Over the weekend, a friend of mine who happens to be a gay man, sent a strong but vaguely pointed post that he noticed his friends, straight and gay, travelled to places where gay people are persecuted or are in threat because they are, simply, gay. He encouraged us to “check your privilege” when we travel. As an American woman who was sitting at that moment in Turkey, a Muslim country, having travelled there under my German passport because Americans are not welcomed by the government currently, I admit that I felt the sting of his comment. Admittedly, the topic of gay rights didn’t cross my mind when I planned this trip, my fourth time, to Istanbul.
As I debated whether I wanted to respond or considered if I even had a response, I started to notice strongly worded responses pop up in the comments. I was surprised at how negatively the post was received and how defensive some of the responses seemed. My friend had a point but then, in my opinion, so did his friends. Do you avoid countries where treatment of children, women, gays, and the environment is poor in fear that you appear blind to injustice or, worse, supportive? Or do you venture off the safe path to serve as an ambassador for your country, gender, orientation or beliefs? Can you use your privilege to help those who are not as privileged? And why did this post touch a nerve at all?
Clearly, travel is deeply personal. I consider myself a traveller versus a vacationer. My holidays are not always relaxing. Fulfilling and thrilling but not relaxing. To me, going to another country to sit with people just like me in an all-inclusive resort seems like a waste of time and opportunity. For some, that is exactly what they look forward to each year. That is their choice as its part of how anyone wants to spend their time on earth.
I have taken political and religious climates into account when I am choosing my next destination. For example, I waited until I was engaged to travel with my SO to Israel and, as a petite woman, have never travelled for more than a weekend or by train at night on my own. I’ve not yet been to Egypt due to concerns although I desperately want to. I have found that traveling with a man is often easier that traveling with a girl friend although sometimes infuriating because you can often be ignored. I’ve been grabbed by men when I am out of sight of my husband because, well, because they think that they can be perverted with Western women. These are all truths and part of the downside to dealing with inequality while traveling.
But it doesn’t stop me. Nor do I kid myself that I face deep hardships in my life. When I travel I am KEENLY, almost painfully, aware of American stereotypes. I love learning and embrace my opportunity to, hopefully, represent my gender and nationality in a positive light. I do my best to respect local culture and customs and strive to find the balance between being myself and blending in to my surroundings. I’ve learned time and time again that, by demonstrating that I am trying to be respectful, people are more open to learn about me and to discuss questions that they have about my culture and views. I don’t avoid them, I don’t loudly proclaim myself, I am embrace the things that make me unique and enjoy the things that I discover. Do I travel for selfish reasons? Most definitely. Do I know that I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to travel? Incredibly so.
I aim to use my privilege for good. I’m often invited into kitchens, homes and conversations when I’m out in the world. I genuinely hope that its because I have shown that I am interested. I hope that I am reasonable, compassionate and eloquent when discussing stereotypes and notions. I hope that I am open minded, and I hope that makes others open minded too. These experiences always end up as my favourite memories! That only can happen if I am there to allow it to happen.
So, I keep traveling.