I recently wrote a post about visiting the City of David in Jerusalem. Without rehashing the entire post, the City is an archeological dig site and tourist attraction near the Old City. In that post I tried to be fair and objective, but was still met with some pretty intense criticism. I don’t mind the criticism, it’s helpful, but it made me think about how different people can perceive or interpret the same travel experience.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually, ever since the unrest in the Middle East began a few months ago. Last year we spent six days in Marrakech. It took a few days for the city to grow on us, but we left with a love and respect for the city and its people. After the Egyptian revolution, my partner and I were chatting and he asked if I thought Morocco would see the same type of revolts. Drawing on my vast six days of experience in-country, I replied no, of course not. Everyone seemed relatively happy with the King and government.
Then, a few days ago, a bomb killed sixteen people in the main tourist area, the Djemaa el Fna.
While certainly not to the level of unrest in Egypt, there obviously are some problems in Marrakech. Yet throughout my time there, I never really noticed anything. Reflecting, I should have realized that the sharp divide between rich and poor wasn’t just a societal quirk, it is an issue. No one is happy when they don’t have an opportunity to better themselves, and this is but one of the many causes of the incredible unrest going on now in the Middle East.
How is it though that multiple people can visit an area, and each leave with a different understanding or perception of the area? What constitutes REALLY knowing a place?
When most of us travel, we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do and see. These travel goals are usually based on information we have garnered from guide books, friends and web sites. While there are variations, the theme is usually constant and we all follow similar paths as we visit new areas. A first time visitor to London will see Westminster, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just how most of us travel. But I think it also shades our vision and prohibits a certain level of understanding.
In the past I have labeled this the Travel Bubble, but other than producing a homogenized vacation, I really didn’t think there was very much harm to it. Now I’m not so sure.
I caught a glimpse of the travel underbelly while in Jerusalem. Late one night, when I was in the hotel lobby checking my email, the hotel manager came over and started chatting. I asked him about living in the area, and learned of the tremendous difficulties he has, as a Palestinian, just coming to work every day. After an hour or so of sometimes interesting, sometimes just strange topics, I went to bed and thanked him for the conversation. It was an interesting look at a city I already knew had problems, I just didn’t know how bad they were.
You don’t have to go the extreme example of Jerusalem though, every place we visit, from New York to Bangkok, has many shades, each of us seeing some but not all of them. On one hand, it’s this different way of seeing the same place that makes our experiences unique, but sometimes we miss some of the important colors. We miss the shades of gray that reveal to us what it really means to live there and call that place home.
There is no one valid way to travel, and certainly we each will form our own impressions of the places we visit. The lesson I learned this week though is that I need to push past whatever my initial perceptions are and try to see as much of the total picture as possible.
4 thoughts on “Gaining Some Travel Perspective”
It’s tough to even write about anything related to Israel and not have some take issue with it- even if you are only writing from a travel perspective. While I was in Israel, I mostly played dumb when people tried to engage me in political conversations. I didn’t want to be pretend to be ignorant of the situation, it was just safer to do so. I was there as a traveler, not as a political entity. I have strong feelings on most of the Israeli-Palestinian issues, but I still feel keeping them to myself was a wise choice. It was sufficient for me to do a lot of listening.
While traveling in any controversial area, listening is vital to understanding. But I also think it’s important to know & understand that your actions as a tourist can have serious implications.
I think Matt, yourself and many others probably understand this. Sometimes we just need to be reminded.
Interesting post, Matt. This isn’t quite the same as it has more to do with how tourists are treated rather than political views and experiences, but this morning I have been writing a similar post about traveling in Vietnam. We really didn’t know what to expect when visiting there because we had read so many polarizing views of the country. People either loved it or hated it, there was very little in between, and there was no discernible connection between those who loved it or hated it. Very well traveled folks hated it and vowed never to return, while people who hadn’t traveled very much at all loved it. And vice versa. We ended up loving our time there and it’s honestly one of our favorite countries in the world, but I do find it fascinating how opinions for that one country differ so very much and people have such strong opinions about it.
Adam, Thanks so much for the comment! That’s funny, we were thinking about visiting Vietnam next year but decided not to based on many horror stories I’ve heard. I’ll guess I’ll have to rethink it, again. :)
More than anything I think, even when we are sure we ‘know’ something, we all need to realize that’s just intellectual dishonesty.
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