Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Week Five: Agents of Change

Several years ago, I came across a video podcast in which Rick Steves discussed the ways in which travel is a political act. (I hadn't known that his talk was based on his book Travel as a Political Act.) This particular talk was part of a video podcast lecture series that included lectures on travel skills, a lecture on Italy, and a lecture on Iran.

Until I watched his talk, my exposure to Steves had been limited to an awareness of his travel guidebooks (none of which I believe I have bought) and his show, which airs in my area on a PBS affiliates. I found him to be a good speaker and his talk interesting because he emphasized that the foundation of travel is one in which the traveler interacts, as much as possible, with the people who live in the area that is being traveled to. Steves discusses the ways in which travel shaped his politics and broadened his perspectives.

A novel concept to be sure, given that some critics and their theories indicate that travel writers are of a predominantly imperial mindset, that travel writing is almost insidiousness in its inability to present the truth, and that travel narratives “cannot be verified, hence the ready and habitual equation of traveller and liar" (Clark 1). Charging all travel writers with imperialism presupposes that all travel writers come from imperial or colonial backgrounds, or that they see the world through an imperial lens; I cannot believe that all travel writing is the result of imperial conquest. This is cynical and, I believe, the result of imperial thinking itself in presuming that others must come from a comparable background and view other people through a similar lens. 

Steves' talk had resonated with me the first time I saw it, and it does so even more now that I have read travel writing theory and applications. An "agent of change" requires being communicative; it requires an ability to simply talk to people, and negates any potential behind imperialism because it exposes the traveler to different politics.

Being an agent of change can simply be the cause and result of being kind, friendly, and open. Being an agent of change does not need to include elaborate actions; the sacrifice and immersion to which Novograt refers does not have to result in moving to an African country or founding an organization; it can be looking for small acts domestically, but it does start with educating oneself to see what the possibilities are. It can start with educating yourself and learning about the history behind where you're visiting, and realizing how nuanced history is. King discusses some of the history behind slavery in Barbados. While she examines some of the imperialism behind the history, this does not imply that her motivations are imperial, yet her blog posts are indicative of some of the ways in which history is chaotic. In this case, Lisle is correct in asserting that "travel writing provides an opportunity to escape the forces of modernity and globalisation and retreat back into a Golden Age of discovery, exploration and Empire" (204); Barbados - and indeed many other countries - have a history that includes being overthrown, the inhabitants raped, killed, dispersed, their lands taken, their language and culture destroyed. 

And it can cause us to simply share our traveling experiences and our own histories. A recent conversation on which I was admittedly only the edges led to a discussion of some of the colonizing of India and Ireland by the British. The person with whom I and another person were speaking did not know some of the extent to which Britain had acted. His position was that Britain had done quite a bit to help modernize India, what with paving roads, etc., but the third person in our party was able to contextualize to what degree the British government had destroyed and impoverished the native people, their lands, their culture. Simple education leads to being introduced to histories of other people and of other places, which expands our thinking, which causes us to rethink our beliefs and convictions, to understand the damage that can be done - it causes us to rethink.

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