Travelling can change your life, but it also can change lives in the places you visit.
We travel the world for many different reasons. Avid travel writers like Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, or Bill Bryson successfully impress us with their compelling stories about the world. We get excited every time we see beautiful pictures of a travel destination that is introduced by glossy magazines as well as posts from travel influencers. We want to go there; to see the aurora; to swim in between limestone islands; learn to cook and taste local cuisine or playwith whale sharks.
Most people travel the world for a life-changing experience or to see life from a different perspective. For many, travelling is a self-exploration. It used to be temporary, but a recent trend shows travelling has become a lifestyle and a part of our modern identity, especially since Instagram took over our lives. It is true that travelling can help us to transform ourselves. But have we ever thought about how our presence as a traveller may have an impact and transform the place and the people we visit?
Take Ubud, for example. To the eyes of travellers, Ubud might be the capital of wellness, but a quick exploration of its history will show that the place has evolved over time. In the 1980s and 1990s it used to be known as the cultural capital of Bali where art and traditional performances flourished. However, the orientation of businesses in the area started to change gradually.
It began with practices of permaculture which started in the late 1990s. Over the years more permaculture farms slowly appeared, producing a lot of organic vegetable supplies which stimulated the opening of a growing number of organic restaurants. Then, wellness became the favoured theme after the Bali bombings crisis hit the island. It was a strategy to attract a different type of visitor, for businesses to survive, and get through the crisis.
But all of these changes would not have been so significant if Elizabeth Gilbert had not written “Eat, Pray, Love.” This book has successfully attracted a massive number of travellers to Ubud searching for their inner selves and the experiences that Gilbert previously had. Back in the old days, travellers came to Ubud to watch dance performances. Nowadays, it is perhaps easier to spot yoga studios and organic restaurants on the main streets than painting galleries.
It is easy to put the blame on tourism, the government, and global economic change, but travellers also carry a personal responsibility to situate themselves right, especially when it comes to imposing their perspectives.
In the past, I have heard so many travellers complaining about the developers in Bali that have built more and more modern buildings instead of traditional ones. Mostly coming from western countries, these travellers believe that Bali should stay humble and traditional, giving them a unique, exotic character in their chosen tourist destination.
I find this western-centric perspective quite problematic; academics refer to this as Orientalism. Coined by Edward Said in 1978, this term recognises the division of West vs East, a common perspective developed in the 18th–19th century in western countries. The view, which represents the West as being advanced and modern and the non-West as being traditional and backwards, appeared as a result of European colonial expansion. However, many anthropologists argue that this can create a separation and a notion of superiority and inferiority that frames the interactions of people from both cultures.
A musician, Jerinx from Superman is Dead, recently uploaded an Instagram post protesting to the Bali governor about the presence of tourists with white supremacist views that make Kuta less crowded and less profitable for local businesses. He also addressed the racist practice of foreign tattoo business owners creating an unhealthy competition with local studios. Jerinx complained that he and his fellow Kuta people felt foreign in their own land. Competition gets fiercer, and yet local people find it more difficult to earn a living while having to experience degrading views about themselves from foreigners in their own homeland.
While the problem in Kuta itself is more complex and cannot be solved by one suggestion, Jerinx’s frustration can also be an example of this superiority problem and the sense of difference that most visitors impose as they travel. This is actually the challenge of travelling itself.
How can we make ourselves aware of these differences? Is it also possible for us to not impose our views of others upon those others? If our identity is developed by the way others see us, how do we challenge the way we see ourselves in relation to people from other cultures?
The more we travel and interact with different people, the more we understand similarities among us. We can erase those boundaries that set us apart before, we reach the destination. Recognising this difference and false representation of “the other” can be the first step. The next step is to engage. Through making these interactions, we exchange identities and construct similarity between the others and ourselves, until “we” appear in the process.
Of course, the global change in all sectors can challenge these interactions. For example, nowadays travellers tend to stay in a villa because it’s more affordable, but it takes away the interactions between locals and visitors. I’ve heard many Balinese friends share memories of the old days, when visitors stayed in local homestays where a Balinese family also lived. This close distance created a strong bond between them and they began to be each other’s family. In the old times, the economic income of local businesses relied heavily on social support, recommendations, and networks of people; smiles and warm hospitality, nowadays it is determined by likes, beautiful pictures, and advertisement.
I am not saying that we should donate money as we travel, but travelling should not always be about ourselves, nor always about seeing our reflection through beautiful landscapes and thrilling experiences. It must also create the sense of togetherness with different people across the world. Travellers carry a responsibility to erase the boundaries and differences that have been imposed throughout history on ourselves and the people living in the area of our travel destination. Through erasing the boundaries, exchanging views, and engaging in a shared experience, the sense of similarity can be invoked. Travelling should be about the others and us. Because as we go, we also leave a part of ourselves with others, and what we will leave should not be about differences but similarity and a shared sense of humanity. That, I think, is the art of travel.