Are you a colonialist traveler?
So, I have a question for you: While traveling, do you sometimes hear a little dismissive voice inside your head? You know, that voice that says things like “I can’t believe they are letting this building fall apart, just imagine what they could do with it” or “They really don’t know how to use spices, do they?” or “This traffic, pure chaos, how do they live like this…”
Yes? Me too! I call it the Little Colonialists, and because I’m European I imagine her as Dame Judi Dench going through my sock drawer.
Now you might point out that just thinking about chaotic traffic does not turn us into colonialists and of course, that’s right. But sometimes I like to exaggerate ;). And also: underlying all of these initial thoughts is the assumption that somehow we know better. Or that our way of doing it would work faster. Or that they would just need somebody to show them how to do it right – and that gets us, I fear, to the colonial attitude… There is this implicit quality to this kind of thinking that turns good old descriptions (the drivers don’t follow rules as they would in Germany) into judgment (why would anybody drive like this?). And the more I travel the more I have to laugh at my Judi.
Let’s take food as an example: I adore the cuisine in many places and from Thailand to the Lebanon food has been one of the biggest sources of joy when traveling. But in Cuba, I soon got tired of chicken, rice, and cucumber salad and was thoroughly amused by the description of the Lonely Planet saying Cuban cuisine was “notoriously unambitious”. Until I started thinking about my first visits to Israel. And how my friends there dragged me from one hummus place to the next in this never-ending quest for finding the best hummus – which to me, to be honest, they all tasted kind of the same. It took me a few more visits and hummus binges to learn to distinguish the hummuses by texture, oiliness, the amount of garlic used and so on. So what if there are qualities to the Cuban cuisine that I just didn’t catch? Stuff that I never knew to look for?
Same goes for architecture: When I see amazing old buildings fall apart, whether in Bangladesh or in the Dominican Republic, I immediately start imagining what you could do with them and Judi’s voice snubs the people living there for being too ignorant to take care of them – without stopping to admit that a) people might just not share my passion for certain types of buildings b) it might be horribly expensive, complicated and bureaucratic in this country to do something about it or c) there are just more important problems facing this society than my architectural preferences. (The list, of course, could go on and on)
Getting to know more about these assumptions I make is one of the many reasons I am really enjoying my new way of traveling (along my social network read more about that here). Because I can ask questions instead of drawing conclusions.
But also, I don’t want to be too hard on the Judis inside our heads – I believe that comparing what you see to what you know is one of the fastest ways for your brain to organize all that information that hits you on the road. But realizing what we are doing, saying “Hey, Judi, it’s you again!”, and then trying to take out the judgment and get back to the description might be a first step.