University students love to talk about travel. Graduation plans commonly include “seeing the world.” We list off countries we’ve visited and want to visit. J.R.R. Tolkien’s quote, “not all who wander are lost,” is plastered across posters in our rooms and tattooed on our skin. Our cohort is filled with restlessness. Our anthem is wanderlust. While our desire to travel is insatiable, we are particular about the kind of trips that we go on. The experiences we seek extend beyond the snap-some-photos-when-you-hop-off-the-tour-bus travel that our parents and grandparents engaged in. We want something more from our travel. These desirable travel experiences fall into three general categories: The Service Trip, The Authentic Trip, and The Getaway Trip.
On The Service Trip, a university student usually goes to work in a developing nation. Activities include teaching English, capacity-building, language immersion, and more. The student is able to help the less fortunate by building modern infrastructure. Common photographs include the student, arms wrapped around local children, beaming. Upon return, the student can list this Service Trip on their resume as a fulfilling and character-building experience.
On The Authentic Trip, the student wants to understand how the locals live. They want to seek out the hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop shops. The student disdains going to any touristy location, instead opting to discover those places less frequented. Only local foods are eaten and broken conversations are conducted with local shopkeepers, vendors, and cabbies. This makes the travel more meaningful. Pictures include portraits, architectural features, market scenes, and exotic foodstuffs. Upon return, the student believes they have a deeper understanding of another culture, and may adopt words or phrases commonly spoken in their place of travel—much to the irritation of their classmates.
The Getaway Trip, what I also call “Eat, Pray, Love” travel, is about escape. One wants to get away from routine, from patterns of thought that accrue within certain rooms, spaces, and sidewalks. One needs perspective and seeks the sublime restlessly across countries, atop mountain peaks, in sunrises, and in sunsets. Overlapping with The Authentic Trip, the traveler finds joy in the idiosyncrasies and newfangledness of other cultures. Common photographs include the student poised at a peak or beach at sunset, looking reflective or carefree. Upon return, the student talks about their self-discovery and boasts clearer skin and zero bags under their eyes.
The big deal is that all these trips are possible because of a common denominator: privilege. Many of us can point to a map and pick a new destination to visit, like picking out a new sugary confection at a sweets shop. Although not all privilege is the same within the university system, our status at this institution gives us access to scholarships and grants that allow us to travel.
We respectfully visit places, help people along the way, and contribute to their economies. We’re culturally sensitive. We’re interested in acquiring language skills. We’re traveling more meaningfully than those hop-on-and-off the bus tourists. Right? Let’s examine these assertions more closely. On The Service, Authentic, and Getaway trips, there isnovelty in another’s daily routine, which is exoticized, pitied, or seen as lacking and needing remedy. This occurs especially on the Authentic Trip, where the landscape of another’s life becomes a canvas for our spiritual struggles and soul-searching. On the Service Trip, we leverage a country’s underdevelopment to get a qualification on our spiffy resumes.
I have heard many—including myself—disdain those groups of tourists who travel in groups, take photos, then hop back on the bus. They aren’t traveling meaningfully—their travel is not authentic or immersive. But what makes our resume-building and soul-searching travel any better? We drop into people’s lives, as if spirited on-location, then leave. Is paying your way for a trip to a “less developed” country to build a school any different from buying a designer handbag? Our privilege allows us to purchase experiences in the same way we can buy other status symbols. The price tags with these given examples could very well be similar. Travel is just another product we consume.
My worry is that millennials’ “meaningful” travel has become a fig leaf on an age of neocolonial exploration. And yes, we’re the neocolonialists. We’ve adopted the accoutrements of colonial predecessors, this time in the form of GPS maps, higher education, and a belief in developing “underdeveloped” regions of the world. Note that the concept of a “developed” and “underdeveloped” world is an entirely subjective label, assigned by the West. If a country is not up-to-chalk, they need fixing—be it economically, socially or politically. We have the privilege to swoop in and “save the day.” We snap photos and post them to Instagram and into albums on Facebook, garnering the admiration and envy of our peers.
Ultimately, we’re subversive travelers in that, unlike the “typical” tourist, we layer our travel with moral, ethical, or culturally-aware trappings. We travel clothed in a comfy superiority complex. At least the hop-on-and-off tourists are upfront about what they’re doing—spending money for experiences, entertainment, and pleasure.
The way we can travel is a luxury. Though tourism has become a billion dollar industry, most of the seven billion people on this planet cannot travel for “pleasure” or to find “authentic” experiences. A large number of people moving around the world today are refugees, migrants, internally displaced peoples, immigrants, or victims of trafficking. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there were 19.5 million refugees at the end of 2014, and 59.5 million forcibly displaced people. In 2013, the United Nations estimated a total of 232 million migrants worldwide. Millions of people are uprooting themselves to seek physical safety and fiscal opportunity. Just looking at the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, we should be keenly aware that “wanderlust” is a phrase one can only sigh from the comfort of an armchair in front of a fire. The type of travel we speak about at this campus—and many similar institutions across this country—is a privilege. Our privilege allows us to relatively easily obtain a visa and comfortably cruise into the terminal of an airport. The hardest part of the trip is probably a calf cramp and a rude neighbor in seat B28.
While writing this I feel uncomfortable with myself. I am guilty on all of the above counts, but it was necessary for me to write this piece as a self-confrontation. I’m not aiming for vilification here, nor am I calling for a halt to travel because each of us is possibly a miniature-Christopher Columbus. What I aim to do is to create a space for greater reflection and genuine engagement with the reasons why we as a cohort travel. If we really want to be “ethical” or “conscientious” or “meaningful” travelers we need squarely look at our motives and our privilege. After reflection, “meaningful” travel is a different creature entirely from the Service, Authentic, or Getaway Trips. Our ways of interfacing with the world—as either needing our help, as our next vacation spot, or as our spiritual solution—needs to be deconstructed. Biases and preconceived notions, feelings of pity or paternalism, concepts of underdeveloped and developed, our understanding of lacking or having—these all need to be unlearned.
Travel should be a process to unsettle ourselves, upset our values, to move and be moved, removed, unglued, misconstrued. We cannot diminish our privilege or take it away. It is as stuck to us as our skin covering our muscles, and our muscles girding our bones. We simultaneously perceive and are perceived through the lens of privilege. This narrow mindset means that we travel narrowly. To find meaningful travel, we need to throw open wide our windows of perception.