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.