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Travelling With Light Footsteps

Melanie Rubenstein

1. What’s your name?
2. Where are you from?
3. Where are you going?
4. Where have you been?

Any experienced traveler reading this article is most likely chuckling to themselves. The above dialogue is constantly exchanged between newly introduced travelers. One would think that everyone’s copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook includes this as point one for tips all travelers should be familiar with. I am unsure of how it started, but I do know that nary a day went by when I did not begin a conversation asking and answering the above four questions during my time abroad. The conversation elicits important cultural cues for the new acquaintances:

a) It allows you to make prejudgments based on the “homeland” of the other person(s) (for example, an Aussie will be a big drinker, an American will be loud, and a Kiwi will be laid back and lots of fun) and

b) It allows you to determine the other’s coolness quotient.

2 Cool 4 U

The “coolness quotient” is an extremely important rating for travelers these days. One achieves their quotient — the higher number, the better — by proving their worth by several means. The first is how long you have been traveling or plan to travel. The longer you are away from home, the cooler you are. Second is the number of destinations you have visited or plan to visit. Obviously, the higher the number, the better. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the exoticness of the locations. The more “off the beaten track” a destination is, the cooler you are. A cool traveler doesn’t spend a week in Rome, instead you may spend time in healing war zones in The Balkans or biking along the Karakoram Highway. As a general rule, the fewer travelers a particular location has seen, and the less infrastructure there is to support tourism, the cooler you are.

Attaining your coolness quotient is based upon your ability to overcome several barriers: money, time, and local governments. A traveler can have the greatest aspirations to travel the northeast border of Vietnam and China. But if you do not have the capability to bribe the local officials, the time to get your paperwork in order, and the money to procure the necessary transportation, guides, etc., your dreams will never be realized. Therefore, in a country such as Vietnam (where I spent six weeks), a desire to travel off the beaten path will rarely be realized.

Travelers who attain high coolness quotients may be viewed with envy by other travelers, yet a high coolness quotient does not exempt one from examining his or her role as a traveler.

The Exotic “Other”

If my countless women’s studies and interdisciplinary studies courses in university taught me anything, it is to be critical of my environment and most importantly myself. I would be doing a disservice if I merely traveled the world without a care. I need to be critical and honest and understand that, as a white, American woman, there are many privileges afforded to me that others do not have access to. I also need to analyze my complacency with, and participation in, the travelers’ identity. Obviously, I also aspire for a high coolness quotient. A glance at my passport is quite telling — I have been to some fairly exotic and out-of-the-ordinary locations. I need to explore, as I wish all travelers would, is why I chose those particular locations. What is it about the exotic that attracts me? Furthermore, what political, social, and cultural implications arise when a white, American traveler visits the turf of “the exotic Other?”

Perhaps the lure of the exotic Other can be understood through its use in postcolonial theory. For, “the Other has long been used by philosophers and social scientists to refer to anyone who is not I — the Other actually defines me because it is the ultimate signifier of everything I am not.”1 What is more alluring and mysterious than the opposite of oneself? Many people travel to experience adventure and put themselves in situations which do not exist at home. Home = boring. Therefore, the place least like home will in turn be the most exciting. Also, since many travelers leave home in the first place to escape things (jobs, complacency, boredom, pressure, etc.), logic would dictate that the place least like home would be the most desirable to go to and present the most adventures.

A white European man can get a kick from jumping out of his chauffeured army jeep in order to join the bent women planting rice in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, but does he stop to consider their lives beyond his brief foray in the mud? His life is not spent toiling 16 hours a day in order to simply produce enough rice for subsistence. For him, spending five minutes with the Vietnamese women is merely a story to tell at the local pub; such is the traveler’s privilege. This is an important point: although not every traveler who jumps in the mud as an attempt to bridge boundaries is necessarily guilty of viewing it only as a notch on the headboard, so to speak, it is an option that is open to you. As a privileged traveler, you may view it as merely an experience and a lark. The local person, however, cannot go to the pub, tell a story, and move onto the next adventure. And, unfortunately, I tend to think that very few travelers stop to consider their role in the cultural consumption of the countries they are visiting.

In what ways are we disrupting the natural cultural dialogues that would happen by imposing our ethnocentricities, schedules, and money onto unsuspecting and, at times, unwelcoming cultures? What lasting implications occur as the children grow and point to their waists and the side of their legs (places where travelers generally stash their money) and make the international “money symbol” by rubbing their forefinger and thumb together as soon as they see a white person?

Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?

