The Traveler’s Privilege

Canoeing down the Cuyabeno River in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Canoeing down the Cuyabeno River in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

Growing up, travel was something which was all but taken for granted. Early on, we generally just tagged along on my dad’s business trips to San José, but we also made trips to New Mexico or Western Canada or Tijuana. We went to visit friends and family in New York and Seattle. We made monthly trips during the ski season to Mammoth Mountain and almost every summer we went camping in Big Sur, which continues to be one of my favorite places on Earth. After my parent’s divorce, my mom stepped up her game and took us to Hawaii and Costa Rica, then she started trading her house with people in Ireland and France and Italy. My dad and stepmother took us on a safari to Kenya and Tanzania. I think my brother and I both realized that most of our friends weren’t traveling like this, but I am sure, as children and even into young adulthood, that we had no appreciation of just how privileged we were to be doing it.

I got my travel bug from my mom. Like me, you won’t hear her saying “maybe one day when I have money”. Instead, we find a way to make it happen as soon as humanly possible. Hence, my setting off for South America with less than $2,000 in my bank account. For me, it’s not scary to drop everything and run headlong into the unknown, but as I’ve been traveling these last few months, talking to other travelers as well as locals in the places I’ve visited, I’ve started to realize something: I am not necessarily stronger or more special or independent or adventurous than anyone else. What links me to the majority of my fellow travelers and separates me from many non-travelers is that I have led a life of privilege.

It’s taken me a long time actually, to identify, understand, and finally accept (and truly be grateful for) the kinds of advantages I have had in my life due to, for example, my family’s socioeconomic status as well as the amazing support I have received from them over the years, the country and specific place I was born in (Southern California), the things my parents taught me about being open-minded and tolerant to all people, and even (and sometimes especially) the color of my skin. For a long time I railed against what people called my “inherent privileges”. How could I be in any way held accountable for things I have no control over? I didn’t choose my family or my genes. I was born into it. But after years of talking to other people about it, reading books about people who both have and had not had privileges like me, and especially after traveling a significant chunk of the Western world, I’ve finally accepted the truth of it and consequently made it into a base from which I can delve a lot deeper into the world around me.

This is my blog. No one is paying me to write it. It is a place where I can share what I learn while I travel, but it is my opinion and should not in any way be taken as my assertion of some kind of universal truth. But I have noticed that my fellow travelers mostly come from similar backgrounds and the explanation I have come up with is this: Most people who can afford to travel the world come from first-world countries, and specifically countries that for hundreds of years were serious imperial powers. I’m talking colonialism, here, and not just the last few waves of colonialism, but stretching back centuries. Again, I don’t have research to back this up so for now we’re going to call this a personal observation, but most people I’ve met traveling who also have had the opportunity of leaving their jobs and friends and families to explore the world come from a pretty restricted number of countries including, but not limited to, the United States, England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy. I would also like you to keep in mind that the national makeup of travelers varies from destination to destination, so here I’m talking specifically about Latin America. The point is, however, that I almost never meet travelers from Asia, Africa, or Latin America itself. When I meet a Colombian or a Mexican or a Peruvian in Ecuador, for example, they aren’t traveling, but working (again, this is not meant to be a blanket statement. I met a guy in Otavalo, Ecuador who made the amount of the world I’ve seen laughable.). To me, this is a seldom discussed consequence of the far-reaching effects of colonialism.

As for why this is, I’m not going to go into it much here because I do think it is something which deserves a little research before I start blurting out reasons think people from these latter countries do not travel nearly as much as their Western counterparts. I also want to point out that I’m not saying it’s easy for people from the former countries to travel. I know personally that it can be very difficult to save a bit of your paycheck each month in order to travel. But when I explain this to people here in Ecuador and Colombia, about how much money I left with and how I saved it, I am often met with a look of polite bewilderment. For me, $2000 is a lot of money. For some of the people I talked to, it is months of feeding and taking care of their families. The fact that for me this is “extra” money is dumbfounding to them.

I firmly believe that traveling can teach you more about yourself and the people with whom you share this tiny, blue dot than anything else, be it reading or watching National Geographic or exploring the ethnic micro-neighborhoods in your city. There is absolutely nothing that can match it. Traveling gives you empathy and compassion for people whose lives are much more limited and difficult than yours. It reinforces the truth (one that has evaded humanity for its entire existence) that no matter the skin tone, height, skull size, clothing, degree of health or ability, language, or average yearly income, we are all exactly, one hundred percent the same amount of human, with the same basic needs and that we all deserve the exact same amount of respect. We all deserve to be free of exploitation and of the violation of our rights as human beings. Which brings me back to my point: I believe that travel should be more than a privilege. It should be a right. Call me an idealist, I really don’t care. Travel is just as important in the grand scheme of things as national history or economics or biology. Schools shouldn’t focus single-mindedly on expanding the capabilities of the mind, but also on developing the potential of the heart, and nothing will do that like travel can.

Look around you. Look at ISIS in the Middle East, look at Israel’s conflicts with Pakistan, at the U. S.’s political involvement in a little too much of everything, at Ukraine’s struggle with Russia. Yes, we need diplomacy and yes, we need political and economic advisers, but I think we could do with a great deal more heart in all these problems. A fundamental issue with at least my country’s dealings with other countries, in my opinion, is that we do not see their people as being on the same plane of existence as us; they are other, we are American. My argument is simply this: we are all human.

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