Shortly after I graduated from college three years ago, my grandmother passed away and left me with a generous sum of money with instructions that it be used for travel or education, with an emphasis on the former. I won't give the amount, but suffice to say it is enough to take me far and wide for a good while as long as I keep to a reasonable budget.
So far I haven't spent a cent of it. Instead, I've been punching my card in the American workforce, first as a small-town newspaper reporter, then as an educator for an anti-poverty organization, and making ends meet with minimal help from my parents. I like working and giving back, and I find a sense of accomplishment in financial independence.
Due to some bureaucratic mangling, my job has recently gone from fulfilling to unbearably frustrating, and I am tempted to take the money I was given and book the first flight to wherever. Part of me says that I may not have this chance down the road and should just go for it. I have never done much international traveling and I'm sure it would be a valuable experience. Yet another part of me doesn't feel right about hostel-hopping through Europe or Asia at a time when so many people are struggling. It may not be a $1,400 trash can, but there's something unsavory about traveling the world with money I didn't earn when most people want nothing more than the chance to work for a living. Am I horribly spoiled? Or am I just overthinking this?
Upper-Middle-Class Guilt Tripper
Echoes of colonialism are everywhere! And your feeling of collective guilt is not a mirage. "Individuals are generally motivated to avoid collective guilt in order to maintain a positive social identity," says the Wikipedia page.
I was thinking through your question and the phrase "sustainable travel" occurred to me. I Googled it, and sure enough the Web site for Go Philanthropic popped up. There I found this article on "recession chic."
Now, like others, I've got problems with privilege. I've got problems with Bono, too. But let's not let our prejudices ruin a perfectly nice backpacking trip. There are things you can do.
You want to do service? You could use your trip to gather facts to create some kind of business or organization once you return home. You can travel through some of the poorest parts of the world, learning firsthand as you go about the problems of poverty in various areas. Take notes. Do journalism. If you can do some good in the places you visit, use some of the money to do some good.
It is in part an attitudinal problem: How do you orient yourself to cast a modest shadow? Can you be humble and love the people and the lands that you travel through? Can you level yourself? Can you cleanse yourself of the savior impulse, not look down on others, not presume that they need your help, not pity them nor mistrust them nor assume that when they look at you you have any idea what they are really seeing? When they look at you they may well see the man who ran them off their farms. Or they may see the man who saved them from tyranny. There is no knowing what others see when they look at us. That is the point: You must allow yourself to be regarded. You must be the object of their gaze. You must uncouple your ego from the adventure of being observed. You must be nothing, or less than nothing, go about invisibly with no mission. That is my sense of it: That even a laudable mission is a presumption, and thus an outrage on the culture that it presumes to serve.
You are a free man and you can go anywhere on this earth but to travel with dignity takes discipline, a kind of discipline we Westerners are not taught in school or in family. So try to discipline yourself, if you decide to travel, to simply see, to take in, not to judge, but simply to see and to hear and respond.
Perhaps in this way you will finally come to the feeling that nothing is owed. Then guilt vanishes. You owe nothing. You can do nothing. The march of time is not yours. It is the wind.
Then you can give a nickel if you have a nickel. Nothing is owed. Everything is as it is.
In that state, opportunity may arise. You can decide what to do. No one has invited you to come to their impoverished land and save them. You are not the solution to the world's problems. You are just a traveler.
Yes, that is how I would try to frame it.
Try to be disciplined, focused and distant. If you choose to travel, you do so freely. Your thoughts of course do echo our shame at our profligacy, our new seriousness, or whatever, because we cannot escape ourselves. We are all we know. That is our problem. But you have a private life, too. You are not the ambassador of recession chic. You are just a guy with a backpack.
We are simply people muddling through.
That is the attitude I suggest you take with you, if you decide to travel.
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