Traveling and Elitism

Subtitle: Does traveling make you better person or just give you a chance to spread your bad attitude internationally?

I’ve seen a lot of comments online lately as a backlash to the big traveler/backpacking blogosphere. It makes sense. The internet has made it easier than ever to hear about traveling and it seems like everyone is doing it. The world is becoming more globalized with the internet as well. People watch entertainment and listen to music from countries they’ve never been to. They even study other languages or exchange ideas with people from all around the world. Study abroad is gaining greater emphasis at most universities. I’ve even found myself saying that travel is the best form of education.

Is that statement in itself elitist? Is it also narrow and elitist to say only the rich can travel? And does everyone who travels actually learn anything?

I suppose anything that involves money draws a line in the sand between those who can and can’t afford it. I think it’s important at this point to say that I grew up poor. With second hand clothes, worries over maybe no electricity this month, living on a single parent’s paycheck to paycheck. There were a few years that were extremely hard. I will never minimize that experience and I understand how stuck in it you can get. I was lucky in many ways and later some things improved and in my teens I had many opportunities. I have had some support from my family, but the life I have now, I built myself from very little. I pay my own bills and am dependent entirely on myself at a fairly young age.

I have been meaning to do blog post about realistic and budget friendly traveling for a while now, and I will, but for now I will say that it’s a myth that travel is only for the rich and those with a disposable income. Maybe that’s a myth that’s perpetuated by elitists to make them feel like special snowflakes. Traveling doesn’t have to be first class, luxury hotels, resorts, and restaurants. In fact, those are typically the types of vacations that can reinforce this traveling elitism because they cost so much, and they can quite literally put up walls between you and the people who live where you’re staying. Traveling with volunteer groups, traveling to teach, traveling to work on organic farms: these are all ways to travel cheaply or even get paid while traveling to other countries. It’s hard work, but it’s a way to see the world even if your pockets are empty.

My least favorite people that I meet on my travels are those who have seen a lot, but learned very little. People who seem to travel to reinforce their own prejudices instead of break them. People who keep the locals at arms length. Instead of respecting and appreciating other cultures, they treat the world like a playground where they can pave the way with money (sometimes their parents’). Yes, these people suck. So do people who believe that after a few weeks or months, or even a year, they can carry an entire country home in their pocket. They “did” that country and are experts on every facet of it– politics, culture, history. Even if they spent zero time with the local people, ate at McDonald’s half the time, and read nothing beyond the Lonely Planet guide.

In spite of all this, I stand by the fact that travel is the best form of education. Like any learning, some people aren’t open or interested in learning when they are given the opportunity. But when done in earnest, traveling can teach you new things about the world. It can show you new options for solving problems, conducting relationships, and living your life. It teaches you your strengths and lays bare your weaknesses.

Not everyone can travel. But if it’s in your power to make it a priority, there are plenty of options that don’t require a trust fund. If you have the privilege (and yes, it is a privilege) to travel, you should make the most of it. It is even more precious because it is an opportunity that not everyone has. You should try and learn from it and then pay it forward– use what you’ve learned to help or teach others who might not have those opportunities. Try everything you can– even if it means pushing out of your comfort zone, talk to everyone (okay, not everyone…), try to learn some of the language, and understand another facet of the world.

Even though I spend more on airline tickets than I put away for my retirement, I can’t regret it. Travel truly changed my life and taught me how to dream. It’s introduced me to incredible people, ideas, music, and food. I’d like to think it’s also made me a marginally better, more socially conscious person. It’s definitely made me want to share my experiences through writing and through working in education both abroad, and eventually, back in my home country.

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