I’ll say it up front: I love to travel. I love to see new places; I love trains, planes, buses & big huge backpacks (so much better than cruddy suitcases!). But I’m conflicted about it. I know that when I travel I am also carrying the baggage — & privilege — of being an American, with a certain amount of financial privilege, & the privilege of speaking a language that is considered, for better or for worse, the closest thing to a global tongue right now. What does it mean for me to travel to other parts of the world? I try to be conscious of issues of exotification, but sometimes I wonder if leisure travel, especially to a country or culture not “your own” (which I realize is a complicated issue for many people, self included), inherently makes the places & people you’re visiting subject to exotification.
We’ve talked about how frustrating this stuff is recently. I thought I’d examine some specific examples of the ways in which vegan travel is discussed, in light of that, & throw it open for discussion.
In the May/June 2008 VegNews, we have a profile of Vancouver, Canada. One blurb, entitled “Exotic Eats,” describes a local Afghan restaurant (with aspects like sitting on floor pillows, allowing you to “dine like kings and queens by candlelight,” highlighted).
The same issue also has a longer article on Laos, which opens by talking about how the country is seeking to make tourism a sustainable part of its economy, unlike Thailand, whose beaches have suffered from tourist litter & degradation:
Eco-lodges and eco-tourism agencies are popping up all over Laos to help Westerners decide which sustainable excursion suits them and their budget.
Also mentioned is that Laos has been relatively ignored by tourists because of “its rough history of almost constant occupation and conflict.” We learn that “during the Vietnam War, it earned the unfortunate title of the most bombed country in the history of warfare.”
What’s missing here? How about a connection between, oh, the colonialist & imperialist Western powers that led to the bombing of Laos & the countries presumably sending the most tourists to Laos now? The comment about Thailand indicates a recognition that tourism can be a very bad thing for a country in some ways, & of course an article dedicated to tourism won’t make any serious critique of the practice, but to me there’s a big piece of the puzzle missing.
The article goes on to extol the virtues of handmade fabrics & “authentic” food (a concept that definitely needs to be questioned), as well as the cheapness of the country — what a “half-hour massage back home” costs gets the author a 2-day trek through Laos. She also lauds a vegetarian buffet costing 50 cents.
Hey, I’m a budget traveler. But pinching pennies in, say, the Netherlands is very different from pinching pennies in the global South/a developing nation/the Third World (I hate all those phrases). To me, there is something sinister going on when the low cost of travel to one of these places is mentioned as a bonus.
The other item in my not-scientific-at-all review is Herbivore‘s recent travel issue. Do I have to say up front that I like Herbivore? I feel like critique is often met by accusations of “just being a hater” or something, & I dislike the urge I feel to proclaim my affection for the magazine right before critiquing it, just to disarm that reflex reaction (it’s the whole “be a ‘nice’ POC & maybe they won’t get mad when you call them out” thing).
Anyway, I was dreading this issue. Hey, I came of age as a Riot Grrrl zinester. Do you know how many shitty punk travel zines I’ve read about how some dude went to Southeast Asia & had some spiritual revelation & bought tons of cheap drugs, women, & beer? Overall, I was kind of relieved after I read the issue, but there were still things that made me pause. And I’m sure a lot of people will say, “Hey, people were just trying to be funny!” But that’s not an excuse.
One problem with the issue’s presumed readers is made clear in the article on Tanzania:
When you, a typically hip Norte Americano vegan, think of different ethnic cuisines that make your mouth water, does Tanzanian food come to mind? Perhaps a better question, can you name a single food item eaten in far-off East Africa? Can you find the country on a map?
(& hoooo, if you haven’t figured out yet how I feel about the word “ethnic” as applied to food, well… go read). I do like that the author recognizes the different socioeconomic factors in being able to consider veganism; he says that he doesn’t “expect poor people in countries with limited income to become vegans,” which is a more complex recognition of world food politics & economics, sadly, than I’ve seen some other vegans grasp.
A photograph taken in Japan is captioned, “A pair of Harajuku girls, captured in their native habitat.” Yes, I agree that humans are animals, too, & thus like animals, we have habitats. Nevertheless, this got my back up because the issue I’ve seen too often is who doesn’t get compared to animals.
