Monday, September 28, 2009

Somewhere Else

Today in my Spanish class, we were talking about travel.

Almost everyone in the class has travelled somewhere pretty far from here. We're a nation of travellers. A nation of people well off enough to spend both time and the money on a trip to somewhere else.

Sometimes these somewhere elses are full of people who work twelve hours a day, men, women and children, in order to make ends meet. Sometimes they are in the middle of an undercover genocide or under an oppressive military dictatorship. Sometimes they suffer so that we can drink coffee every morning, or so that some huge multinational company can make even more money. Sometimes they suffer because the US government doesn't approve of socialist tendencies (why don't they reform Canadian policy? We have free "socialist" healthcare). Sometimes thousands of people lose their jobs because of European trade laws. And sometimes when we travel as tourists, we don't even notice any of this stuff.

Not everyone who travels is oblivious, of course. Lots of people travel with religious, government or non-profit organizations in order to improve the situation of people living in less-than-desirable conditions. But how much do we really understand their situation? I mean, I can build a house for someone, but if the Army comes and burns it down the next day, what have I really changed?

So that brings us to the next question: what can we really do? And the answer is: a lot. But the first step is to know what's really going on, to find out what people really want, and to situate their struggles within the larger framework. It's not easy to do. And it's even harder to get other people to care. Raising awareness is one of the two biggest challenges faced by NGOs and other groups. (Raising funds is the other one.)

I'm an anthropology student. (This is where you say, "What's that?") No, I don't study bones. I study people. I study culture and society and how the world of humans works. I love what I study. But it's also very depressing because when I get passionate about it, most people shy away. Most people have heard too much about politics and suffering and violence in the world. They're sick of it, and I can understand that, because most people don't realize that change is not only possible, but inevitable. Just look at history. Even recent history. Compare the early 1900s to the early 2000s. Big difference, right? And most of the difference was brought about by small groups of people who fought for their rights and their beliefs. I wouldn't be typing this if it wasn't for the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which, by the way, is only about 60 years old. As a girl, I wouldn't be in university and my sister definitely wouldn't be able to apply to medical school, if someone somewhere hadn't made the first step.

Travel is fun, it's informative, it's exciting, it's relaxing, and it's enriching. Next time you take a trip somewhere, why don't you do a little research on the place? I don't mean the kind of research the travel brochures give you, showing off the local attractions and wildlife, which more often than not includes a picture of a human being. What? Yep, take a look in a travel magazine. Guaranteed there will be at least one "exotic" person carrying a basket on their head or dancing in colourful clothing. What a total lack of respect for another human being. It makes them into a freak show or a performer for our entertainment.

When you're somewhere else, talk to local people, find out about their lives and their hopes and their vision of the world. I promise you that your trip will be much more rewarding and fulfilling than a week spent on the beach working on your tan. At least you might pick up a few words of the local language, right?

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