Travel

When is it okay to wear the local garb?

What are the ethics of dressing appropriately according to the country that you’re visiting? (Whether it’s covering your shoulders or head when entering a mosque or not wearing culturally appropriative accessories or styles — like Native American headdresses or getting dreadlocks in Jamaica.)

Sincerely,
Dress Appropriately, People

I reeeeallly tried to put off answering this question, DAP, because I’ve never felt fully comfortable with the concept of cultural appropriation, and I think there are sometimes people are a little too quick to pull the cultural appropriation card. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the easy stuff, though.

You should always try to wear the appropriate garb at religious ceremonies.

If you’re going to a local church, mosque, or temple, you should always make yourself aware of and conform to the institution’s dress code. This is simply a sign of respect. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and there wasn’t a strict dress code, but I know plenty of people who would’ve been annoyed if a newcomer came in wearing a t-shirt and short shorts. I personally would’ve enjoyed it, young heathen that I was, because I liked watching people in our Parish squirm, but there’s a big difference between rebelling from the outside and rebelling from the inside.

Unless you’re trying to make an open display of disrespect for some political reason (which, you know... don't do), conform to the local dress code (and check out my article on the ethics of being a feminist and wearing head coverings).

Okay, now into the harder stuff.

When am I being culturally appropriative?

There are times when wearing the local garb is culturally appropriative, which is a tricky concept that can be confused with cultural exchange.

The best breakdown of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation I’ve read is by Jarune Uwujaren over at Everyday Feminism. If you want to better understand the issue, give that a read. In short though, cultural appropriation is when one culture adopts an element of another culture. This in itself sounds harmless — and it often is — but it gets tricky when the culture doing the borrowing dominates the culture being borrowed from, because you as the borrower might not understand the full history and implications of the thing you’re borrowing.

The Native American headdress provides a good example: in Native American Plains cultures, headdresses can’t be worn by just anyone. You could equate it to holding a qualified position like Doctor or military General: it’s something that must be earned.

The thing to remember is that the culture you are visiting may have been oppressed by a western culture, and they may have a long, painful history behind them. In the case of the Plains nations, it’s a history of brutal repression, cultural destruction, and genocide. For you to come in, play with their sacred symbols without having any knowledge of their meaning, and then toss them aside as you would any other costume, could be reasonably seen as insensitive.

Most cases aren’t this cut-and-dry, though, and a lot of what makes up modern Western culture could be considered cultural appropriation, from “ethnic” foods, to world music, to spiritual practices. Western culture brutally dominated India for centuries, for example. Is practicing yoga culturally appropriative? The short answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice itRather than refusing to ever participate in cultural appropriation (Goodbye, Taco Tuesday! Goodbye Stir Fryday!) you can simply educate yourself on the roots of the things you’re appropriating, and show them some amount of respect. You are already in a position of privilege. You can’t escape that. It’s okay. Just be willing to accept criticism and to listen and learn.

Just be respectful.

When I was in India, I went to a Hindu religious celebration with some of my classmates. We were invited to wear traditional garb, and the women had bindis put on their heads and were given henna tattoos. We ate with our hands, and we watched a ceremonial dance.

There was nothing wrong with this, because we were invited to participate by the Indian families that were hosting us. And that’s perhaps the main lesson I want to impart here: don’t let a fear of cultural appropriation keep you from cultural exchange. Participate in whatever you’re invited to participate in, and try and learn about it.

Culture can’t easily be siloed, and what feels like personal expression to you might feel like a misappropriation to someone else. My suggestion is to express yourself however you wish, but be respectful, sensitive, and curious when borrowing from other cultures (In regards to dreadlocks, I’d say don’t get dreadlocks, but that’s mostly because white people look terrible in them. There are arguments that they’re culturally appropriative, but dreadlocks have been around for millennia across many cultures, and not just in African and Caribbean cultures — they have a history in Asia and even Europe as well). If someone calls you out for cultural appropriation, don’t get defensive — talk to them. Try to learn what they mean. And then continue from there.

