This week I pose a question, a travelers conundrum. It seems that many people who go from the U.S. to foreign lands want an experience that is unlike anything they have witnessed at home. People want to see spears and loin cloths, hear unusual tongues and eat strange animals, let’s call these people tourists. Tourists want photos and souvenirs, and because of this they are also usually willing to spend money. Money is what everyone in the world wants, and if tourists have it, then many places will give them what they want. In many countries this is not a huge deal, pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, pizza and wine from an Italian restaurant. Sometimes however the desires of the tourist can have devastating effects on local people. I like to say that tourism can “freeze” a population of people and prevent them from growing in the direction they want. Take Ghana for example, tourist want to see raw nature and mans struggle against the wild. There are people who cater to this desire, offering tourists glimpses into the lives of “real” Ghanians, their ceremonies and their customs. What the tourists want however is not Ghana today, they want to see Ghana 200 years ago, when it was a more “pure” culture, and the business people capitalizing on this desire and not showing the true Ghana, but a caricature of its past, freezing it in a bygone era. This is true of many places around the globe, where tourism is a major source of income, and the tourist is happy because they got the pictures they wanted and can tell the stories they dreamed of telling. I ask you this, why be a tourist? Why not be a traveler, be a person who wants to visit new places to see what they are actually like. There is no more “pure” culture, don’t look for it and be weary if you come across it. Everyone has been influenced by everyone and we all share aspects of our culture. Go into places where locals shop, eat and drink.
Don’t walk down the street with all the trinkets, but go to the place where real citizens shop. Visiting a foreign place is not about getting the perfect picture or the shot glass to put on your shelf, it’s about learning and expanding your understanding of the world around you. Now go out and explore.