Are you a colonialist traveler?

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.

This is all I’ve got so far. How about you?

Comments 6

  1. You bring up a really good point! I think we all try to compare things in our heads to make sense of them but the problem lies in thinking we do it better. I will definitely pay more attention if I start to veer off into the negative side of this! I try my hardest not to do this because I know that a lot of Americans are viewed in a negative light for this reason. No one way of doing something is better! Thanks for writing this post 🙂

  2. Great post! As an American I find myself having to refocus and not look at things through the lens of an American. Travel has not only opened my mind to new cultures, experiences, and foods. It’s opened my heart. And it’s doing the same for you! Keep it up.

  3. I loved this post! There have been times where I’ve thought to myself, “what are they doing?” or compared my home culture to a country’s culture, saying one was better than the other or one was wrong – whichever that may be. But, after time, I realized that thinking like this really took away from my own experiences from cultures and countries and what I could learn from it all.

    Great post!!

  4. Hey! Great point. And love that you brought this up. But do you ever think that maybe a country doesn’t mind a building looking a little more vintage than usual? Like why does it have to be viewed as a “problem,” I guess….and also can we talk about how uncreative European buildings are? I swear been in one cathedral been in them all! Like could we not have gotten more creative people! Why did it take centuries to change the architecture around here…. (this is coming from an art major and art history fanatic, don’t hate me, yes I know there are differences.)

    I’m mostly kidding, but I think you’re right. Acknowledging our inner Judi but not totally hating her is a great start to changing our own personal narratives when we experience a country. Great post!

    1. Post

      Hey there, yes, you are absolutely right and I do think about that! The buildings I was thinking about are far past the point of “a little more vintage”, but still – just because I think they might be worth saving they might not be in the eyes of others. And also I agree concerning European architecture – some cities are taking a homogeneous style way too far if you ask me, but then again – who am I to judge ;)….

  5. Great post and love the layoutofyour site. I have felt likethat too. I sometimes think I knoe and start thinking, what are these people doing? And the answer is, whatever they want!! It’s there life. Glad to know I’m not the only one!!

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