French tourists participate in a favela (slum) tour in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo credit: M. Chargel/AFP/Getty Images)
FOUR-THIRTY A.M. If this Jeep had ever possessed shocks, they’d given out long ago, and my bones jarred against one another as we made our way across the Uyuni salt flats in the highlands of Bolivia at some unknown speed, shrouded in utter darkness. My traveling companions slept profoundly in the back seats, emitting only intermittent snores. I bounced along in the front. My face still stung from the icy water I had used to wash up fifteen minutes prior to stumbling across our hostel’s packed-salt floors and out into the biting predawn cold.
Despite having spent only two hours skittering against the surface of sleep throughout the whole night and suffering from the nausea and surprising aches that altitude sickness brings, I couldn’t nod off myself. I stayed awake with our aptly named guide, Guido, as we cut through blackness that pressed in on all sides and was broken only by the glassy spirals of the Milky Way above.
Over our several days together on an Atacama tour, Guido had remained quiet and reserved. Cultural norms dictating space between women and men in Andean communities, I suppose, made him wary of our female-heavy group. He always ate alone, and although he politely answered the incessant questions I launched at him in Spanish, he generally made as little conversation as possible.
That’s why I was surprised when he spoke first. “How did you sleep?” He asked.
“Good.” I said.
His silence was skeptical.
“I didn’t really sleep,” I amended.
We sat quietly for a moment. Then I tried, tentatively: “Um, are you following, like, a road? Or something?”
I wasn’t really worried about accidents as we sailed along, since even the sparse vicuña that had populated our ascent to the flats had disappeared at this altitude and the only vegetation that I’d seen for over twenty-four hours was an apple I had smuggled into Bolivia from Chile. But I still didn’t understand how he knew where he was going in the darkness.
He shook his head. “Look there,” he said, signaling to the windshield.
Since I could barely distinguish my hand in front of my face, I chuckled nervously.
“No, look,” he insisted.
So I did. In the distance, miles and miles away, I made out two even blacker marks jutting from the inky night like little triangles.
“What are those?” I asked.
“It’s a pass in the mountains around the salt flats,” he said, “I’m going towards that.”
Another pause. “Do you want to drive?” He asked.
I blinked. “What?”
“Here.” His hands jumped off the steering wheel. Panicking, mine flew on.
“What are you doing?” I cried just as he told me, “Good, you’re driving.” And then, for the first time, he laughed.
“Calm down,” he said. “Just point toward the pass.”
Suddenly, I was driving across the driest desert in the world, and the awkward barriers of time and place seemed to go away. We started talking – chatting, even. We chatted and chatted and chatted. We chatted about how Spanish was a second language for both of us (his first was Quechua, mine English), we chatted about jobs, we chatted about tattoos and music and mothers.
We remained companions as the other travelers woke up and we all piled out of the Jeep to watch the sun come up on what is surely one of the most bizarre landscapes in the world. We were companions as we took photos and videos and argued about soccer. We were companions as we moved on together, all of us chortling and chirping, teaching each other strange words in Quechua and English and Spanish and German and Korean.
A few hours later, he slowed the Jeep to a halt in front of a series of holes and strange, conical mounds of salt that stretched as far I could see, shimmering and dancing in the relentless high-altitude sunlight.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
In seconds, two solid men jumped out of one of the holes, their heads and necks shielded with handkerchiefs. They carried shovels. They moved to the next hole and jumped in, shovels and all.
It was a salt mine.
In an instant, the whole scene turned from grand to garish. Other SUVs loaded with travelers from different touring companies also stopped along the mines, and white men and women emerged eagerly from their vehicles with cameras at the ready, pointing at the two dark men and shooting artsy photos of their silhouettes against the salt piles. As I watched one particularly determined woman move to within feet of the hole that the men were working in, I felt my stomach twist.
All at once the air had a thicker texture than before.
“You can go and watch them work,” Guido said to all of us, avoiding eye contact. “Just don’t get too close, they don’t like that.”
