The Role of the 21st Century Traveler

by Ian MacKenzie Nov 8, 2006

Qalandiya Checkpoint, West Bank

For many travelers visiting a country wracked by the scourges of war, famine, or poverty, it is an overwhelming experience.

My own visit to Cambodia earlier this year provoked a variety of emotions in me: from the shock of begging lepers in the streets of Phnom Penh, to the outrage of hearing personal accounts of the Khmer Rouge and their systematic genocide in the late 1970’s. I even bought one dollar flutes from children in the ruins of Angkor Wat, arguably out of my own personal guilt.

But why did I feel guilty? Because I had so much and they had so little? Because I came from Canada, a peaceful country with citizens that have forgotten about war and have never suffered a collective trauma like “Year Zero?

I realized that guilt is not a productive emotion.

Instead, I set out to redefine what it means to be a traveler in our age of unbalanced wealth and globalization.

Sarah Stuteville, from The Common Language Project, recently spoke with me about her own experience as a US journalist covering these very issues:

“I think that foreign travel should not only be considered a great privilege of the 21st century American (which it is), but a great responsibility as well. So much of our culture is informed by our isolation from, and general suspicion of, the rest of the world–a sad irony coming from a nation built by and composed of people from outside her borders.

Our self-involvement, which often courts xenophobia, might be able to be written off as a quirk of our national character, or even just a general expectation (really how many countries out there wouldn’t qualify as self-involved and xenophobic?), if, frankly put, we weren’t the bloated super-power of the century.

But the uncomfortable reality is that our capricious political choices and indulgent life-styles, as unexceptional as they should be (we don’t have a monopoly on the very human traits of capriciousness, indulgence, or egotism), have real world consequences for billions.

On a good day an average American might read an article about China, or Nigeria, or Colombia to the fold. They might be moved by the tiny pixilated images of another suffering/collapsing/starving/warring foreigner living out some horrible moment of his life on CNN.

They might even consider briefly how the Bush Administration, or an American corporation has a hand in these events. But the truth is none of this happens to us, in real time, or with immediate consequences. We feel immune, and that immunity, not a sense of responsibility, is the daily experience of our lives.

I think that all changes the first time you travel.

The “rest of the world,” can never be an abstraction again. The stumbling, redundant, convoluted advance of history is suddenly happening to people you know: The University student you spent an afternoon talking politics with in Ramallah, the family that you ate dessert with in Gujarat, the taxi driver you pulled a rickshaw out of a ditch with in Lahore. That realization is something that affects not only us, but those who hear our stories and appreciate our work.

It sounds sentimental and grandiose to imply that we can save the world through telling humanized stories from abroad. I don’t think “saving the world,” is a job best left to Americans anyway. But our experiences as American writers, journalists, and travelers go against the grain of our culture, political and otherwise, and it does make an impact. We should view our work and our travels as both a great privilege and part of a great responsibility.”

As an ongoing series, Brave New Traveler will explore the nature of this responsibility from a variety of perspectives: from the streets of Jerusalem, to the killing fields of Cambodia, and wherever else it takes us.

If you would like to contribute an article to this series, please contact me.

Coming soon: Part I “Atheists in the Holy Land” by Sarah Stuteville.

What do you think about the responsibility of the traveler? What types of stories would you like to read in this series?

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