“Shut that kid up!”: How should you treat traveling parents?

Last week, I took a fourteen-hour train down to Charleston for the weekend. About five minutes after I took my seat, a woman sat in the seat across from me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her lay a portable seat on the floor as she put her luggage overhead.  From inside the seat, a cute, chubby 6-month-old smiled back at me.

Fuck, I thought. Then, at the next stop, another baby got on.

Fucccccckkkkkk, I thought.

If you’ve traveled, you know why I was pissed: Babies cry. Over a fourteen hour trip, it would be unreasonable to expect the baby not to cry. And for people such as myself, who were hoping that the trip would involve 8 hours or so of sleep, the presence of babies was upsetting. It would mean a slightly less restful sleep, and train sleeps are already not great.

“Who brings a fucking baby on a fourteen hour train trip?” I texted my wife.

This isn’t an unusual sentiment: according to a poll by FiveThirtyEight, 83% of airline passengers think it’s rude to knowingly bring unruly kids onto a plane. It’s the highest ranked item on their poll, ahead of the dreaded seat recline, ahead of waking someone up to get out of your seat, and ahead of being chatty with a seatmate.

People such as myself, the kidless, are not patient with the kidful. It struck me, while I was feeling sorry for myself, that maybe parents — even parents with grumpy kids — have a right to get from Point A to Point B. And that maybe that right superseded my right to travel in total silence.

So I talked to a few traveling moms about what the kidless need to know about the kidful.

Kids aren’t little adults. They’re kids.

My older sister Laura has a 5-year-old named Alejandro, or Ali, as we call him. Laura, like myself is a traveler, and usually travels to El Salvador (the country where she met my brother-in-law, and the country where Ali was born) once a year. This, she says, can be stressful, especially when your kid starts behaving like a kid. If Ali starts acting up, though, many people (read: not parents) will be openly annoyed. Which she says is the first problem:

“People who don’t have kids don’t have much of an understanding of what it’s like. They’ll say ‘Oh when I’m a parent, my kid won’t talk to me that way.’ Your kid will talk to you that way sometimes, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent… you can’t expect a kid to behave like an adult.”

And the fact that he’s a kid shouldn’t mean he’s homebound:

“I like to take him places, but he’s going to act different when he’s there because he’s a kid.”

She said, “It’s embarrassing for a parent when your kid throws a tantrum,” and adds that showing sympathy for the parent can mean a lot, because sometimes parenting supersedes the desire to make everyone around her feel at peace:

“Sometimes, I’ll give him a screen. But I don’t necessarily want him to be on a screen the whole time. So having an expectation that they’re going to be zoned out and quiet and behaving isn’t reasonable.”

Chelle King agrees. Chelle travels regularly with her 3-year-old Clara, and has been in a similar situation:

“Clara had an awful, awful flight to Seattle once, partially because of some flight delays. I made the mistake of telling her she was finished watching movies and stood my ground, even as the nightmare swirled around me. I knew that it was going to be miserable for everyone, but I had already stepped in it. She finally passed out and someone in a nearby row bought me a glass of wine. I nearly cried I was so grateful, both for the wine and knowing that there was at least one person on the flight who didn’t think I was Satan.”

She adds:

“As a parent, I try really hard to avoid waking the monster, but sometimes it doesn’t work.”

How to treat parents traveling with kids

Cathy Brown is the most badass travel mom I know — she’s a fellow writer over at the Matador Network, and she’s a single mom of three. She travels with her kids a lot (her daughter Stella is already an excellent travel writer herself), and has some advice for how the kidless should treat the kidful:

“I’d say that when it comes to being on a plane or in a restaurant with someone who has a kid in the middle of a meltdown, don’t be so quick to get pissed off. Don’t take it personally, like the parent is just doing WHATEVER they can to ruin your vacation.  That moment sucks for the parent even more than it sucks for you, because they know damn well how annoying their kid is being.  A kind look or some kind words can put the parent at ease, which will ultimately help the kid calm down.”

