Is "De-Centered" Travel a Good Thing — Or Just More Performative Navel-Gazing?
Another debate between Brent and Michael!
Did you remember to hang the clothes out to dry?
So! I was just listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Alpaca My Bags, and they were talking about “de-centering” yourself in travel.
When it comes to race, de-centering means to try to see things from the POV of non-white people, to respect other POVs.
When it comes to travel, it means thinking more about the people who live in the places you visit — try to see things from their POV. To try to understand the impact of your travel and think more about why you are going there.
I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all. I wish everyone was more thoughtful. And the world definitely needs more mindfulness in general.
Anywhere, here are my questions for you:
What do you think about this whole “de-centered travel” thing?
And how de-centered do you think we can ever really be?
As for me, man, this feels like a tough sell to the general public. I think when most people go on vacation they want to relax, or see Machu Picchu, or just check another country off their bucket list. Most folks don’t want to ponder why they are traveling, much less think about the negative impacts their actions have on the world.
But we have to start somewhere.
I also think this topic is very complicated and tricky to discuss without coming off as self-aggrandizing and lecture-y. I know that is something we’ve worked hard to avoid when we write about why we think it’s good for LGBTQ folks to live in and travel to less tolerant places. We’ve been pretty heavily criticized for traveling to homophobic countries (and we'll post a whole article just on that topic very soon).
So I guess what I’m saying is that these topics have to be approached very carefully in order to get the ideas out into the mainstream.
What do you think?
P.S. Don’t forget the clothes!
When we first started traveling, and we realized that many countries don’t have dryers, just drying lines, I thought, “That’s so great! I bet it saves so much energy!”
Which I still think. But sometimes I also think, “Oh, God, I need to wait ten hours for a dry shirt?” And now that it’s getting colder, it’s taking longer than ever for things to dry, and I’m worried stuff might freeze out on the porch.
Sometimes you just want a damn dryer, you know?
Which seems like a digression from the topic at hand, but maybe it isn’t. It goes to your question: how de-centered can we ever really get?
I dunno, maybe we can’t ever truly be inside someone else’s head and know their POV, or ever completely understand another culture, but I think we can at least try. We can go at least part-way down that road.
Anyway, I’m definitely with you on the de-centered travel thing. But I’m also with you on being a little wary whenever anyone brings this up, even though it’s probably not fair.
But man, I have such a low tolerance these days for anything that smells of sanctimony and moral superiority. Which is not good because we’re currently living in the Golden Age of Sanctimony and Moral Superiority. Sometimes it feels like I spent the first half of my life being judged and scolded by holier-than-thou conservatives, and now I’m going to spend the second half being judged and scolded by holier-than-thou liberals (and also holier-than-thou conservatives!).
Which is ironic, because I’m very progressive on most of the actual issues. I just wish liberals wouldn’t be so damn insufferable about everything. I might put up with all the lecturing and shaming and calling out if it actually worked to change people’s attitudes and behavior. But of course bullying and hectoring always has the exact opposite effect. Which I thought everyone who has any experience with actual human beings already knew, but I guess not.
Anyway, this really isn’t fair to the folks who are talking about de-centered travel. This concept hasn’t become weaponized yet and maybe it never will be.
I will say I’m not sure de-centered travel is really anything new. I think thoughtful, decent people have always tried to do this — to travel in thoughtful, decent ways.
Respect other cultures? Get to know local people? Pay attention to your impact — and minimize it as much as possible?
I would call this simply Not Being a Dick.
For me, this is what makes travel so extraordinary. Seeing and truly experiencing another culture is the whole point.
But it can be hard too, which is probably why more people don’t do it — why I don’t always do it. Sometimes you don’t want to be challenged, you don’t want to have your worldview transformed into something new and different.
Sometimes you just want a Mai Tai by the pool.
I might also quibble with the term “de-center.” I think travel isn’t necessarily about sitting back and absorbing the other cultures. I think good travel is about an exchange of cultures — of ideas. About connection. I learn many things from the places and people I visit.
But I think they learn from me too! From my perspective. I’m not a passive listener and absorber in this process — I’m an active participant. We both change a little, hopefully in good ways.
But yes, I acknowledge Western influence and wealth is so extraordinary — and has been very destructive in so many ways — that this maybe can’t be a 50/50 exchange. Other cultures have been forced to listen to us for a long time; now we do need to try especially hard to listen to them.
Even so, I'm not big on reducing anyone to a cultural or racial stereotype, including me, so I guess I prefer the term “intentional” travel. “Thoughtful” travel.
But whatever you call this, I guess my question to you is: How do we get more people to think about this? But in such a way that it doesn’t immediately descend into finger-pointing, and shaming, and calling out? Into sanctimony and moral outrage?
Because it would be nice if this great idea didn’t immediately get sucked into the same damn culture war vortex that sucks in everything else these days, with literally zero actual communication.
Are you as pessimistic about that as I am?
P.S. Clothes are on the line!