For context, here’s a short list of my trip around the world “by numbers.” After this list, I offer my first of two reflections on this crazy summer.
Countries: 9 (Singapore (just the airport), Australia, Greece, Ireland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Japan, Thailand, United Kingdom (specifically Northern Ireland)
Time changes: 9
Total miles traveled: well, the longest travel portion was my path from Sydney, Australia to Santorini, Greece. 36 hours of flying 🙂 I actually flew entirely around the world!!! Started in US, then Japan, Thailand, Australia, Greece, Central Europe, Ireland and UK, back to US
My absolute favorite areas:
- Great Barrier Reef
- Chiang Mai
- Northern Ireland, specifically Giant’s Causeway, Ballentoy, and Wild Atlantic Way
New foods tried:
In Japan: I tried some crazy looking dishes!!!! My goodness!!! I’ll have to show you all pictures. I also ate at least 80 dumplings in 11 days… No shame; In Thailand: every meal; In Australia: lobster, some veggies; In Greece: lots of cheeses, sauces; In Prague: black ice cream, Trdelnik, traditional beef dish; In Dublin: beef stew, Guinness pie, a few types of beers.
Friends traveled with: 10
New friends made: 5
Pictures taken: 1,400 decent ones… but realistically like 4,000.
Books read: 5
Magazines read: 10
Travel blogs read: probably 100
Pages written: Hmm… Not as many as I would have liked. I kept lots of pages of notes, and I’ve been continually adding to what you’re reading right now. Probably 20.
Dreams envisioned: 11 (ask me about them :)) what a life we have to live.
Deep talks, laughs, reflective moments, facts consumed, learning moments, moments filled with humility and grace, culture shocks: countless. I talked about politics, money, religion, love, commitment, mistakes, regrets, hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities in long conversations with my friends over these six weeks. And every conversation challenged me and helped me further empathize with where we each uniquely come from.
Reflection: Part One:
I’ve been thinking about two large overarching topics this summer: tourism and safety. In Part One, I’ll talk about tourism. Tune back in a few days for Part Two: Safety.
I will forever stand by the belief that traveling is the most authentic and rich way to understand the world. But the knowledge and empathy that comes from visiting a new place does not happen from just showing up there. We build this empathy and knowledge through deep investment in the place and its people. Deep investment is not checking the top sites off a list. Deep investment is reading books on the history, talking to locals before and once arriving, intentionally listening and building relationships in the area, spending as much time in one place as you can, and respectfully visiting historical and meaningful sites, with the locals’ perspective on these sites in the back of your mind.
The problem with this is that we can’t all travel this way. It’s expensive, unsustainable, and unrealistic.
So how do we visit places on a tighter time constraint, with a tighter budget, and still learn about a place, its people, and its culture and history? How can we visit a place and “have fun” while also being respectful? How can we “plop” into a country and do it respectfully?
And is it wrong just to plop down? Should we only travel if we can fully immerse ice a longer time span?
While I was in Santorini, I talked to a man who grew up there his whole life. He said that Santorini breaks his heart, because if it wasn’t so beautiful, it wouldn’t exist. What he meant, and continued to explain, is that had tourists not discovered the island, its economy would have collapsed and Santorinians would have fled to the mainland. He appreciates tourists for the boost they bring to the economy on which he desperately relies.
When we plop ourselves on Santorini for a few days, we are helping this economy. We are employing people. We are keeping the island alive.
But we are also distorting it. Over 60,000 people arrive on cruise ships five days a week in Santorini. They hop off, buy hundreds of dollars of souvenirs, eat quick food that has good reviews on Trip Advisor, and leave. Usually in the same day.
This causes massive problems: for one, traffic. There is no underground public transportation, so the entire city slows down to accommodate all the foot traffic and extra people. Second, restaurants: Great, family-owned and traditional restaurants have tanked and even closed because they are not found on Trip Advisor. The same cruise goers or tourists rate similar restaurants: the ones that serve fast, cheap food. The drive for good, quality, real Greek food declines as the majority of their market (tourists) flock to the inauthentic places. This makes the quality restaurants even more expensive and adds a plethora of bad ones. This is a problem in every country I visited this summer, according to locals I talked to in each place. A similar spiral ensues with souvenir shops and clothing boutiques.
