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