Laura agrees: “I appreciate when people are thoughtful and sympathetic, and not mean and judgmental.” She also notes that not all places are as judgmental about noisy kids as others: people on a bus in El Salvador will generally try to be helpful with a noisy kid, while people in the US are going to be a bit more likely to grumble. So not getting a silent plane ride may be a quintessential “First World Problem.”

This doesn’t mean, she says, that parents are off the hook for disciplining their kids. “If a kid does something rude or in your face, you have a right to expect a parent to say something.”

Chelle says to just be cool*:

“The immediate look from single (especially business) travelers in the security line that says ‘oh, no, look at these assholes with kids’ is a little annoying, but we’re super fast, so it’s also totally unwarranted.”

In short: You aren’t entitled to a family-free flight, and certainly not to a family-free airport.

**Literally a day after I talked to her, Chelle sent me a message: “It finally happened! Some young guy in security actually asked if he could ‘cut’ in front of me. I was flummoxed and said yes. Also, he only had a backpack, so I figured he had his shit together. Nope. This guy in such a mad hurry didn’t know where his phone was allowed to go, or how to unpack and of his stuff. (And there was a lot.) In the end, even though he went in front of us, we breezed past him while he was fumbling with his shoes. He was a dick! Your readers should not be like that guy!”

How to help people with kids

On the flip side of that coin, if you want to try and help or talk to a kid, Laura cautions against crossing any lines inadvertently:

“If you’re engaging a child, it’s respectful to ask a parent before offering anything to the kid.”

This isn’t to say, though, that helping is discouraged. Laura remembers being caught in the airport alone with Ali. She had to carry all the luggage, so she couldn’t carry him, and he started falling to pieces. “Especially when you’re traveling alone, it’s harder, and it’s scarier.” She says she didn’t expect anyone to help that time, but would have been incredibly grateful if help had been offered.

Cathy’s kids are older than Laura’s and Chelle’s, and she says it’s important to recognize the differences in age:

“My kids hate it when they are treated like 2 year olds. A hotel or a restaurant always wants to offer them some gender specific toy or activity that is geared for someone much younger. The intention is good, the offer is nice, but it annoys my teenagers to be treated like babies.  Ask if they prefer the kids menu or the regular menu.  Ask if they prefer the Barbie toothpaste and bubble bath or the regular.”

In short, don’t treat kids like they’re stupid (or toddlers, if they aren’t toddlers), and don’t be totally impatient with parents. A little kindness goes a long way. It’s likely you don’t have a full idea of what’s going on with the parent or with the kid, so instead of being cruel, maybe put in some noise-canceling headphones and deal with it.

Cathy also pushed back on the idea that traveling with kids is terrible:

“Traveling with kids, for me, is awesome.  My kids are my favorite travel partners by far.  They are spontaneous, engaged, and they keep it real.  They are curious, ask questions, and don’t get uptight when things go awry. To  them, everything is just part of the adventure.”

Finally, some advice from a kid.

I’m giving the final word to Cathy’s daughter Stella:

“Stella’s advice was for other people to not make a massive deal about a kid traveling.  Don’t baby them — she can’t stand when people treat her like she’s incapable of finding her gate at the airport, etc.  She says there’s a difference between being helpful and acting like a kid can’t do something just because they happen to be away from home.

“She also says people should always offer up the window seat to a kid if the poor kid seems like he/she really wanted one and didn’t get one.”

Seriously, guys. You aren’t going to use the window as much as a kid would anyway.

Featured photo by Eduardo Merille

How can I be a good traveler?

So obviously the blog is called “Don’t Be a Dick” so it is going to have an avoidance or prevention focus as compared with an approach or promotion focus, but reading about all the things not to do can be overwhelming. Can you write a post focusing on concrete actions we can take to be a good citizen traveler, not just how to avoid being a shitty one?

