About a week ago, I took part in the Responsible Tourism Twitter Chat that takes place every Wednesday at 1:00PM GMT. Each week, people talk about responsible travel to Thailand and other places around the globe. The chat I took part in was titled “Supporting The Local Community” and it was great to see so many people sharing ideas and being mindful of the importance of making positive contributions to the places they have the privilege of visiting.
As the chat progressed, I began to notice a difference in viewpoint between certain people involving locals and voluntourism that reminded me of encounters I’ve had in various village based projects I’ve been a part of in Thailand. While most of the contributors talked about the importance of open communication, not manifesting your own culture, and asking instead of telling locals what they need, there were some whose opinions seemed a bit counterproductive to me. They talked about locals and in their opinion ‘less responsible travelers’ as if they were somehow less than themselves.
There is a type of traveler who always reminds me of a certain episode of South Park where Kyle’s dad buys a hybrid and instantly begins to think he is more progressive than others because he’s helping the environment. In typical South Park fashion, he becomes so smug and self satisfied that he starts to smell his own farts. More people buy hybrids and become full of themselves. The more they smell their own farts, the more it negates the positive effects of hybrids on the environment. At the end of the episode (after all the farts cause a storm that destroys San Francisco), Kyle tells the town of South Park that while it’s important to care about the environment, being holier than thou is counterproductive.
I’ve seen a lot of people act this way with locals and other travelers and whenever they do, I always think to myself they’re smelling their own farts. They talk down to locals about their traditional way of life and tell them what they need instead of asking. If they meet another traveler who is interested in responsible tourism, they always need to one up them. You helped build a microhydro plant in a Garieng village for 2 weeks? I spent 2 months teaching English in India.
While I think that everybody experiences a bit of an ego boost from traveling and volunteering, it’s important to not become too full of yourself. You didn’t build a school or introduce a new method of farming to a community of unskilled people. The community invited you in and allowed you to make a small contribution. Locals know what works for their culture and generally have as much if not more to teach you than you them. While it’s fine to be proud of yourself, don’t start smelling your own farts. 9 times out of 10, the volunteers I’ve met aren’t experts in whatever project they are working on- me included- anyways.
Some of the most popular travel quotes around are “The world is a book and those who don’t travel only read one “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime”. These quotes were written in a time when the physical act of travel was extremely difficult and humans didn’t have the technology to connect with people around the world. Saint Augustine, who I quoted first, was born in 354 CE. Mark Twain wrote “The Innocents Abroad” around 1869. When they are used by people today, it seems to me as if people are looking down on those who don’t travel and making the statement that they are worldly because they are fortunate enough to be able to travel. Some of the best people I’ve met have never left the country they were born in. I’ve met many ignorant people who have traveled the world.
Travel doesn’t make you wise.
Travel is a medium. To me, it’s almost the same as music. It’s something that some people use to develop a greater understanding of themselves and their place in the world. But, it’s not travel or music that is responsible for that transformation, it’s all on each individual. So, when people discuss how travel can help a person grow, it’s essential to discuss how people can open themselves up to positive change by checking themselves when they start milking their own ego, looking to others for knowledge instead of competition, and refusing to operate in the world believing they are better than anyone else because of the experiences they’ve had.