On Traveling

Part two of my inquiry into the meaning of movement.

My inquiry into travel began with a flippant tweet saying I might write a Monday newsletter about Elizabeth Gilbert. For years, I hated the very concept of Eat Pray Love: Some white woman of U.S. origin traveling around the world to write about her grand experiences? Fuck that. Never mind the internalized misogyny in which this perspective was allowed to fester under the guise of anti-colonialism—clearly, this was just some silly book. But then they put Javier Bardem in the movie version and I had to watch it—had to—and from then on I was hooked on Ms. Gilbert. I read the book. I’ve read Big Magic twice. 

When I asked the question, “Is travel always selfish?” in last Monday’s essay, I guess it was Gilbert’s journey that I had in mind. She was taking off after a divorce and a breakup, diving into learning another language, seeking a guru, and returning to a medicine man who’d told her years prior that she one day would. As a very good, respected journalist and novelist, this turn toward memoir struck many as frivolous, indulgent. She had an opportunity many others would not. Is that her fault?

Of course, it’s a question of the systems in place that allowed her to have great success and even wilder success with this book, and we must always question who is allowed to be indulgent.

But I ended up having sympathy for her, even admiring her, and I realized my initial distaste was born of feeling perhaps too much recognition in her desires and wanting to stamp them out. I was a wannabe writer practicing yoga, feeling trapped in a relationship. Do you know why I first came to Puerto Rico to write a story? Because a tempeh-maker told me to, and it set me off on a series of events that landed me moving here, meeting a person whom I fell for in a swirl of magic I thought would never happen for me. How could I ever fault someone else’s journey? How could I think I was able to intellectualize my way out of the very human impulse to have different experiences in different lands with new people? I haven’t even been able to successfully intellectualize my way out of a desire for romantic love, and I’ve desperately tried.

Just because it’s a human impulse doesn’t mean we’re able to wash our hands of deep problems, yes. Travel has a monstrously detrimental impact on the climate, and colonialism is endlessly real, even if we think we have the best intentions. There is a difference between being a tourist, like the people who come to Old San Juan during a pandemic and leave empty mojito cups on my balcony or during normal times have me take their picture in front of a Mexican restaurant, and being a good traveler, who treads lightly and politely with some understanding of the local culture. In A Book of Migrations, Rebecca Solnit writes that the tourism industry is perfect “for the information age: one of leisure, consumption, displacement, simulation” and “seems both to reverse colonialism and to repeat it; it is a means by which some of the wealth of rich nations returns to poor ones, but is also a means by which the former continue to invade and dictate the latter.”

“The vast and ever-expanding industry of tourism threatens to turn the whole world into a series of theaters whose companies perform palatable versions of their culture and history. Tourists thus possess a perverse version of Midas’s touch: the authenticity and exoticism they seek is inauthenticated and homogenized by their presence.”

I was reminded of this paragraph while reading Zadie Smith’s recent New Yorker review of Toyin Ojih Odutola’s show A Countervailing Theory at the Barbican. In it, Nigerian artist Odutola flips concepts of the sublime and power to make them explicitly African and female, respectively. Smith writes that Odutola’s “radical visual” forces the viewer to examine systems of power rather than the “individual sins of people”:

“When we are tranquil, when we believe ourselves perfectly civilized, it is usually because the claims of others are invisible to us. And there are always claims.”

Smith references Walter Benjamin, Audre Lorde, and Franz Fanon to imagine what true decolonization looks like—“a revolutionary humanism, neither assimilationist nor supremacist.” What does travel look like in such a world?

I heard Kim TallBear on “The Red Nation” podcast saying how important travel is to subjects of the U.S. empire because its reach really only becomes clear when seen from outside (with this, I wholeheartedly agree, though I think reading and watching movies can also do some of this work much more cheaply and with less carbon emissions). 

The pandemic, though, is also revealing the supremacist behaviors of tourism companies. Tariro Mzezewa recently reported on safari companies and hotels in Africa finally offering specials to locals now that European and U.S. residents have stopped coming. Locals are now wondering whether this new relationship will endure when international travel ramps up once again:

Safari travel as marketed internationally is largely a luxury product, with beautifully appointed tent camps or lodges appealing to wealthy travelers. At the high end it can cost thousands of dollars a night, with guests flown between remote camps on private planes; even at the more modest end of the spectrum the cost tends to run to hundreds of dollars a night per person. That puts them far beyond the means of many Africans…

Local travel, which has picked up so much during this time, has its own problems around the world, with small towns and natural attractions now overwhelmed and people driving cars more than usual. The question of where and how locals might be prioritized is another interesting aspect of the travel quandary.