The Spanish member of our group quickly translated his words for those in the back and they uncertainly got out of the Jeep, staying close to our car. I, however, couldn’t: my legs were lead.
Like tours of Rio de Janeiro’s slums or Nepal’s sweatshops, our stop at the salt mine felt decidedly low. Guido mentioned that the tourist companies paid the workers a small sum for the inconvenience, but I imagined Instagram photos of their grimacing faces and stayed glued to the seat of the car.
“They do get paid,” Guido said again, maybe trying to dilute some of the strange atmosphere creeping around us and between us.
That was the first time that I viewed travel not as growth, exploration, and adventure, but as outrage. And in the uncomfortable silence that followed, it was the first time that I understood that visiting a country and being in the same space as a people did not itself create mutual understanding.
With each crack of the shovel against salt, with each laugh from a tourist outside and each uncomfortable cough from Guido, I tasted the horrible bitterness of good intentions gone sour. A rift in our circumstances had been exposed, and it was difficult to go back to being the two members of a boundless human community that we had been for those few hours in the icy dark.
I’ve been struggling with this blog post for months. How do you confront inequality in which you unknowingly participate? How do you understand the real damage that tourism can do? How do you face it? Are there ways to overcome it?
Every time I think back to the pointing tourists, I wrestle with what it means to be a traveler in a world dominated by markets. Here are some important points that I’ve solidified as I’ve reflected upon that moment:
1) Don’t oversimplify.
As travelers, we hear one phrase over and over again: “But they’re such an (insert good adjective here) people.” Warm, generous, kind, welcoming, hardworking – you name it, it’s said. As in, “Yes, Bolivia’s a poor country, but they’re such a nice people.”
That phrase grates against my ears like nails on a chalkboard. I can’t stand it. To me, it seems to excuse deplorable conditions by saying, “Well, they’re still happy anyway.” It rings as a phrase spoken just to make one feel better about having seen intense poverty. You can be happy and poor, or happy and poor and a stop on a tourism train, but the coexistence of positive and negative elements does not necessarily result in moral balance.
It also generalizes dozens of ethnic groups and millions of experiences into one huge cultural stereotype (“nice”). So just don’t say it.
2) Recognize your privilege.
Privilege is a finicky concept. It makes people defensive, uncertain, and uncomfortable. While I understand that it’s difficult to talk about and even more difficult to work with, you need to at least recognize it so intentionality can inform your actions.
Yes, you might be eating pasta every day for six months while you’re backpacking through Southeast Asia, but in the end, you are still backpacking through Southeast Asia. We’re part of a global elite in a world where a billion people live off of a dollar or less a day.
That’s related to my next point:
3) Learn to understand your own power as a traveler.
Be responsible and conscious. Tourism is a huge industry around the world and it generates a lot of money. It creates an environment that resourceful people enter to make a living, and your behavior has a lot to do with the rules that govern said environment.
No, the miners in Uyuni were not “victims.” Neither is the woman standing with a llama and charging a dollar for photos with tourists in Cusco or the elderly man shining shoes in Bangkok. Victimization of individuals working imaginatively to make ends meet in the topography in which they live helps no one, and reminds me of spitfire mission trips that bring unskilled Westerners to Africa with the aim of building a school, a hospital, or a church that could be locally sourced with smart investments at a cheaper cost and a bigger social benefit to the people in question.
So don’t fall into the trap of the so-called Western Savior, but do remember that your dollar goes a long way in determining where human energies are released in a specific sector.
Watch where you put that dollar.
But ultimately, I return over and over to the poem “Human Family” from the wise Maya Angelou, some of which I’ll quote here:
We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.
We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
There is much that needs to be said about this issue.
How can we, as world travelers, stay true to our mission of understanding our global community and actively participating as a global citizen when we are inherently transitory and intrinsically outsiders? How can we intentionally listen and engage instead of unknowingly exploit and distort?
How can we use our travel to build bridges between home and abroad that are inclusive, open, and actually representative of communities we experience?
Do you recognize any dangers of travel tourism?