Sincerely,
More than “Not A Dick”

That’s fair, MoNAD. This blog is going to, generally speaking, focus on the “don’t’s” of travel over the “do’s.” This may sound like I’m laying down a lot of prohibitions, but the real reason for it is that there’s actually a pretty low bar to being a good traveler. As long as you’re thoughtful and respectful, you’re basically good to go.

I currently live in a town on the Jersey Shore. Our economy is primarily driven by tourism. Residents of the Shore have a few negative words for our tourist visitors: “Benny’s,” meaning someone from Bayonne Elizabeth, Newark or New York, and “Shoobies,” meaning people who wear their shoes on the beach (don't wear shoes on the beach) Bennies and Shoobies are the type of people you see on the show Jersey Shore, and they are terrible. They come into town, they get hammered, they get into fights, they puke on people’s lawns, they leave their garbage everywhere, and they make our favorite bars insufferable for the entire summer. This is a common bumper sticker/piece of graffiti:

12819120_461926420681049_738879819_n.jpg

That said, tourism is the primary driver of our local economy, so it’s a love-hate relationship. But here’s the thing: I don’t know who everyone in town is. There’s no clear-cut way of identifying a local vs. a Benny, as long as you’re not wearing shoes on the beach, and as long as you’re not shouting “GYM TAN LAUNDRY!” before projectile vomiting onto a child on the boardwalk.

The truth is, plenty of tourists are delightful. They’re excited to be here, they’re curious about life here, and they don’t leave their cigarette butts on the beach. The overarching rule is really very simple: just don’t be a dick. 

That said, I will try and provide more concrete suggestions. I have one really effective metaphor that I try (and sometimes fail) to apply when I visit places.

Tip 1: Behave like a guest, not like a customer.

My biggest recommendation is to treat your visit like a visit to a friends house, not like a stay at a hotel. At a friends house, you would clean up after yourself, you would try to be quiet at normal sleeping hours, and if you went out partying, you would try your best not to vomit on their belongings. You would also engage with your host. You would talk to her, you’d ask her about herself, and you’d share about yourself. You wouldn’t criticize her way of doing things, you’d only ask about it to try and understand her way better.

Thinking of yourself as a customer when you visit a town, city, or country, creates a whole new dynamic. It creates a mindset where you think of the people living there as your employees, as people whose services you have purchased. You have not. They have their own lives, and those lives don’t revolve around you.

This metaphor goes surprisingly far, and it allows for faux pas and occasional misunderstandings without you having to be too hard on yourself. As long as your interactions are based in mutual respect, you can be forgiven for any mistakes.

Tip 2: Support the local businesses.

This is one of the easiest ways to do more good than harm: skip chain stores and restaurants in favor of local joints; go to B&B’s/AirBnB’s/local hotels instead of Hilton’s or Ramada’s; and stop at local bodegas and shops if you’re looking for a souvenir. Not only will this help the local economy, but it will also add a more distinct personality to your experience.

This is especially important when you go to a resort in a developing nation — resorts are typically owned internationally, and a lot of the money you spend at them doesn’t stay in the country. Even if you dodecide to go to an all-inclusive resort owned by an international chain, try and pop out occasionally to spend some time and money in smaller local places.

Tip 3: Do some advance research before going outdoors.

The place you can do the most unintentional harm is in your interactions with the local ecosystem. So if you’re planning a trek, a hike, a swim, or anything of the outdoor variety, just do a bit of research ahead of time to make sure nothing you are doing is bad for the local environment (You should research all of the excursions you plan on doing ahead of time anyway. I mention environmental excursions here specifically because they’re the place where it’s easiest to do unintended harm.).

Some other solid outdoor-travel tips:

  • If you’re planning on swimming in the ocean, buy the right sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone, which is a chemical that can disrupt the growth of coral and do serious harm to the local coastal ecosystems. The Environmental Working Group offers a guide to safer sunscreens, as well as a list of approved sunscreens.

  • Choose an “ecolodge” that prioritizes sustainability instead of a regular hotel.

  • Follow the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” rule while trekking.

  • Bring a reusable water bottle.

  • Don’t leave the trail.

