Backpacking Can Be Disheartening (OR: How White Privilege and Entitlement Can Ruin Travelling)

 

WARNING: If you voted for Trump you will not appreciate this post, you might as well just leave. Byeeeeee.

 

Travel isn’t all glorious sunsets. (Although, there are a lot to be savoured!)

2012 was a better year to be British than 2018. I didn’t know that at the time.

I was demoralised by a coalition of idiots running the country and frustrated by the audacity to add extra tax to pasties (of all things!) because they are pretty much a working-class staple, unlike off-shore bank accounts. The Leveson Enquiry revealed how prevalent phone hacking by the press was; apart from the noise they were no real consequences. It was a great year for Union Jack waving: Queen’s Jubilee, hosting the Olympics, Andy Murray breaking the 76 year wait for a Brit to win the USA Open. Lots of cheery little Pimms sipping Tory voters.

Over the pond, Obama was re-elected, he steadily enshrined into law acts to protect immigrant, women from violence, students from crippling debt and the LGBT community. Obama is thwarted repeatedly by opponents, has bills he vehemently fights for diluted, but still tries to be strong and stable for the good of his country.

And me? I’m just gallivanting. Trying to put as much water between the UK education system and me as possible. I try 3 continents just to feel better in my own skin again and not be housing a body full of jitters and ticking doubts.

No orphanages for me, just playing with the kids outside the hostel during Songkran.

After 9 months of liberation and Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, New Zealand, Malaysia and Thailand I have succumbed to the inevitability of being in Luang Prabang, boarded a bus with a bunch of other tourists, got food poisoning and spent a week in bed dehydrated, reeking of sweat in the 40 degree heat, with no aircon, just a ceiling fan to move the heat around, and just feeling sad. That sadness that is a veil over everything, that distorts memories with its opaqueness. I can really write when I feel like that; it’s a frenzy to get rid of it, as if dragging the words into articulated sentences will somehow take away the niggle.

Just a 2 day sample of the water I was getting through.

Here’s what I noted, back in 2012, on the cusp of my return to the UK:

The land of milk and honey, the land of the free, paradise lost, heaven on earth: I’ve joined the hoards of people who’ve been lured from sleepy towns, desperate situations or plain idleness with dreams of exotic places, charismatic wanderers and adventure.

Like some movie heroine, I experienced all of those things. I’m white. I’m privileged. I never forget this. Yet it’s something I’ve always taken for granted; it’s so easy to not see yourself past the things you are looking for in yourself. Thailand has brought, to the forefront of my mind, a few less inviting tropes:

  1. Backpack travel = budgeting, money always on your mind. Prioritising my own trip, and how long it can last, leads to haggling, shopping around and often going with the cheapest option and now, having felt so richly rewarded by these countries, I wonder if I have been cheating them as a way of thanks. Like so many entitled Western backpackers, have adopted the misguided notion that, ‘they’d have nothing without tourists’ lurking in my psyche always ready to appear and assuage the guilt.
  2. Places of significance, the tourist spots, are basically ground zero for local culture and traditions because of the ceaseless onslaught of foreigners. Phuket was basically Brits abroad, full of bright white beer bellies on display, Thai people, notoriously conservative in their dress, even swim fully clothed. The food places, burgeoning with pizza and ‘Western’ fare, are so pricey (comparatively) that locals avoid them like the plague making it impossible to familiarise yourself with their conduct. Everywhere you turn you see the imposition of white culture, simply because money always wins.
  3. The local people I’ve met have either held me in awe or contempt, neither position being comfortable! The reasons for this are probably beyond my grasp but at least at the most fundamental level I’m aware that the main reason is that British tourists don’t speak local languages or respect local customs. Nearly every Dutch, Belgian and Swedish tourist has been able to converse at a level more competent than mine. Only the North Americans ever seem worse than us Brits!