Let’s look at the problem a different way. In Japan, the people are sooooooooo hospitable— maybe even more than in Greece! Which is saying something! They are understanding, light up when you even say one word in Japanese, and appreciate any effort tourists make to understand their culture (we went to a traditional tea ceremony and the woman who led it must have thanked us 100 times for taking time out of our day to understand this traditional Japanese activity). But the Japanese have seen the negative sides of tourism, too. Restaurants have changed their menus. Stores carry different products to accommodate foreign preferences. Shrines have been damaged from ignorant tourists not knowing how to respect them. We (tourists) seep out Japanese culture at the same time that we try to understand it. How do we understand and empathize without damaging? When does hospitality become sacrificial and detrimental? When does accommodating become altering?
Let’s look at Thailand. Thailand is a lower middle income country, yet boasts five-star resorts for the wealthiest of the wealthiest. To get to these resorts, tourists drive through desolate and extreme poverty, in private and secure vans. The resorts are policed by an independent police force. How much of participating in tourism in Thailand is furthering the divide between rich and poor? How much are we really even investing in a culture or a place if we are cooped up in a resort? I think I know the answer to that last question, and it’s tough to swallow. I’d love to go to a cool resort, especially for my honeymoon. And I get it. It is truly and legitimately often unsafe to leave the resort. Political and civil unrest surround many of the properties. But we are still separating ourselves from the reality of the country, the situation, the culture, and the rest of the economy.
We can’t know everything about a country. We can’t talk to everyone. We can’t fully immerse ourselves in the culture. So how much is enough? Or should we even be approaching it this way, like these are somehow measurable?
How can we step into someone else’s space and show them that we are there to learn and to empathize, not to take a few pictures and check some items off a list? How do we even take pictures and buy souvenirs in a culturally appropriate and just way? (Ie buying from local shops instead of shipped-in, factory-made goods; not taking pictures during religious ceremonies or cultural events, etc).
I don’t have answers to most of these questions, but I’ve been thinking about them for quite a while. I’ve visited 28 countries and I’m not even 23 yet. I’m obsessed with traveling. It’s when I feel the most myself. l feel free to talk to people, to hear their perspectives, to listen more than I usually do. I learn more in one day than through months of school. I understand history and culture through living it and eating it. I can be more flexible and adventurous, more generous with my time. But I’m sure I’ve also disrespected countries through my adventuring. There are times I visited a landmark without having a clue what I was looking at. I’ve visited countries without knowing their current events, their current political struggles. I’ve stayed in countries for less than a week, or talked to only a handful of locals. I’ve gone places because I’ve wanted to, not necessarily because I’ve wanted to invest my money in a country. Is all of that wrong? Sometimes yes, maybe sometimes no.
I do feel obligated to be respectful when traveling. And this I desperately try to do. But it’s much harder than it looks. Sometimes what we might think is the most respectful in one country is actually grossly offensive. Is that my fault? Should I have known? Is that ignorance or just not something I would find in a book or article?
It’s a delicate balance. But I think the fundamental problem is that, when it comes to tourism, problems arise when both sides fail to offer grace and humility.
I am overwhelmed and so grateful for the many locals in the countries I visited for their grace when I would mess up: when I would take a stupid picture instead of just listening or looking, when I would eat at an inauthentic restaurant or stay at a touristy hotel. I am grateful for their humility when they’d tell me they didn’t understand what I said, or they didn’t understand something about my culture. I am grateful for my own humility when I had the courage to say, “I don’t know,” or, “I’m lost.” I’m grateful for the grace I showed locals who wrote me off as a dumb tourist or an ignorant American. And I again seek humility in understanding that they’re not entirely wrong. I probably did act that way at times, even when I didn’t intend to.
I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to impart to you all any sort of wisdom I may have acquired over these years through all my travels. I’m scared about the leap. I follow hundreds of travel bloggers, and they have helped me find authentic travel over the years. But I’ve also found my own adventures. And they might be worth sharing. If I find the courage. Now that I’ve seen so much of the world, at such a young age, I have this small hope that maybe if I share a deeper, more authentic side of a country, and share travel stories of living vulnerably and authentically, then maybe others could also approach travel with more humility, grace, respect, empathy and understanding. I don’t have it figured out. But practice does help. Each time I travel I do find myself investing more and more into learning before I go and investing in the people and the place once I’m there. The travel blogging community is quite beautiful — they are supportive risk-takers who want to live a different life. And isn’t that what I preach on my own blog? Maybe it’s not as huge of a leap as I think.