The main takeaway here is that being a good traveler is actually pretty intuitive. Just be cool. Don’t be a dick.

Featured photo Cinty Ionescu

Should you recline your seat on the airplane?

One of the more trendy controversies in the travel world is the fight over whether you should recline your seat on an airplane. An article in Slate (which was, in proper Slate fashion, hyperbolically titled “The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization”) decried seat-recliners as “evil,” and went on to say, “People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.” People who recline have also been referred to as “psychopaths,” and one particularly irritating company created something called the “Knee Defender,” a device that you can insert into the seat in front of you which makes it impossible for the person in front of you to lean their chair back. Knee defenders have been known to start fights on airplanes.

I personally find this all to be a little overblown, but as this is a site on ethical travel, I feel the need to address it.

What should I do regarding reclining seats?

Full disclosure: I am 6’3”, 225 lbs, and I have always applied a Golden Rule standard to airline travel. I find flying miserable, and don’t want to make it more miserable for anyone. That said, when the person in front of me reclines, it doesn’t bother me at all. My long legs aren’t more cramped, and I generally don’t feel I was using the four inches or so that I lost near their head. If I do feel cramped, I’ll lean back myself, but mostly, I just accept that life is suffering — especially life on an airplane — and that what really matters is how we respond to that suffering.

Which is why I was surprised to find out that this was a thing. I’m theoretically one of the most wronged people when it comes to reclining seats, but it never bothered me. That’s the difficulty of the Golden Rule: some people have higher standards for what they’d want done unto them than I do. (There is, by the way, one argument in favor of reclining your seats that I think is atrocious: “I bought the seat, so I can do what I want with it.” Purchasing a product does not give you any moral right to put someone else into intense discomfort. That’s actually psychopathic.)

And this is fair: The polling geniuses over at FiveThirtyEight did a poll on what people think of seat reclining, and they found that 41% of flyers think reclining is rude. The rest don’t mind. Far more people (73%) thought it was rude to wake someone up to go for a walk around the cabin — which, by the way, strikes me as even more justifiable than the recline, as not moving in an airplane can lead to sometimes-deadly deep vein thrombosis. The highest number of people (82%) said it was rude to “knowingly bring unruly children” onto the plane. Which strikes me as most justifiable — what, unruly kids shouldn’t be allowed to move from point A to point B?

This proves, if anything, that people on airplanes are just furious all the time, and are desperately seeking something to hate. So the Golden Rule doesn’t work here, because you don’t know the mind of the person behind you — they may just be a slow-cooking pot of rage.

I think the answer is simple. The nicest thing to do if you want to recline is to simply ask the person behind you if they’d mind. Lean back slowly so you don’t fuck up their laptop or jolt any liquid on their tray into their lap. All of the taller people that I spoke to said they usually don’t mind if someone leans back (tall people have already accepted discomfort on airplanes), with the understanding that they will be leaning back as well. One mother I spoke to, however, says this: “On little planes with sub-two hour travel times, [reclining your seat is] unnecessary and extra cramped. Add a kid in a carseat and it’s just a no-go. My baby carseat wouldn’t allow for the seat in front to recline; the toddler seat does, but barely.” So maybe be cool to traveling moms and don’t lean back.

If you don’t like it when someone in front of you reclines, just ask them politely if they wouldn’t. Some people may refuse. That’s okay. Comfort yourself with the fact that at least they are slightly more comfortable, and that they are just as human as you. And you don’t know what their deal is: they may have back problems. Their discomfort from not reclining may outweigh your discomfort when they do.

I think there’s something we should note here, though:

The seat recliners are not the problem.

Some have rightfully pointed out that this shouldn’t be a passenger-versus-passenger issue, but rather a passenger-versus-airline issue. It’s actually kind of a perfect microcosm for modern America: set up the system so that it’s a little bit uncomfortable for everyone, and when one person tries to make things better for themselves at the expense of someone else (whether it’s through a criminal act or through a selfish vote), a conflict arises not between the participants and the system, but between the participants itself, when at its core, the system is to blame. The airlines could easily provide more seat space, or simply make more comfortable seats.