This insight came from the mouth of a waiter, who incidentally couldn’t have been more welcoming or eager to practise his English (to exacerbate the situation even more), “you bring your culture here, and leave traces of it, we never get to bring it to you, the embassy doesn’t even let us go to Britain if we can’t speak English” and he’s right. Have you ever met someone from Laos without being here? Yet, he is familiar enough with our ‘party’ (and I’m being kind using this term) culture to inform us of a bowling alley, on the border of Luang Prabang which has UNESCO to help enforce its 11:30 drinking curfew, that stays open until 3am so all the “Falang” can carry on getting wasted unimpeded by local rules.

An example of a better attraction to be found in Luang Prabang, rather than boozing.

 

In the same spirit, of never veering from believing we are from the most sophisticated countries and cultures, Westerners rock up to temples in hot pants and boob tubes and look peeved if offered a wrap skirt to don. Which leads me to…

  1. Travelling for your own enrichment and entertainment, hand-on-heart my initial aim, seems at best shallow and irresponsible the longer I’ve been away.

The mine tours in Potosi (Bolivia): pay a tiny amount, (£10) get driven to mines, English guide in tow, tour a mine where children still work, and die, take some Coke to the workers (lining pockets of people who exploit those you’re going to ‘help’) and buy dynamite to blow up somewhere safe, for cheap thrills, while the people who work there run the risk of dying by its hand.

Does anyone really believe by passively imbibing the information on the tour they are making a difference? Does anyone really believe that such a tiny payment can actually help liberate the people from the mines? Look at the facts, tours have been going for years, the mines are getting more and more dangerous and people still work there. They pose for photos now though and end up as an anecdote in blogs belonging to people who marvel that jobs like theirs are done at all, and I wonder if the Gringo presence doesn’t make it worse for them? If none of our perceived wealth and education can free them from abject poverty what hope is left to them? As for us, aren’t we just voyeurs?

  1. In both South America and Asia I have been disgusted at the obvious exploitation of vulnerable people on so many levels. The corporations! Renowned Gap Adventures manages to avoid paying tax in Peru, despite dominating its main attraction, the Inca Trail. Their tours are pricey and can book up a year in advance. £520pp when the entrance fee is about £40 and then telling each trekker to ‘tip’ another £30, on top, to the porters (who carry all your stuff, cook all your food and set up the tents) because they pay them such a pittance it basically subsides their wage!
He made this cake after carrying 20kgs of our baggage, setting up our tents, making cups of steaming tea and our dinner. As if, in any world, you could refuse to tip .

The individuals: supporting ‘sex tourism’ (calling it that doesn’t stop it being plain old prostitution!) and haggling over the price of women for sale. I was in a bar with a guy who asked the waitress, “what price you going for?” and when the beautiful woman responded with a price he laughed, including the whole table unabashed, “that’s about 40 quid, I don’t need to pay that darlin’ ’cause I’ll satisfy you in a way other men can’t” and I swear, if I hadn’t feared I’d humiliate the woman any further I’d have punched his. He was an ugly, dumb fuck who probably gets ignored in Britain and wouldn’t have dared breathe near this girl. Not that it matters, yes, she was that pretty. If he’d been at home he wouldn’t even have imagined they were in the same league.

A week later, I meet another British guy who’s doing loads of voluntary conservation work in Asia and he too reveals a penchant for prostitutes (why would you admit this to strangers?) So, trees are more deserving of respect than women? Is it because they don’t answer back? It’s exhausting.

With all this surging through my brain, I’m wondering why nearly every guy I know at home will think it’s a rite of passage to visit strip clubs on stag dos, or ping pong shows when in Thailand, or the red-light district in Amsterdam but wouldn’t marry the girls they see in any of those places? Won’t want their daughters to do those jobs? (Probably keeping a much tighter rein on them than their sons too, for fear of them meeting guys like themselves) and throw the word, “slut” around as if they are sexually conservative and the idea of women enjoying sex is disgusting. The hypocrisy makes my head hurt. Like many other women who packs minimum clothes in a backpack; I am so disappointed that I can’t escape misogyny, even in flip-flops.

