It’s that time of the year when our social media accounts are bombarded with images of lustful beach resorts in the Caribbean *scroll*, the quaint little markets of Morocco *scroll*, strikingly photogenic Balinese temples *continue scrolling infinitely*. Our impulses to experience new places and to indulge in wanderlust have found new breeding grounds on social media– where users invite us to explore the world through their point of view with the simple solicitation of #Followmeto. Something about these images that saturate our visually insulated world sparks our desire to become an adventurer, and makes us want to chime in on this travel-porn frenzy. There is power in being a tourist, which has now become synonymous with world-image curator. There is also credibility and authority in taking the virtual world through your footsteps, and in flaunting your ability to navigate the real world outside of it– a luxury that is not available to a lot of people.
Once I dialed down the itch to participate in this orgy of exotic landscapes, I started to notice a common denominator among these carefully curated feeds–you know, other than the fact that I’ve never been to any of the places. The users typically creating the content, sharing the stories, and encapsulating these foreign cultures are mostly white people from the Western world, or upper class folks from “developed places”. And once I realized this, the spell was broken. It became impossible for me to turn off the nagging implications of colonialism and capitalist consumerism. The fantasy of globetrotting and fetishizing the Global South is now, in my eyes, always flagged with alarming questions, like, whose fantasy is this? Who fabricates it and who believes in it?
We like to think that these trends on social media make us increasingly globalized and more aware of what’s going on in different parts of the globe, and while it’s true that the virtual borders provided by technologies are more easily crossed than the physical ones, this cultural exchange of ideas is heavily asymmetrical. We live in a world where globalization doesn’t necessarily mean that developing countries have better opportunities to share their stories abroad– rather in one where their stories are manipulated and customized by those who still have, and have always had, the necessary tools to share them. A world where entire feeds are dedicated to exploiting travel culture, and where the content we crave painstakingly reinforces unilateral nationalist invasions. I see the strong potential embedded in social media to globalize our surroundings and to cross virtual borders, but in order for that to happen, it can’t always be the same faces and bodies saturating this so-called free terrain of open conversation–no matter how drastically different the background is.
As someone who grew up in sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (you might’ve heard of it– hell, you might’ve even honeymooned or Spring-breaked there), the migration of bodies, cultures, and fashions is something I am all too aware of. I’ve witnessed the daily struggles of artisans hyperbolizing their “Mexicanness” in order to make a few bucks. I know too many people on both sides of the disproportionate pressure for me to suffer from the long-standing Western amnesia when it comes to the history of oppressed workers and their pseudo white knights. Because unfortunately, it’s the same savior myth from way back when that underpins the tourism business today.
It’s a rude awakening no doubt, mostly because we’ve been hiding for so long behind the idea that we somehow help these countries by merely visiting them– as if the petty change we spend so sparingly while backpacking across an entire continent could sustain their individual economy. It’s ludicrous really, to think that there isn’t a more efficient way for these places, typically rich in natural resources, to sustain themselves without the help of us generous yuppies. What was it called again when one country is dependent on another for economic and cultural viability? Wasn’t it neocolonialism? You can see this just in the way we expect people who live in such places to learn English in order to better serve us, while making no effort to learn their native language other than a handful of swear words and whatever translates to “Another beer, please!”
There is an irksome sense of entitlement that comes with traveling, and not only that, but an utterly presumptuous notion that our presence somehow supports this otherwise uncivilized place. Believing you can somehow eradicate poverty by buying a couple of souvenirs exposes the fallacy of consumerism–that somehow capitalism is the answer to reverse the effects of the very system that harmed it. We think that by simply buying their products at overpriced tourist traps, their lives will be better for it, yet we don’t question why they cater to us in the first place. We should really be asking ourselves why they cook for us, drive us around, and make sure we’re enjoying our stay? Why do I have more power than these people in their own country? Why do they wait for us to keep coming back to the extent where they’ve come to rely on it?
If you’re interested in supporting marginalized communities without supporting the system of oppression, in aiding without intervening, and reinforcing without becoming over-involved in their local economies–join the club. But to say that I’ve found a solution would be completely naïve. It would be like claiming to have ended world hunger and made world peace. But if next time you’re visiting a foreign country and can’t wait to show your friends and followers just how beautiful this place is, maybe turn the camera away from your own face and towards someone else’s. Ask if they’d like to be in your photo, and if there were something they’d like to say. Use that as a caption and quote the fella– it would not only stop you from wrongly epitomizing their space, but would save you from using yet another clichéd caption about “Something, something, paradise”. Instead of reclaiming their land and imprinting your own culture onto it through selfies, hashtags, and signature captions, open it up a little and give them some credit.
Maybe having a voice on social media doesn’t change the world, but it also doesn’t do it any more harm when handled appropriately. Instead of reaching out to your Western globetrotting buddies for site recommendations (the ones who’ve been there for a month or two at most), ask the people who have lived there their entire lives–it might be a good conversation starter. And above all, talk to them, and not just about where to go next, what restaurants to eat at, and what beaches are the most beautiful. Don’t just give them orders like “take me here” or “bring me this”. Talk to them like you would when you encounter other white folks along the journey. Ask them how they feel about their country, about its history, about your presence, about the weather…hell, you can even ask them if they watch Netflix. You might find that you have a lot more in common with these people than you’d think–and isn’t making meaningful connections the whole point of travelling anyway?
Illustration by Robert John Paterson