I don’t know about you, but I have perceived a big travel bug among people today, especially young people. Whether that’s because they want to go on adventures,
try new things, or learn about foreign cultures, I see that wanderlust everywhere. And this is fun, but I think there are ways to travel in unhelpful or even destructive ways. There are plenty of articles on the internet about the dangers of “voluntourism,” so I don’t need to add my voice to the well-articulated arguments against it. But if you haven’t heard of it, voluntourism is when people volunteer in foreign countries, usually for short periods of time, and end up doing more to make the volunteer feel good about themselves than actual good to the community in need. And a big danger is coming into a non-Western country and try to “fix” things that aren’t problems, because “how can people live that way?” Well sorry to burst your bubble, but the West isn’t the pinnacle of humanity, and our solutions aren’t the only or even the best solutions. That way of thinking reeks of colonialism, and we don’t want that, do we?
And tourism isn’t fantastic; while it can be a lovely time for you, it rarely leads to anything more than mere enjoyment. So what is the best way to travel? There isn’t really a term for it, but I’m going to call it educated travel. This involves coming to a new culture as a learner and not an “expert,” which guards against voluntourism. There is an air of humility to this traveler, instead of coming in with judgments or comparisons. There is a hunger for knowledge; instead of just searching for experiences and adventures, this visitor looks for locals to connect to. This foreigner seeks to understand every facet of life in this new country or culture, not just the photo-worthy moments. This traveler is not holding a camera every moment of every day. This traveler will embarrass themselves, but that will be insignificant in the face of the beauty and life they experience while abroad. This person will make an unfamiliar place home, even if only for a little while.
This type of experience can often be attained by university study abroad programs. That’s what I did. I spent 6 weeks in the incredible country of South Africa. I learned a lot about the historical and current social issues, I experienced water outages in my homestays, I spoke with inmates of a prison, I gave up my vegetarian ways to experience the fullness of the South African diet, I relied on locals to get me to the airport, I embarrassed myself trying to exchange money, I struggled with trying to learn the local language. I did life there, and it was amazing. I also had many photo-worthy moments; I went on 2 safaris and went to a lot of museums and did plenty of touristy things. There’s nothing wrong with those things if they are accompanied by the spirit of humility and a readiness to adapt.
But some of you are thinking, “What if I don’t have the option of studying abroad?” The good thing is that this experience doesn’t just have to be done through universities. While I’m not an expert, I think there are ways to still accomplish educated, intentional travel post-university. Getting in touch with locals is probably the best place to start. Instead of just visiting the tourist locations, locals can point out the hidden gems of their home. Even bigger than that, talking with locals (instead of tourists) over coffee, tea,
alcohol, dinner or whatever is where connections are made so that both people end up edified. Or, even better, put yourself in situations where you are dependent on them for something.
I want to thank the Gilman Scholarship for giving me a scholarship to go abroad. While it didn’t cover even half of my costs, it was significant in letting me dream of the opportunity to go abroad. If I had not heard of this scholarship, I would have been stuck in a lab all summer (which wouldn’t have been bad, just very different). Going abroad is expensive, but if cultural exchange is a priority of yours, then you can find ways to fund it. Especially in this day and age, we need to learn how to actually listen to people who are different from us. That’s why I went abroad: to combat the spirit of xenophobia that is ever more present in the United States. There is something to learn from everyone, no matter how different they are from you, especially if they are different from you. I hope we don’t forget that.