But it would be too simplistic to say that airlines are evil companies that are trying to distract us from their flaws by making us fight amongst ourselves. Airlines are notoriously difficult to make profitable, so it makes sense to cut costs and increase profits wherever possible (It would also make sense to acknowledge that airlines are public services that should maybe be publicly subsidized, but let’s not get into that). And adding a few extra seats to every plane makes a big difference.

It’s also worthwhile to note that our discomfort is the environment’s gain: as I noted a few weeks ago in my article on low-carbon emissions travel, the more seats the airlines cram onto planes, the more ways a flight splits its carbon emissions. Fewer flights means less emissions, less emissions means a lower chance of truly horrific climate catastrophe over the next couple hundred years.

All of which is to say that airline discomfort may be a good thing. It gives you an excuse to travel by train. Train seats have lower emissions than airline seats, and they’re also significantly more comfortable — a person who leans back on a train doesn’t invade the space of the passenger behind them at all. Also, you can bring your own food and booze onto Amtrak, which is neat.

My call is this: lean or don’t lean, just be courteous and ask the people around you. If they’re mean to you, just let it slide. Don’t assume they’re evil assholes. Just assume they fucking hate airplanes.

Featured photo by Ronald Sarayudej

Is voluntourism worthwhile?

Is it worth it to volunteer where there isn’t a sustainable social, political, or environmental impact? I think of those stories of Habitat for Humanity where volunteers think they build a house during the day only to have their crappy work torn down and redone later.

Sincerely,
Wants To Fix The World

Thank you, so much, WTFTW, for giving my first one-word answer to a question of the week:

Nope.

Okay, now to go into a bit more detail: The voluntourism impulse is an awesome one. It means that people don’t just want to take from the places they visit, but to give back as well. It’s akin to helping with the dishes when you’ve eaten dinner at a friend’s house. It’s all that’s right about humankind.

Which is why it’s really depressing that it’s usually a waste of time.

The story I believe you’re referring to is from this excellent article by Pippa Biddle, which is worth giving a read. She talks about a voluntourism trip she took in high school to Tanzania, which cost $3000 a pop:

“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.”

What Biddle concludes is that the problem wasn’t that a library wasn’t needed, it was that she simply wasn’t the one to do it. This is the case with many voluntourism trips: they exist more to give the volunteers the endorphin rush humans get when doing something nice for someone else than they do to actually help. The presence of unskilled volunteers may, in some cases, actually be more of a hindrance than a help.

But sometimes voluntourism is more insidious. The popularity of supporting Cambodian orphanages among western tourists has actually fueled a market for orphans. There are the reports of voluntourists actually taking jobs from better-qualified locals. And for many locals, voluntourism looks more like an expiation of colonial guilt than a good-hearted act of service. In his book Travel as a Political Act, travel industry titan Rick Steves points out the name that Salvadorans have for Americans who come to visit and express solidarity, only to return home a few days later feeling self-satisfied: “round-trip revolutionaries.”

Just this week, Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, founder of Latina Rebels, made an extremely strong case against voluntourism. Rodriguez was born in poverty in Nicaragua, and vividly remembers the many visiting westerners. She remembers them as good people, but:

They really wanted us to like them, because they loved us — indiscriminately. It was the sort of love where they did not get our mailing addresses or phone numbers, because it was not about becoming lifelong friends. They loved being around me, it was something about my poverty, brownness, and how they felt like they were saving me. They loved that feeling.

She continues:

I do not have fond memories of the Beckys and Chads who came to my country and took pictures with me so that they could hang the photos in their dorm rooms and go on with their lives.

Those same Beckys did not stand up against Trump’s xenophobic agenda. The Chads stayed silent during that Cinco de Mayo party that their roommates hosted, perpetuating problematic stereotypes about ALL Latinxs. The Beckys know that NAFTA and CAFTA rulings keep kids like me in poverty, but still shop at stores known for using slave labor and sweatshops.

