Life Lesson #1: It takes a really special person to leave their comfort zone and discover what the "real world" is like.
It’s no secret that the middle-class have long understood our holidays have the power to change the (developing) world. Somewhere, deep in the colonialist DNA that underpins the great benevolence we like to ponder over a reflective gin and tonic, we know that the lives of Indian street vendors will be improved by glimpsing a white person caught in the casual pose of someone who’s no stranger to eating rice with their hands.
Once upon a time, the only people who need be exposed to this sanguine belief in our own importance were other white people. They weathered the strain of photographic slideshows as only they knew how – by waiting for their turn to speak. The trade-off for enduring tales of cultural Lessons Learned recounted by a woman who, having formerly favoured the clean lines of Ralph Lauren, now swears by the rustic comfort of a hessian sack boiled in vegetable dye has always been that it allows you to revisit your own memories of third world altruism.
Like that time you took a photograph of a family living in a box on a traffic island in Bangkok. Sometimes, when you’ve had a particularly hard day and there are no seats left on the tram, you think about that photo and it reminds you that the First World is a long way away from the real world. Then you go home and watch yourself cry in front of the bathroom mirror.
The good thing about traveling in 2012 is that we have things like the Internet and smart phones in which to expand our audience. Now you can not only share photos of yourself gazing out across a twilit ocean, reflecting on how much you’ve changed as a person (having finally decided that photo three definitely captures the mood better than photos one, two and four through twelve), you can accompany them with a Real Time status update: “Just gazing out across this twilit ocean, reflecting on how much I’ve changed as a person.”
No longer do you have to wait to convince people of the effect you’ve had on the lives of those ethnic minorities your presence has touched. It’s delivered right to their social networking feeds, beaming out at them in the joyful smiles of the small Pakistani flood victims you’ve just enjoyed a robust game of cricket with, or the eyes of Burmese taxi drivers who’ve implored you to tell their stories. They can hear it in your voice in the film you made after visiting a Cambodian orphanage and plan to upload later to Tumblr. “The children,” you’ll say, “are so grateful for every day. They were playing soccer with a broken stick, so I bought them a ball. You should have seen their faces light up!”
Such accessibility also allows you to change the lives of people back home. Take that comment thread on that photo essay of the Jo’burg slum you visited while in South Africa meeting your sponsor child. A lot of people in your friends list (mostly those from school, not the new ones) didn’t understand some of the more nuanced concerns around ethnocentrism. But you were able to gently remind them that ‘third world’ is kind of offensive, and that the preferred term is actually ‘developing world’. From that, a really productive conversation happened about the various ways we can all try to give back to it.
Anyone can go to America or Europe and stand around with other people just like them. But it takes a really special person to leave their comfort zone and discover what the real world is like, and photo document it for all of their friends to admire. How else will they understand the unique feeling of selflessness that comes when you give a clip on koala to your Balinese homestay host, or help to rescue 30,000 children from a Ugandan warlord?
And when you return, you can tell them all about it in person, possibly at that Mexican kitchen you’ve been researching on Urbanspoon. They serve tacos with deepfried grasshoppers, but you’ll call them tacos de chapulines. You’ve been craving them ever since you left Oaxaca, where you just spent three weeks building a house. You still have the calluses. Whenever you feel tempted to irritation by the meaningless flotsam of western life and all its unreconstructed inhabitants, you stroke them with your thumb, and remember.