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Sunday, August 18, 2013

HegeMoney- One thing I learned traveling around the world.

In the last four months, my international travel itch has returned.  My first trip outside the United States consisted of a month long trip to study Spanish in Guatemala. Friends questioned me regarding the safety of the endeavor.  Online touts and ex-alumni of Guatemalan language schools emphasized the clarity and quality of Spanish spoke as well as individual attention and affordability.

What I experienced there affected me more deeply than the language which I loved. The teachers in the school not only spoke Spanish but most of them spoke an indigenous language as well.  I encountered and came to know real human beings from another country. I encountered a country with a history, present, and future. For the first time, I smelled the dignity and soul of another land.

I have taken to watching a couple travel shows to scratch this resurgent travel itch. I enjoy them, but they continually beg the question: What is it about travel that draws me?  I have come up with four answers that cover most of what I enjoy. Some of it positive and some of it not so much, but like many things the human experience is never totally pure or clear. First, I value the encounter of authentic people and cultures …what I will call “soul” or “roots”.  Second, I believe travel offers the opportunity for the traveler to enter a liminal space which allows one to see things from a new and unique perspective.  Third, my travels often allow me to encounter life with a level of technology and insulation stripped away. This could be described as quaint by some, primitive by others, or even like the good old days. Finally, travel offers in a heightened and compressed space the opportunity to appreciate the unique and special aspect of my life and the lives of those I meet.

This all brings me to a fundamental question of dignity and intention that Anthony Bourdain summed up so well in the episode where he visited Laos. “What if by doing our job well we hasten the destruction of that which we love?”  Ah, that struck me. It has always been something I feared. You can never go home again and you can never return to a place you visited and expect that it has remain unchanged.

There are many reasons for this. The first and most positive  being the transformation that can occur within the visitor and the host. There are other more insidious changes that can arise. One deals with money and the tensions it brings. “Ah, would you want to rob someone in a developing or third world country of the chance to have a better job or a tv?” questioned one economics professor. Unfortunately I fear that the choices offered each day can be more harmful and long lived than a tv or job might indicate. Possibly more so for citizens of  “undeveloped”  countries than they are for those in developed countries.

I fear this because what I have discovered that I treasure and value most in my travels is the “soul” and rootedness that I find still present in certain places. As I look back on the more than 60,000 miles I have traveled this is the surest indicator of my impression of a country. This is probably because I continue to feel challenged by the sense of rootlessness and soullessness I find in my own life.  I don’t think it is coincidental that “world happiness rankings” are filled with “less developed” countries who are happier. In my travels I would say this is true on the individual level as well. Many “less developed countries” are filled with happier people. Not all countries of course and not all people. This is also not to glorify the “death dealing” poverty that many face every day. These I believe are separate issues.

The money itself carries power and many of the implicit assumptions of a  “modern developed” economy. Even if students and travelers arrive without an agenda their presence and money subtly shift and change the opportunities and choices that everyone else encounters. In economics this is called a “market distortion” and is usually when used in terms of the government buying or subsidizing a service. It could be applied in this situation as well since these “foreign” demands are not indigenous to or arising from within the local market. The assumption of our current system is that an “indigenous market” only has value to the extent that it delivers a greater amount of utility or return to someone, but how can you measure the value or even the presence of “roots” or “soul”.

                I would not want to take away any person’s right to choose that job or that tv, but as a rootless,  cultureless denizen of the developed market I would like to share with them what I see in their lives and ask them what they see in mine. Then they could choose, and I would remind them that they will choose again tomorrow and the next day because the future arrives everyday as the sun rises.

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