In a year when a pandemic brought global travel to a standstill, and themes of racial and social injustice were thrust into the spotlight, Meera Dattani explores how we might rebuild travel as an antidote to inequality—wherever in the world we may roam.
Ah, travel. Taking 50 photos of sunrise. A cold beer in a local bar at the end of a hot day. Watching sunset from the balcony of a locally owned guesthouse. Buying souvenirs from a brilliant, innovative social enterprise.
Ah, travel. Instagram photos with ‘African’ children. A favela tour of poverty-porn. Luxury lodge life on land stripped from indigenous communities. Drinking welcome cocktails during a tribal welcome dance.
Many of us have been in both camps when we’ve traveled. And it’s better to admit we haven’t always done it right, and blurred the lines of what we think is ‘OK’. Part of this is because we haven’t always had a clear idea of what is and isn’t ‘OK’—and a kind-of pack mentality can fool us into thinking certain actions or experiences are fine, when we’d never dream of doing the same thing at home. If everyone’s lining up to visit the Cambodian orphanage, surely it must be kosher, right? Wrong.
It’s in part the result of centuries of viewing the world through a Western lens with a lack (or erasure) of historical context, whether that’s a poor understanding of colonialism, or land rights of indigenous people. As travelers, we often don’t know whose land we’re standing on, or whose land it used to be, and how they were removed from it. That story is often left out of the brochure so we literally and figuratively put our foot in it.
Instead of engaging with an often-uncomfortable story, we romanticize it, by ‘othering’ people’s cultures, traditions and everyday lives, and exoticizing what, for them, is just a way of life. It’s easier that way to make sense of it, and makes the difference less confronting and challenging.
The pandemic has shown the fragility of our way of life, but also the disparities within it, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the inequality of access to vaccines. To rallying cries like, ‘We’re all in the same boat’, I call BS. It’s the same storm—and the pandemic is one helluva storm—but it’s one where some people have no boat, a few will and have drowned and others have a vessel that may or may not make it. Meanwhile, a handful have been in safe harbor, even luxury liners, from the start, unmoved by the howling winds of change. And that’s as true of our lives on the road as it is of our lives at home.