Those Chads and Beckys have never done anything for me.

As a white person from America, this can sound harsh. (It may also paint white voluntourists with too broad a brush — I have no doubt that some Chads and Beckys have spoken out against Trump, NAFTA, and CAFTA, but that’s kind of beside the point — the statement is, as the philosopher Ken Wilber says, “true but partial,” and the truth deserves as much attention as the nuance it misses.) But it’s worth noting that, especially in Central and South American countries, our country has played a pretty significant role in supporting horrible, genocidal dictatorships in the name of protecting “American business interests.” These dictatorships have frequently taken the place of legitimate left-leaning democracies.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with this assessment of the history of US colonialism in the western hemisphere or not: it’s a fairly widely-held perception in the rest of the Americas (and in parts of the Middle East as well). And in that view of the world, an American paying thousands of dollars to come down for a weekend so he can build a library, feel good about himself, and then return to his affluence, seems like an inadequate form of repentance.

So… should you participate in voluntourism at all?

My suggestion is a gentle no, with a set of clarifications:

  1. If you have a set of skills that could be effectively utilized in your destination, absolutely go. Have a medical degree? Join Doctors Without Borders and go do some good. Can you do some consulting work with local NGOs, or provide training that may be desperately needed? Please, go.

  2. “Voluntourism” and “volunteering” are not the same thing. If you’re really committing to a project — and not just rolling a pre-packaged project into a vacation — then what I’m saying doesn’t apply. Looking at you, JETs, TEFLs, and Peace Corpsers.

Personally, I think the better thing to do when going abroad is to simply listen to the stories, the history, and the culture of the people that you’re visiting. You should not assume to have answers to a society’s problems after a weekend visit. You don’t. Instead, listen, read, and learn. If you want to help as efficiently and effectively as possible, donate money to people who are already in place to help, and then work on making yoursociety a better place. A more humane America would help make a more humane world.

Still want to try voluntourism?

If you do want to participate in voluntourism, my Matador colleague Richard Stupart put together an excellent guide to finding the most ethical voluntourism projects possible (and, I should note, there are good projects. It’s not all cynicism and neocolonialism). Feel free to add other good ethical voluntourism resources in the comments.

Should I give to beggars while traveling?

We in the United States — especially those of us who live in cities — are to some extent comfortable with the existence of homelessness and beggars. We see them every day, and we either do our best to consciously ignore them, or we give them a token dollar or two. We may feel sad when we see them, we may feel impotent, we may think of them as drug addicts or as mentally ill, and we may shake a psychic fist at “the system” that allows them to slip through the cracks, but we don’t usually lose much sleep over their existence.

That gets a lot harder when you go abroad. For one thing, while there are certainly plenty of mentally ill and drug-addled beggars in the rest of the world, they find themselves among more people who are transparently not mentally ill or drug-addled. Mothers with children. Young kids. People who are just openly hungry.

I remember the first time I came into contact with this type of poverty. It wiped me out. It was jarring, and it was deeply upsetting. On one occasion, a tiny girl in Chennai came up to me was hugging my leg, begging me for something in a language I couldn’t understand. I assumed she wanted money, so I ignored her. What she wanted, it turned out, was the bottle of clean water in my hand. As we drove away, I saw kids drinking water out of what appeared to be a raw sewage pit. You have trouble thinking of yourself as a good person after an experience like that.

But begging is tricky. So let’s break down the conventional wisdom and look at whether or not you should give to beggars.

Whom are you helping?

It’s worth noting a few things about giving. First, the person that you’re helping most may be you yourself. studies by the National Institute of Health have shown that we experience more pleasure when we give our money away than we do by spending it on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that there may be a selfish motive to altruism. The results of giving money directly away are less unequivocally good for the beggar you are giving money to.