A Humming Bird for light relief! This is the first one I had ever seen.

I’m feeling guilty. I can console myself with the knowledge that I haven’t been buying sex or going on Favela tours (honestly, would you go on a tour of a council estate in the UK?) but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I might have taken the mick out of the 18-year-old guy who said, “I’m only in Laos to go tubing, there’s nothing else to see here” but at 27 I’m no less ignorant (even if I’m less vocal about it!) it took Lonely Planet to inform me, a week prior to my arrival, that Laos had two million tons of bombs dropped on it by the Americans during 1964-73 in the ‘secret war’.

MAG (endorsed by good old British band ‘Elbow’) have been clearing the unexploded mines, 30% of those dropped, and at the current rate of removal it will take 100 years to clear them. So the guilt comes that we stay in, and dominate, the zones at the greatest distance from the areas most affected and do nothing to help. Yes, it is my epic story arc finally realised, but in the face of children getting blown up when playing football does that really mean anything? Does giving a little here and there, way below what I can afford, really make up for the time, bodies and skills we could all give?

I’ve finally found out why, so many people say, “ignorance is bliss” because if you have conviction in the theory that all are born equal, like I do, then you need to stand up for those who are denied all that you enjoy because of a postcode lottery beyond their control. You have to be more like Malcolm X, minus the violence, who did free breakfast and book runs to more poor communities than the government! You have to want to be more like the unknown heroes, like Kyle Golden, an American guy I met, who was working for the Peace Corps, spent 2 years in a lonely corner of Paraguay with the aim of teaching a village how to manage a sustainable, cooperative garden.

Handmade chess boards, Incas v Spanish Conquistadors

As kids, we all played games where the goodies won, the baddies were punished, we all assumed we’d grow up to be heroes (even if now you won’t admit it!) Maybe we still can be? We can at least think about it a little more again, inform ourselves about the plight of others.

I’m a horrible cliché. I left Britain without any desire to “find myself” but will return different all the same, without the burgeoning need to keep up with the Jones’s in the UK or the dismal reporting on the magnitude of ills, frightening us into inertia, I’ve been quietly flexing my muscles and testing my skills, (in countries where it’s unimaginable we should be so money orientated or that all your decisions are made with just you in mind, heedless of your families’ or communities’ needs) and I’m ready to do some good. What good? How? Well, I’ll just have to find out as I go along. But I’ll try harder… because it’s me that owes the world something, not the other way around and I don’t want to be another person who says, “what can one person do?” without ever bothering to find out.

 

I can be a little highfaluting at times: I own books on the greatest speeches of all time, used to recite parts of Romeo and Juliet when I walked my dog, at 12 years old, and as a primary school pupil read the dictionary for fun (noting down newly discovered words, a favourite being ‘callow’ and feeling like it was some great expedition). It’s not unusual for people with grandiose ideas to be chronic under-achievers. If you set the bar too high, you will inevitably avoid trying to reach it; exhausting yourself at the thought. You know my type…

You are probably unsurprised to learn that while I did undertake a lot of charity work on my return to the UK; set up generous donations; wrote letters to a child I sponsored for 3 years (until Plan told me they could no longer account for her whereabouts, but could give me a new one!) and challenged anyone, having mistakenly spoken loudly enough within earshot, who said they’d voted for Brexit. I had indeed tried to practice gratitude, but progress is so slow, too slow for a mind that races. Time races too.

2018 is just beginning: Brexit is in motion, Trump is president of the USA and courting nuclear war with North Korea, the #metoo hastag has erupted, Oprah has become the first black woman to win a Golden Globe and David Bowie has been dead for 2 years. I might still be an entitled arsehole, but I’m going to use every platform available to me to ask better of myself and you. Progress is not linear it must be fought for.

I’ve learnt the slow and steady does matter. Rosa Parks triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott but without the continued support of her peers, their organisation, their sharing of comforting words, the taxi drivers who took people to work unpaid, we would not remember her name.

Your thoughts and comments are appreciated, unless you're a troll.