Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Responsible Tourist


My family has left for their various corners of the globe and I feel like the last kid out of college dorms when everyone went home for the summer. It’s so odd to be at this simple homestay (one-story, no swimming pool or ostentatious rooms), but luxurious (Swiss muesli for breakfast, beautifully landscaped with beach chairs, hammocks, foraging ducks and quiet piped music from Bach to Billie Holiday) on a tropical Sri Lankan beach and to have the thought cross my mind, "What will I do all by myself?"So I sit myself in a deck chair with a book and my (paper) journal and it takes all of 1.5 seconds to think, “Was I crazy? This is heaven on earth!”

But it’s all a matter of choosing the kind of tourist we want to be. For many years, I came to every place as a student. Not a college program, but taking music lessons under trees, on verandahs, in people’s kitchens. And when not studying music, coming to the culture as a whole with a student’s eyes and ears—respectful, curious, intrigued and erring to the side of romanticism, embracing things that I probably would have criticized back home or if I lived for a long time in a place, always giving the benefit of the doubt to a custom, cultural practice or way of life. It was—and is—a marvelous way to travel and not only informed what I teach in music class, how I teach, the kinds of school celebrations and festivals I’ve helped create, but it has also shaped the person I am in profound ways. Visiting my teacher in Kerala, seeing the Pooram Festival yet again, learning about the plants along the inland waterways, seeing the remarkable Sri Lankan Perahera Festival, I was a student tourist yet again and so happy to be so.

One side of the student perspective is actively participating in the culture at the level you can. When I had my debut performance as a maddalam student in 1979, painted as a Hindu, giving offerings to my teachers and following their traditional customs, I had a taste of the participatory student tourist. Immerse yourself in the life, learn the language ( I didn’t in Kerala—the rapid river of Malayalam feels as impossible now as it did then), dress the dress, eat the food, cook the food, go native.

Then there is the observer tourist, reading about the places, the history, the plants and animals, the stories (sometimes from well-chosen fiction), going to museums or observing the living museum of the culture, take a tour with a focus, as we did in Cuba a few years back. They have music and dance tours, medical tours, education tours (this the one we did through Global Exchange), ecology tours, birdwatching tours—pick your passion and follow it through the lens of travel.

There is the business tourist, coming to another place to transact business with other people in your field. This accounts for the bulk of my travel these days, coming as an Orff teacher giving workshops to adults and/or teaching kids. It’s a rare and marvelous experience to get to share your expertise and pleasure in your field, meet like-minded people in your profession, be hosted and taken care of and have people available to answer your questions, feel like you’re contributing—and then get paid on top of it all!

And finally there is the escape tourist, the person I will be this morning. No seeking out festivals, photographing monuments, looking for the day’s adventure. For this short morning, Sri Lanka will be a mere backdrop for some welcome solitude. Hang out at the beach, read, write, slow down (with the help of the heat and humidity) and just be. Not a luxury I allow myself very often, but an absolute necessity to a healthy life. “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stop and stare?” begins a poem and I find myself absolutely at ease to do just that.

On this trip, I have been all of these tourists at once. Each has been rich with gifts, a path strewn with roses. But it is also important to acknowledge the thorns. Behind the privilege of such travel lies the barbarous history of colonialism, the unequal distribution of goods and power in this world, the echoes of ethnic rivalry, the insanities of the world religions pushing each other around to claim the true god. It is difficult to have a pure exchange, to say the least.

While traveling in Ghana years back, I noticed that most Western travelers were either missionaries forcefully suggesting “Abandon your gods and spiritual practices and accept mine, along with all the cultural trappings that come with that,” or anthropologists saying, “Please continue your interesting traditions and never change.” Both postures can leak into all the kinds of tourism above—“I need that traditional song for my class. Give it to me please.” “Teach your children these xylophone pieces that Carl Orff composed.” “Please leave me alone, I’m relaxing on your beautiful beach.” You get the idea.

I recognize that I can travel like this because of a privilege that I didn’t earn—it came readymade with my American passport, male gender and white skin. So my mantra in travel is the same as teaching in a private school or voting as an American citizen—“use privilege responsibly.” Come to a culture with curiosity and humility, offer your gifts that you did earn from the sweat of your brow in any way that might be of service, engage in dialogue about the common problems that face us all, consider how you might contribute without being patronizing.

And now, to the beach!

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