The killing fields in Cambodia, a trip to Aushwitz, a township tour in Soweto. Tourism? Voyeurism? Or lessons to be learnt?
This is the conversation that popped up around the Women’s Institute coffee and cake table on Sunday. The coffee and cake table is where many of the world’s wrongs are put to right whilst us ladies sit comfortably on our butts, scoffing then not necessarily putting words into action, as well of course as discussing the latest on who did what with whom and who has made the best cake of the day. However, the vote around the coffee table was that there are some “tourist” sites that are worth visiting and others that give cause for concern.
When visiting Krakow some years ago I can remember being in a twist as to whether I should to visit Auschwitz or not. What was I hoping to see at this one of the world’s best known Nazi concentration camps? Memories of death? I twisted with the idea for a couple of days. On this East European trip I had already heard learnt about the extent of Jewish segregation and then persecution during World War II, words on a school text book become faded as the reality of location took a stronger hold. In terms of death itself, I found the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague an almost bizarre scene with its crowd of grave stones nestled up beside each other, nearly on top of each other, exactly what happened to the people buried underneath. Despite being a place of death, I did not come away with morbid sadness but Auschwitz?
In the end I decided that I would go, I may never be in this part of the world again and I decided that I might regret not going more so than going. Despite the ignorant and annoying American on the bus (sorry, there really was one…. I cringed and dug myself into my seat as he asked in the loudest voice possible, “What is this holocaust about then?”..ARRGHHH!) I knew five minutes after arriving that I had made the right decision. There was a peacefulness that lay over Birkenau that came to me expectantly and remained for some time after my visit had ended and this is what I took away with me . Not that the horrors of what occurred at the concentration camp should be forgotten but always taking something positive from a negative has to be encouraged or else life would become pretty impossible to cope with.
When in South Africa I decided not to do a township tour or the famous Soweto tour. Since I have experienced townships before when working in Zimbabwe, I felt that simply taking a tour was in some way spying on the poor and I did not feel comfortable with it. Yet for someone who had never been to an African township, learning about the reality of the life in these conditions could be a viable option. I am assured that there are responsible travel companies that do give money back to the local community and Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers has been certified by Fair Trade Tourism in South Africa since 2008. Someday I hope to be back in South Africa and Soweto Backpackers is on my list. One of my coffee companion ladies said that her and her husband had also opted out of the township tour associated with their South African trip as it was not promoted in a fashion of good taste and the tour did present itself as some kind of voyeurism (someone who enjoys seeing the pain and distress of others).
I have not been to Cambodia but another of my coffee companion’s had. She visited Tuol Svay Pray High School which was renamed School Security Prison 21 (S-21). The classrooms convertedinto tiny prison cells and was enough for her emotionally and she chose not to visit the killing fields.
It is so very sad to say that so many countries have bore witness to dreadful atrocities and these should not be ignored or forgotten and lessons should be learned. These events also colour the culture and interweave their way into the collective consciousness of the people who remain but there is a choice we have to make as a “tourist” whether we want to enjoy what a country has to offer today or do we want an emotional trip into the murky past. There is also the question of responsible and ethical travel with both tour operators and travellers holding a responsibility on where they should place their money.
Back to the coffee table and the vote was two were for visiting Auschwitz, two against township tours and a half hearted one for the killing fields. The luxury of choice we have with respect to those who never.