Next up, a tour of Chicago has the following to say about a South Asian restaurant:
Do you remember that part in Temple of Doom where Indy and Short Round are at a feast and they cut open a snake, letting a million tiny snakes pour out? Well Devon Ave. on the North Side is the closest you can get to that in the Midwest, and there are plenty of places here where monkey brains aren’t on the menu.
Yeah, because Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom is clearly known for its accurate portrayal of Indian culture… ?
The same article talks about Chicago’s branch of the Soul Vegetarian restaurants, started by:
African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem… An exodus to Soul Vegetarian East is a great way to get out of your usual stomping grounds and meet some vegetarians you never knew existed.
There are definite assumptions about who might be the “you” that was unaware of these veg*ns.
Also in Chicago is a restaurant at which the author orders:
“Arepas and Black Beans,” a deconstructed corn cake chilequile…. I didn’t know what arepas were the first time I ate here, so maybe they should just change the name to the ‘This shit’s the Bombaquiles’ so everybody knows they rule.
Again, like mofongo, it’s probably only unusual or unfamiliar to certain parts of the population, yes? I really hate cutesy “I guess [this 'foreign' name of a food or restaurant] must be ['foreign' language] for delicious!”-type quips, by the way (like in the article on San Francisco: positive reviews posted on a restaurant wall must mean Papalote [the restaurant's name] “is Spanish for ‘marketing'”).
Next we head to Milwaukee, where there’s a “stereotypically weird, darkly-lit, scarlet-boothed Chinese restaurant.” Huh. Weird is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? And how is our beholder here situated, culturally?
Then there’s Thailand, which our guide proclaims is “not, contrary to what you might have heard, just for cats and conjoined people.” Oh, thanks for the clarification. Cuz I wasn’t sure. Really.
The issue ends with a guide to Mexico, where apparently in small villages they “eat some crazy shit and will expect that you won’t blink at being offered fried crickets or cow brain tacos with a side of bone marrow for good measure.” How exactly is that more disgusting or “crazy shit” than, say, foie gras? Yes, vegans think foie gras is disgusting & horrible — but I also hear echoes of how omnis sound when they talk about how gross balut is (implication: wow, what crazy shit those weirdo Asians eat!) without recognition of their cultural location (or that their own “weird shit” is nasty too).
There’s one other article I’d especially like to get some thoughts on: the one on New Orleans. Here’s a snippet:
The Lower 9th Ward might be the most interesting, though lots of clean up and bulldozing has happened. Take Claiborne Avenue straight over the Industrial Canal and you’re there. As you go over the canal, on your left, you’ll see that the levee that was rammed through with a barge and has since been repaired. You only need to drive around with your eyes open to see the damage, it’s extremely obvious. While you’re over there, why not check out Fats Domino’s flooded abode? It’s on Caffin Avenue a block North (lake side) of St. Claude. Other spots in town that are good for a voyeuristic gander: Gentilly, Lakeview, St. Bernard Parish, and New Orleans East.
My initial reaction was disgust that anyone would suggest such a tour. To go & gawk at places of such human suffering? I couldn’t understand it. The only vaguely similar experience I have is that of dealing with tourists in NYC who want to go & gawk at Ground Zero; the bulk of the ones I’ve seen clearly aren’t going to pay respect, it’s a notch in their tourist belt between Times Square & the Statue of Liberty. But I’ve never even been to New Orleans, & I wonder if there is some local context that I’m missing that would make this understandable. How do people flooded out of the Lower 9th Ward think about people going around to peek at the ruins of their homes?
I’ve also since heard that there are disaster tours (paid, not self-guided) & souvenirs in New Orleans specifically to raise awareness of how bad the situation there still is, & also to reap some much-needed cash. That I can understand, as grim as it seems to me — after all, so much of tourism is pandering to baser instincts due to economic imperatives. What do you all think? Again, I realize I’m very ignorant of local context, & would like to understand better what’s going on here.
(The article did offer up another assumed comment on the cultural background of readers, when suggesting that a Vietnamese farmers’ market sold “unidentifiable vegetables.”)
Anyway — POCs out there, have you encountered similar strains as I’ve detailed in this (long-ass) post in vegan travel writing? How do they make you feel? Have you found yourself falling into these traps (do you fear, like me, that you might have & not realized it)? What kinds of experiences, if any, have you had with tourists seeking to explore your culture?