Travel as performance art

Life Lesson #1: It takes a really special person to leave their comfort zone and discover what the "real world" is like.

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.”

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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.

16 comments

  • To be honest, I grew up in a poor/developing country, and I've got no interest in venturing outside the First World (except maybe Adelaide).

    Funny thing is, a lot of wealthy First World people have this desire to visit poor countries - while their Third World counterparts have the exact opposite desire - to get the hell out of there!

    Commenter
    Bob
    Date and time
    March 30, 2012, 9:20AM
    • Initially I thought that this article was an attempt at sarcasm - a side swipe at altruistic hipsters who travel to developing countries on the basis that they will change the lives of the local people in the 5-7 days that they reside in a purpose-built Western friendly accommodation nearby. It is pure self indulgence - evidenced in part by taking photos of the locals (digital black and white, or maybe even polaroids), as if they are animals in a zoo, for amusement of their friends on Twitter or Facebook. To add insult to injury, these people come back claiming to have perspective, or undertand the plight of people in these developing countries. A ridiculous article.

      Commenter
      Larry
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 30, 2012, 9:25AM
      • Guffaw! This is hilarious!! It triggered a series of flashbacks to a number of people in my social circle. Will be sharing.

        Commenter
        Tilly
        Date and time
        March 30, 2012, 10:02AM
        • I too thought this was, at first, a sarcastic swipe at foreigners who think they have the "right" way of existance, and think they contribute selflessly by imposing their ways on others.

          However, I see the author is trying to demonstrate a point. I just think I've missed what that point is.

          Diversity is a common trend in Western Culture. We all think and feel differently and have been conditioned to express that as much as possible.

          Photos to "share" to your family and friends is selfish. Embrace your selfish nature to say to the world you changed a life (whether you did or did not is perception based). Writing is a good way to express the lessons you have learned in life. However, I would have loved to see more on what these beautiful people around the world have taught you... not what you gave them, but what they gave you.

          Still, I feel there is no cynical voice in the article and I hope the traveller continues to go outside the box and experience different culture. And I think my views on the article don't actually reflect the brilliant moment or spark the author experienced.

          *sigh* I will read it again. But thank you truly for sharing.

          Commenter
          Hmmm
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 30, 2012, 10:12AM
          • Good read - it gave me a laugh.. I've just made a habit of avoiding friends for the first couple of months after they come back from their "eye-opening" travels such as these.

            Commenter
            Luke
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            March 30, 2012, 10:15AM
            • So I'm a purer traveller now that I don't travel by local transport and stay in small guesthouses in Asia, and have come to love European spa hotels? Huh?
              I guess that makes cruise travellers getting off the boat for a couple of hours even purer again; even less likely to engage with local people and inject much into the local economies.
              This article gives a new twist to the travel wank of 'I'm a purer traveller than you', but millions would rather this whole theme disappeared entirely.

              Commenter
              Mip
              Date and time
              March 30, 2012, 10:23AM
              • This is so funny - I laughed my authentic Thai fisherman's pants off!

                Commenter
                Bianca
                Date and time
                March 30, 2012, 11:32AM
                • Its fairly simple really - if you're wealthy it is a lot of fun to watch poor people.

                  The same reason Potts Point is a mix of the very very wealthy and the very very destitute.

                  If you actually go and MIX with the poor people, you can gloat to your rich friends about how you slummed it, and you can get all of these experiences for very little outlay - the whole point of poor countries is that they are so cheap to visit yet you can do so in quite luxurious conditions (glamping). Win-win, dahling, especially if you go somewhere like Burkina Faso - pretty obscure, you've probably never heard of it.

                  Commenter
                  architect_of_Reality
                  Date and time
                  March 30, 2012, 11:46AM
                  • Is travel a middle class status symbol the albums of digital photographs, strategically shared, being trophy cabinets contributing to a carefully constructed image of the self?
                    Some people travel for work, to immigrate, to escape various forms of political oppression. Yet beyond this, travel through choice is a luxury - even when choosing to be embeded in a Cambodian orphanage and buying sports goods, it is a free use of wealth and time.
                    Why do we take photos and construct narratives around our travel? I suspect the reasons vary with the individual involved. On one end of the spectrum there may be an individual keen to impress old school contacts with their concerns for the developing world. On the other end of the spectrum there may be an intensely personal journey and the phtographs are taken to preserve the memories for some time in the future when memories are difficult to recall.
                    Immersion in another culture can make us aware that we too exist in a relatively strange and different culture. We don't even need to leave the country to appreciate difference.

                    Commenter
                    Kefkalon
                    Date and time
                    March 30, 2012, 12:57PM
                    • It is good to get straightforward commentary on travel rather than the irony posing as profundity that seems to dominate the space these days.I too enjoy the wonderful effect I have on people's lives just by being near them, knowing that eating in their <i>fonda</i> will be the highlight of their year and give them something to talk about at Christmas.Then I realised I don't have to wait for overseas holidays to do it, I can also do it right here! If people are playing frisbee in the park I'll run in and catch it and give it a friendly toss - it makes them feel like part of society. Or in a bank where there's a long line of people who just treat the cashiers like automated tellers I'll stop and have a conversation with the person helping me, maybe about the weather or the Tigers' latest loss, to let them know that some realise they are still human. And of course dropping in on friends' houses out of the blue; people love surprises! So we can all make the world a better place, even the tiny part we live in. I think there's something in that for everybody.

                      Commenter
                      JEQP
                      Date and time
                      March 30, 2012, 1:18PM

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