Is Travel a Political Act? I Absolutely Think So.

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Image: Parcel2go.com

It was early autumn, and the locals told me that I had arrived just before the seasons shifted and the rains arrived. I wouldn’t have known it. Taking a swim didn’t help either. At an uncomfortable 30°C (86°F), the salty Red Sea provided no relief from the 35°C (95°F) breeze. Air conditioning was rare. I lethargically waited under the ceiling fan for the sun to set. Why had I decided to visit Eritrea?

Months earlier, while planning a six-month round-the-world trip, my friend and I looked at a map of Asia and Africa, and compromised. Both of us wanted to go to Ghana and India. But we had bought the limited-mileage ticket, and visiting both countries meant we wouldn’t be able to visit Europe. We compromised: if we were going to India, we could also go to an African country, but only if it was in the north. And now we were sitting in the heat, wondering why we were apparently the only foreigners in the country who weren’t working for the U.N.

The evening, however, brought happy activity. As the sun set, a call to prayer rang out from the local minaret. Families ordered tea and cakes at the local hotel restaurant. Music played on the radio. A wedding party began to sing and dance in the streets against the bullet-ridden walls and bombed mosque domes, reminders of a decade-old war with Ethiopia.

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The sleepy streets of Massawa, Eritrea.

That evening I felt a paradigm shift, and began to see that – in Rick Steves’ words – travel is a political act. I had been atop the Eiffel Tower and walked beside the canals of Venice, but neither of those experiences had prompted this shift. I no longer wanted to travel the way I had before, a guide book in one hand, a camera in another. I wanted to know more about the people I was meeting, their language, their religions, their government. Continue reading

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Are We Promoting Study Abroad as Tourism?

Recently, a colleague asked me, in reference to students who had already traveled widely – children of expatriate businesspeople; religious students who had completed missionary trips – “How do you convince them to study abroad?”

Similarly, some students offhandedly tell me, when I ask them why they don’t study abroad, “I want to travel, but maybe I’ll do it later when I have enough money.”

At the heart of those statements lies one assumption: That there is no difference between other types of travel and study abroad. That assumption is understandable. It is also false.

What, in fact, is the difference between other types of travel and study abroad?

There are many answers. “Academics” comes to mind (after all, “study” is in the name).  So does helping “students realize that different cultures have different expectations and value”; in 2006, John Barbour, a professor of religion at St. Olaf College, wrote poignantly about this in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

To wrestle with the moral ambiguity of tourism — and of our educational programs — is vitally important. One outcome of traveling should be to develop an uneasy conscience and a critical self-consciousness about our practices when we go abroad.”

Yet the field of study abroad continues to resemble the field of tourism. Tonight, I opened Instagram and searched for university study abroad offices. I also searched for study abroad program providers. What I found: they were indistinguishable. Where was the necessary wrestling with “moral ambiguity of tourism”?

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Traveling Without a Passport: The World in Our Backyard.

I have been living in the United States for just over 10 years. That’s 10 consecutive years. In other words, I’ve now lived in the U.S. longer than I’ve lived in any other country (previous record: 8 years in Kenya). Though I happily anticipated my move to California in 2006 to begin my Master’s degree, I fashioned myself a world traveler and California felt stifling. International flights were much costlier than I had ever paid in my globetrotting adult life and road-tripping necessitated owning a car, an object I saw as an anchor. The happiest version of myself included perpetually living around the world with little to hold me or my bank account down.

Recently, I sold my car after putting in over 200,000 miles of fuel-efficient driving to 13 states – the entire West and Southwest – and two countries (Mexico and Canada). What I had seen as an anchor had freed me in a way no airplane ticket could have. There was so much to see that I realized I had been reductive in my earlier views on travel. The world had always been there, waiting for me in a supermarket, a language class, a house of worship, or on the road. All I had to do was look.

Sonja in Taiwanese temple California

Is this Taipei? No, it’s Los Angeles! Visiting the Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple.

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