dinner may set you back you a bit more but can still be done affordably. We often eat phở on the street for 50,000 dong, but there are many restaurants serving western fare as well as Vietnamese and French for a bit more. Household items can be bought from corner shops (we bought electrical tape for 5,000 dong, the equivalent of about $0.25 USD) and shopping for clothing and handicrafts is plentiful but requires a lot of hard bargaining. Beer is the cheapest I’ve ever seen at 20,000 dong or less.

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Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 1, 2015
Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

Foreign news should offer us a means by which to humanize the Other

“At a much deeper, more metaphysical level, foreign news should offer us a means by which to humanize the Other — that is, the outsider from over the mountains or beyond the seas who instinctively repels, bores or frightens us and with whom we can’t, without help, imagine having anything in common. Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in one another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow feeling might develop across chasms. Many a high-minded news organization has inveighed bitterly against those who resent the influx of immigrants from other countries. But this view proceeds from the assumption that a reflexive suspicion towards foreigners is a mark of Satan rather than a common, almost natural result of ignorance — a fault which news organizations have an explicit ability to reduce through a more imaginative kind of reporting (as opposed to ineffective, guilt-inducing denunciations of bigotry).”
–Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual (2014)

Posted by | Comments (0)  | March 30, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

Lessons learned on the road vs. lessons learned in school

What happens when the education you receive on the road starts to make you question the lessons you learned before you left?

History is one of those subjects that never fails to look a whole lot different once I’m in a different country. Despite the tragedies that occurred in the region during my lifetime, I don’t remember learning much about Central America. I knew the region officially spoke Spanish. I knew that much of our fruit was shipped in from various countries in the area. I heard whispers about those fruit companies but I was too nervous to admit ignorance so, I never really understood what the whispers meant. In my textbook, there was a paragraph about Reagan’s  “failed policies” in the region. I memorized the words, regurgitated them on tests and never really understood what was behind the big hulking bush everyone seemed to be beating around. I am embarrassed to say that I never even really put two and two together as a kid to realize that the ancient Mayan civilization that conjured up mysteries in my head were from Central America.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. Was I?

As an adult, I learned more about American policy in Central America and was confused as to why I had never learned about it in school. I formed conspiracy theories on a government hiding facts from the masses to hide their awful mistakes and stay in power. When I finally touched Central American soil, I realized that the reality of why I had never learned about things like the genocide in Guatemala and the Contras in Nicaragua was far more devastating. A very quick exploration into the reality of what was left behind in these areas makes it clear that the people affected were simply not considered people. They were enemies; the other; a symbol of a greater monster the US thought it was fighting. The people who lost limbs, dignity, and lives were nothing more than obstacles to be removed in the pursuit of certain international goals. The truth stung as it became clear. It made me question a lot about the “education” I received. You can’t put that in a 9th grade history book.

Similarly, I was thrown completely off guard when I visited Kolkata for the first time and found that Mother Theresa was not as revered in the region as she was claimed to be. Christian or not, every kid in the US knows who Mother Theresa was and knows that everything she did was saintly. Right? Apparently, not so much. Refusing to give medicines or medical care to the poor and ill, rough treatment of wards, babies whose wrists were tied to their sides, physical punishment for infants in her care, and a complete separation of any child with a known disability were not my idea of what this “saint on earth” had been doing. I currently hold a more balanced, if complex, understanding of Mother Theresa, the human, and her work. At the time, however, I found it unsettling and frustrating that no one wanted to talk about the complexities of being a human being who is seen as a walking icon of perfection, help, and love. It seems humans have a hard time worshiping their heroes if they show signs of being human. That  is a conversation I could have really learned something from as a young person.

Yes, history has a way of looking a little less absolute once you are standing on different soil, surrounded by different vantage points. Similarly, science, medicine, human rights, and art are all areas of study where I have found myself thrown off kilter once I left the confines of the US borders.

At some point, I started wondering- does everyone question their schooling, just a little, when they travel to new countries? Does everyone see gaps, inconsistancies, or lies in the textbooks they remember?

It seems the answer is, yes.

I have met travelers who were embarrassed to admit that they truly thought Indians worshipped cows in the street before the went to India themselves; travelers who thought antibiotics were where it was at for every medical professional in the world before discovering ancient holistic practices on their journeys; travelers who couldn’t believe the difference in opinions over how to speak English “correctly”; travelers angry at language teachers who had promised them they were fluent based on textbook quizzes and state exams drafted by non-native speakers; travelers who cried when they visited memorials to genocide victims they never knew about. It seems that everyone I have met along the way has had at least one moment of questioning the education they received before they left their home countries.

And how could they not? Every educational system must ultimately pick and choose what to share with students. Even if, in an ideal world, the very human hand that guides the education of the masses had every desire to share as much information as possible with students, choices would still need to be made. The amount of knowledge available to any human being on earth today is staggering. One only need consider the constant flow of information that is available, literally at our fingertips, to become aware of just how much one person could take in in a lifetime. At some point, a conflict, hero, or medical option will get left out of the textbooks.

And this is precisely why travel is so incredibly important.

Those moments of confusion over the lessons learned before, the ones that no longer jive with your current world experience, are incredibly valuable. More valuable than most people realize. Understanding that educational systems are limited, that making one educational choice means not making another, that the facts we learn are filtered long before they get to us, is the first step to understanding what an education truly is. That understanding opens the door wide to an entire world of learning and, hopefully, keeps us aware that education is never really “complete”.

Questioning those lessons that came before is usually a struggle. There is confusion, then wonder, then possibly anger or frustration, and then once again… wonder. Wonder that the world is actually that complex, that ‘bad guys” and “good guys” don’t exist simplistically, that between the black and white pages of a textbook is whole lot of gray, that there really is that much to learn.

In my experience, travel is the catalyst for an insatiable thirst to know. That knowing takes time but, thankfully, so does travel.

Posted by | Comments (3)  | March 26, 2015
Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics, Youth Travel

People from cultures that prize individualism tend to misapprehend cultures that don’t

“We were leaving not just a place but a consciousness — one in which the “I” was different for the Asmat than for me. It was group, tribe, family, tied together in ways difficult to grasp. For me, as an American, “I” is the biggest, most important unit. For us, freedom is everything. The right to do as we please, unbound by clan or village or parents — to move two thousand miles at will, to make a call home or send an email or say hi via Skype. We can reinvent ourselves, changes churches or religions, divorce, remarry, decide to celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa or both. But these men in Otsanjep are bound to each other. To their village and its surrounding jungle, to the river and the sea. Most people will never see anything else, know anything else. I kept wondering if I was as guilty as Michael [Rockefeller], also filled with a Western conceit that I could just walk into a place and not only get it but also dominate it. Could I make the Asmat spill their secrets? Would they ever? Should they?”
–Carl Hoffman, Savage Harvest (2014)

Posted by | Comments (0)  | March 23, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day