What’s clear is that local and international travel require decolonization, which has always been the focus of writer Bani Amor. They asked in Yes magazine last year, “Are We Doing Vacations Wrong?”:

“It’s time to retire the narrow implications of the Twain quote and pivot from a politically neutral consideration of travel to a systemic understanding of tourism and travel culture through a lens of social justice. If we center host cultures and follow their leads in how to—and how not to—engage with their lands as guests, if we complicate the idea of who travels and why and truthfully map the colonial legacy of the travel genre, we just may be able to tap into travel’s storied revolutionary potential.”

This was reflected in Raechel Jolie’s response to my travel survey. Jolie is a Minneapolis-based academic and author of the memoir Rust Belt Femme, and she is keenly aware of power imbalances in who travels:

“I get a lot of joy out of traveling but I have never traveled as an adult without guilt. I rarely traveled as a working class kid and now that I have more access to it, I always feel that ‘class straddler’ tension. I feel guilty about its impact on the environment, and guilty to have disposable income that most people living under capitalism don't have. I also try to pay reparations to local indigenous orgs (or sometimes other community-based orgs/non-profits) wherever I go. I think travel is a very complicated thing. There are plenty of benefits to travel (learning and growing from new environments and cultures, connecting with ancestral homelands, pleasure/fun/connection), but it's only "good" if it’s accessible to everyone and if the impact on the environment isn't so egregious. (One reason I'm moving home next month is so I don't have to travel to see family anymore.)”

Because we can’t go anywhere without good reason right now, it was an especially interesting time to ask people why they travel and how they feel about it. Meha in Hyderabad, India, wants “the joy of being alone while learning something new (and not being at home or with a book).” Rebecca in Queens, New York, misses “the confidence boost I got from figuring out even mundane things while traveling alone, like finding a cool music bar or holding a conversation in Italian.” Karla, a chocolate-maker in Sacramento, California, misses “the nightmare of getting ready to leave, preparing for a trip, the chaos before the journey, the constant re-evaluation of what is worth bringing and leaving.”

Almost everyone misses chance encounters with strangers, and more than a few people miss the anonymity of hotel bars (me too). For many, not being able to travel has affected their work, whether it’s because it was a requirement or they just lack for inspiration. Christian Reynoso, a chef in San Francisco, California, had only just begun to move around the world. “Before the pandemic, I spent 15 years working tied to a physical location,” he writes. “It's absurd that as a chef you have at the most maybe 2 to 3 weeks of time off a year, especially since yeah I do consider travel and experiencing more cuisines as research. Traveling made me a better chef.”

Others, like Caroline Shin, have had to put their projects on hold. “The pandemic has really killed my program,” she writes of her Cooking With Granny series, “for both the video shoots and the in-person grandma-led cooking workshops. I can't infect the grandmas!” 

From the 72 responses to my survey, what is obvious is that people are considering what travel means for them and what impact they’re having on the world by doing so more deeply. I’ve also learned I cannot be so cynical about this human impulse, human urge and need to experience newness or return to homes—literal, ancestral, emotional. My impulse, urge, need. I should’ve already internalized that lesson from my about-face on Eat Pray Love, but it seems I’m doomed to always want to think my way out of being made of flesh and blood.

As I wrote last week, “what we do with endless ignorance is what matters,” and I think by admitting ignorance and foregrounding curiosity; by working to break down the systems that enable some to travel comfortably and others not to; by dismantling the racism, sexism, transphobia, and other oppressions that make people more safe in some places than others; by prioritizing low-carbon methods of transit, the decolonization of travel could be a reality and not just an intellectual exercise.

This Wednesday, let’s do a paid-subscriber thread on the places we want to go most when we’re able to travel. Let’s indulge!

On Friday, the paid-subscriber interview will feature Klancy Miller, author of Cooking Solo and the founder of the forthcoming print magazine For the Culture, by and about Black women in food and wine.

Here is my recipe for a chickpea Caesar wrap at Tenderly to take you back to the ’90s (or to the ’90s for the first time, as I’m aware there are now full-grown adults who were born when I was in middle school).

I read Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. I did not like it! If you want to talk about why, we can do that. I’m now on to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s So Much Longing in So Little Space about Edvard Munch. (Obviously, I’m reading a lot of art criticism. I long to understand!) Paul B. Preciado on revolution in ArtForum is one of the best essays I’ve read of late—translated from French. I love how much ArtForum translates.

I’m super into cooking Chinese food at home now. Like, I feel myself getting obsessed, so please tell me your favorite blogs, YouTube channels, and cookbooks from which I can learn. Pictured above is some smashed cucumber salad, Sichuan home-style eggplant, and spinach in ginger sauce.

I was cooking a bit tipsy last week and was really feeling how good I am at dressing up canned beans. (Let thee who is boiling dried beans in an un-air-conditioned tropical kitchen at the end of summer cast the first stone.) Anyway, I’m great at it! Get the onion, garlic, salt, smoked paprika, tomato paste, some vinegar all toasty in oil, add the canned beans, and it’s a party.