Many travelers look with disgust upon the “rich tourists” who travel around in their air-conditioned buses and only stay at five star establishments. They refuse to even try the local cuisine and stock up on souvenirs at every stop. A paternalistic “ally,” however, can do more harm than those who do not pretend to be your friend. Let’s take, for example, begging. As I mentioned above, it is overwhelmingly poor communities that are seen as attractive (due to the phenomenon of the “exotic Other”) to thrill-seeking, alterna-travelers. When rich tourists visit these villages, they understand the process. They are there to gawk at the “primitive ways,” pay in order to take some pictures, maybe buy a trinket, and move on. We radicals, however, usually view it as a different game. We want to “experience” culture, not merely be spectators. Therefore, we want to sit and chat. We wish to take pictures, but would never ever pay.

Take, for example, the town of Banaue in the Northern Philippines. For years this city has been visited, photographed, and intruded upon so that white folks can gaze upon the UNESCO World Heritage designated rice terraces. As a result of the seemingly limitless amount of tourists, some Ifugao tribe members (the tribe indigenous to the area) don traditional clothing and pose in front of a backdrop of the “Stairway to the Sky” terraces. Nearly all of the people who do this would not wear the clothing on a day-to-day basis if not for the tourists. In a way, they are prostituting their culture and traditions in the name of the almighty dollar (or peso). The young radical traveler does not want to contribute to the incursion of begging and corruption of cultures. Therefore, we snap our picture (with or without the “exotic Other” in the frame) and bypass the children with their hands outstretched.

Additionally, we tend to view begging as an unfortunate and disgusting by-product of tourism. Begging can ruin and adulterate the culture. Instead, many of us find ourselves engaging in capitalism as a remedy to begging. In Cambodia, people have to pay to send their children to school. In many cases, the children themselves are the ones who end up working — whether it be in a Gap factory or selling postcards at Angkor Wat. The town of Siem Reap is the richest in Cambodia with several traffic lights and well-paved roads. Naturally, many poor Cambodians flock there to find work or to beg. Nearly everywhere you go you see remnants of America’s “secret” bombing campaign during the Vietnam War — mainly in the form of people with missing limbs. Many of these people sit on the street or go from restaurant to restaurant begging for money. I never gave. Again, begging = bad to the cool traveler. However, if there was an exchange of goods, somehow it wasn’t begging; it was working. Many children sell extremely cheap and poorly made postcards. I bought several packages of them. I am unaware how much profit the children were making, but because they were “willing to work for it,” I felt good about giving. Capitalism: if I can get something for it, I do not mind parting with my Thai Baht or Cambodian Riels.

But which is the better attitude? Pay to take pictures and contribute to beggars, or not? Ah! That is the eternal question. I do not want to attempt to speak for anyone, so I am not going to answer it. However, I tend to agree with Lonely Planet’s advice about not perpetuating a culture of begging. But that is easy for me to denounce as a privileged American. I enjoy the freedom to decide whether to donate some money. How many choices do the young Cambodians who lost their parents due to the Khmer Rouge have? Is it fair of me to judge them for doing what they need to do to survive?

Desiring (Ex)change

Since it is usually the homes of the poor people of color that are most attractive to the traveler looking to up her/his coolness quotient, often it is those who are most likely the object of oppression who lose the most in the name of globalization and travel. And it is my bet that a vast majority of those travelers that participate in this damage are also people who attempt to actively oppose the very structures they uphold by way of their travels.

So, if traveling is so problematic, why do it in the first place? Although ignorance and an unwillingness to examine one’s actions are not an excuse, I do believe that most travelers have the best intentions. Participating in an exchange of ideas and cultures is an exciting and rewarding process. One cannot go into it blindly, however. Although you think it’s wonderful to intrude into someone’s house, drink tea, and ask them how much money they make harvesting shrimp, you must understand that by doing so you are imposing your desire for exchange on the other person. Although they may be happy to answer your questions and ask some themselves, cultural customs must be upheld. If you expect to be invited into someone’s house, understand that you are in their house, not yours. Be well-versed in appropriate dress, eating habits, and behaviors for accepting presents. Take a moment and think of how comfortable you would be with someone entering your home who doesn’t speak your language, sits on your bed, and asks you how much money you earn a year. There is a thin line between curiosity and intrusiveness.

Obviously, I believe that traveling is an amazing opportunity that should be taken advantage of. I will keep traveling and hope to make my life’s work abroad. But I think it’s important to discuss the aspects of traveling which nearly everyone faces but most are too embarrassed to admit or too ignorant to realize.


1 Childers, Joseph and Hentzi, Gary. The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

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