Globalizing the Renaissance

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Conner Smith/File

Racing across darkened landscapes illuminated only by the soft rusty glow of active volcanoes in a microbus full of electronic music producers and enthusiasts, I took several moments to contemplate the absurdity of my privileged life. Promises of new relationships, wild parties, and the legendary cacao drew us like unstable electrons to the energetic hub of a music festival beside Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. We tossed around a bottle of the clearest Mezcal to ever grace human tongues, discussed the intricacies of chillum design and shared stories of festivals past.

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Festivals and other spaces of convergence cast wide nets, drawing in an array of creatures from many (but not all) genera and species. Like the caravans of the Silk Road, both determined and aimless travelers congregate around these impermanent nodes and then disperse through diffused networks of transit.

On a global scale, it is apparent that the large majority of international travel is enjoyed by primarily Western and (to a lesser extent) East Asian populations. Forbes ran an article in 2014 titled “The Rising Wave of Millennial Travelers” exploring several reports produced by the World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation (yes, that exists) exploring this trend. One of these reports was actually titled “Festivals and the Millennial Traveller.” According to the article, the reports estimate that there will be a 47 percent increase in trips taken by millennials by 2020, when compared with data taken in 2013. With each passing second, it becomes increasingly difficult to throw a virtual stone into the depths of the internet without hitting a millennial travel blog. My own blog is floating somewhere out in that ocean.

Words like “authentic local experiences” and “cultural exchange” are thrown around a lot in  marketing strategies and the prose of the travelers themselves. These hooks that snag the colorful bills of travelers target a resurgent desire to uncover “authenticity” in distant lands. Resembling a new style of anthropology, this relationship also takes a more extractive style, one that has plagued the field since its commission as a colonial project. In the midst of a globalizing renaissance of travel, the realities and implications of these “exchanges” are much more complex than the coatings of romantic exoticism plastered on by agents and perpetuated by professional travelers.

“On a global scale, it is apparent that the large majority of international travel is enjoyed by primarily Western and (to a lesser extent) East Asian populations.”

What do we have to offer these communities to fulfill our part of this cultural transaction? We take their exquisite fabrics, “handicrafts” and exotic fruits like spoils reclaimed from the far “Orient.” Our contributions are evident in changing fashions, the ever-present languid loops of Coca Cola logos, advertisements for skin-whitening creams and an expanding travel empire that threatens to swallow economies whole.

It is important to recognize that traveling, and especially traveling to volunteer with different organizations, is part of an effort to reconcile the guilt baked into the crust of comfort that surrounds the majority of “Western” life. Traveling is uncomfortable. It is physically taxing to transplant your body to a climate where the air is always thin, or to compress under the weight of your luggage for hours in a bus filled with livestock all while suffering a viral infection. It is emotionally taxing to be surrounded by strangers wanting to take a photo with you in all corners of public space or to watch children who live on a roundabout dart in and out of turbulent traffic. It is not difficult to imagine how uncomfortable it is for these communities to take us onto their land, to smile as they showcase their “culture,” to pretend like the empathy and open-mindedness of a few conscious travelers makes up for a deep legacy of disrespect and dispossession.

It would be disingenuous to claim that I do not glean some personal level of satisfaction from travelling. I benefit from my white masculine Americanity in spaces across the globe. Like a (more critical) colonialist of bygone eras, I have both the power and privilege to explore the furthest reaches of this terra incognita. Why would I not capitalize on that privilege and attempt to do something positive with it?

In addition to perpetuating neocolonial relationships, several reasons emerge to reconsider one’s role as a traveler. Westerners feel the a perceived need to “escape” the “oppressive humdrum” of daily life, often by boozing their way through foreign countries in which the reality of daily life makes their own lives appear more worth living. People pack up and cast off when things get tough at home or the political apparatus veers off the freeway of their ideologies. In all likelihood, these shifts will have marginal effects on the lives of these people with the ability to expatriate for any amount of time. Many Americans place a premium on travelling to foreign countries for experiences of “cultural difference” without ever traveling to or speaking with individuals in other parts of this country. The irony that this exodus in response to discomfort at home is often accompanied by either a complete lack of awareness or blissful ignorance of far more life-threatening problems in other countries is not lost here.

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When conversing with fellow travelers, future plans often surface:

  • “How long are you going to stick around for?”
  • “Not sure yet, no plans. A month? Maybe two? The plan is to make it to Colombia eventually but we’ll see”

After extensive global travel over the past few years, I still wonder what is waiting for us in the distant Colombia’s of our shapeless plans. Like processions of the faithful, many of these adherents to the commitment-less life wander in continual expectation of the discovery of some noble truth across the next border over. They drink a few more cups of ayahuasca, believing that on the other side of the darkness, pure light will shine through.

For some, it does. My travels are shot through with moments of seemingly divine revelation that are equally (if not more) likely to materialize in a smoke-choked kitchen in an urban hole as in a yoga studio perched atop the Ganges. Some of these moments have brought me into conversation with tantric Buddhism. Not the brand of fantra (fake tantra) perpetrated in the West that obsesses over sexual exploration, but the Tibetan tradition that recognizes the centrality of all desire to the human experience and deconstructs delusions that fulfillment of these desires will bring us lasting satisfaction. In Tantra, the source of inner peace –– or enlightenment if you will –– is within us all and does not require a string of mala beads around your neck or a saffron robe to channel it.

“My travels are shot through with moments of seemingly divine revelation that are equally (if not more) likely to materialize in a smoke-choked kitchen in an urban hole as in a yoga studio perched atop the Ganges.”

I think it is time we revisit the discourse amongst “worldly” millennials concerning our role as travelers in a globalized world. We carry shards of our story and hints of our heritage with us as we move through space. While it is impossible to completely eradicate the social impacts (and carbon emissions from combusted jet fuel) implicated in international travel, it is crucial to think critically about the uncomfortable and unresolved questions we are running away from and the elusive answers we seek. Ultimately, we may need to admit to ourselves that travel does not always equal truth, and that there are plenty of ice-capped mountains to summit here at home.

Contact Conner Smith at [email protected].