The professor stooped down to listen to the middle-aged guide speak. As I trailed behind him, I could see his eager eyes searching for something – a life lesson perhaps- behind the man’s story of mountain farming in Jebel Akhdar. Sighing, he turned away in annoyance as time passed and it seemed he wouldn’t get his lucrative ‘scoop’. It was then as if our visit was suddenly useless. When did traveling and exploring other cultures start to look like this?
Rather than organically exploring out of curiosity, he felt entitled to the stories of the locals.
Traveling to Oman with a ‘culture know-it-all’ led me to rethink the way I have always thought about visiting other countries. The trip was for a class in my freshman year of university. The professor was an old-fashioned, classically-trained man from an esteemed university. On the way to our destination, he prepared my peers and me by lecturing us on respecting the local customs and traditions. He had a fair point. However, he had only briefly stayed in Yemen for a previous trip on which he based all his knowledge on the Gulf.
I noticed that he treated everyone he encountered as a story waiting to be uncovered for his own personal gain as a writer. Rather than organically exploring out of curiosity, he felt entitled to the stories of the locals. He attempted to teach us to treat the people we met during our visit as case studies.
The places you visit don’t owe you anything.
Ironically, when we actually met with locals– in a totally artificial, awkward ‘home visit’ setup– he completely botched the local traditions. He made them uncomfortable with his incessant interrogation. I sensed their discomfort with his obviously pointed questions about the age of a young girl and her infant daughter. Even though I myself had roots from the region, I still had to reserve my own feelings about what should be accepted as the norm. I needed to be prepared to give myself a chance to see things from their perspective and even unlearn things I thought I knew.
In the end, he was often reduced to standing sheepishly on the sidelines while some other girls and I conversed with the people we visited. Slowly, they would unconsciously drop their charade of ‘Arab hospitality’ and let loose. When the professor was looking the other way, they promised to add us to a WhatsApp group they made with other women in the neighborhood that they use to share recipes (one of the girls must have noticed how I kept reaching for the chaklama).
In those moments, I saw clearly how local groups cater to the tourist gaze. Not everything is as authentic as it seems and it is partly our fault. Locals respond to what they expect we want to see. These places want an income from tourist activity so they will exaggerate their cultural identity for us to be interested.
The recent restrictions on travel have made me take a step back and reflect on the normalized, but a deeply problematic, approach to visiting new countries. To visit unknown lands is romanticized. We revel in strange new foods that make your lungs burn. Get lost in cobblestone alleyways at sunset. And pocket the funny travel-related anecdotes in the back of our minds for future dinner parties. Before we get lost in these dreamy notions of travel, I have something to set straight.
Locals respond to what they expect we want to see.
Initially, I wanted to write a piece that encouraged people to be open to new experiences. I wanted to preach that there was indeed a world outside of your small town. That there are a plethora of wild, hopeful or tragic stories that are embedded in the diverse people you meet. And while that may be true, feeling entitled to experiencing them just because you got on a plane to visit is not right.
This way of thinking can be incredibly exploitative. Seeing travel as a ‘unique’ learning experience and cure for the soul is almost always linked to non-Western countries. The trope of a white person going to an Asian country to find themselves is saturated in pop culture. Just think of the newly divorced white woman’s motivation to visit India in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’.
Here’s an idea- maybe the locals at your tourist destinations don’t exist to merely serve you in your spiritual journey. The places you visit don’t owe you anything. Its buildings don’t have to speak to your creative mind. Its people don’t have to be the inspiration for your next book. Believe it or not, these countries you temporarily visit is somebody’s permanent home.
While some may return home with various anecdotes and life lessons from the diverse people they meet on their trips, not all have their expectations met. So simply do not have these expectations for wisdom and revelations or you will inevitably end up disappointed and drained. Personally, I don’t plan ahead a detailed itinerary for my travels, rather opting to let myself explore. I accept that I can’t possibly experience every single thing or person that makes a space special. But isn’t that the beauty of travel?
These countries you temporarily visit is somebody’s permanent home.
I don’t deny that vacations do offer respite, giving us time off from your day-to-day life back home and the routine of our jobs and schoolwork. Yet, we need to come to terms with the ethical and moral costs of our travels. Every part of the world has changed in some way since globalization. We can’t expect people to hold their traditions and remain as analog desert-dwellers just to appease our curiosity and fascination. The tourist gaze perpetuates a toxic cycle, as developing countries need the income and thus put on a show– one we are not at all entitled to but still expect.
Why put such a complicated pressure on yourself and others? I’m going to stay curious as a traveler, and I hope you do as well, without feeling that we have a right to everything the local culture has to offer.