An article in the Atlantic put it this way:

“The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction. For most homeless people, direction means a job and a roof. A 1999 study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most: 42% said help finding a job; 38% said finding housing; 30% said paying rent or utilities; 13% said training or medical care.” [their emphasis]

The same article notes that, because beggars make very little money begging (so-called “career panhandlers” can make between $600 and $1500 a month, but it’s worth noting this is still not much money), they are often pressed to spend the money they earn immediately, which means they might not be spending it particularly well. So what will they spend it on? Food, probably. But here’s what you’re most worried about:

Is your money being spent on alcohol or drugs?

It could be. You should be aware that, whenever you give cash to someone in the street, you’re doing it unconditionally. You could be giving a drug addict the money they need to buy the hit that kills them. Or you could be giving them money to spend on booze instead of on their kids.

But this risk is usually overstated. One survey found that 94% of panhandlers use money to buy food, while only 44% of them use the money to buy drugs. HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has found that six out of ten homeless people admit to problems with alcohol or drugs. That number might sound high — and there’s a possibility for respondents to lie on that survey — but it does leave plenty of room for homeless people who don’t have drug or alcohol problems, who may have found themselves in a bad situation through no fault of their own, and whom you may be mentally painting as a drug addict regardless.

It’s safe to say, then, that you don’t know the whole backstory of the beggar you’re talking to. You don’t know what their life is like, or what they’ve gone through. But it’s also safe to say that your money may not go very far, and that it may do more harm than good.

But what about while I’m abroad?

It’s worth mentioning that all of the stats I’ve given so far have only been for the United States. It might be tempting to think of our homeless as people who aren’t deserving — this is the land of opportunity, after all — and that the poor abroad maybe have done less to deserve their poverty.

No one deserves poverty, but let’s look a little deeper into that impulse: should you give to, say, kids or mothers who are begging in poorer countries?

Unfortunately, no.

The reason is “organized begging,” which is particularly bad in India, but can be found virtually everywhere, including in Europe. Organized begging is an endeavor usually run by criminal syndicates or local mafias that frequently dips its toes into human trafficking. Thugs kidnap or forcibly recruit kids, send them to touristy or rich places to beg, and then take all of their money. Deformed kids make more money, so the thugs will often physically harm, scar, or even amputate the limbs of the children to elicit more sympathy from the givers. The thugs will also get kids addicted to drugs to keep them from running away, or will starve them to make them more gaunt.

This is what you risk supporting if you give money to child beggars abroad, especially in extremely poor countries. A possible way to circumvent this problem may seem to be to give children food, water, or other physical objects besides money. Food and water may be a little more justifiable, but the Consortium of Street Children found that children who were given milk powder while begging in Brazil then traded that powder for crack. This is an extreme example, of course, but keep in mind when you’re giving that most poor countries have a much stronger barter economy than the west, and that whatever you give can be traded.

It’s worth noting that not every beggar will be part of a criminal organization, but you do run the risk of contributing to that criminal organization when you give to beggars. There are definitely better ways of helping.

Should you give money at all?

Giving money to panhandlers, beggars, or the homeless is never a clearcut thing, but your impulse to give is still a good one. Here are some alternatives.

I personally subscribe to a theory of philanthropy called “effective altruism.” It’s a movement led by people like utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer who argue that, if we believe all lives are of equal value, then when we make decisions about giving, the decisions should be geared towards helping as many people as we possibly can. This means that, instead of giving money to say, for example, the Harvard Endowment (which is incredibly rich already and truly doesn’t need your money), you should give money to the most needy, and to the people who you can help most cheaply. 

This means, for example, that if you can easily help 10 people in Kenya, or help one person who lives down the street, you should choose the 10 people in Kenya, because you’re making the same difference with an equal amount of money. It’s like a terrible, real-life trolley problem. Effective altruism is most effective when it’s targeting the extreme poor.

(I should mention that there’s one really solid argument against effective altruism: that it doesn’t change the structures of injustice, but merely addresses the symptoms. That’s an argument against the entirety of philanthropy, though, and I personally adopt a strategy of donating equally to political and philanthropic causes. Yes, we may be able to end injustice in the future through political change, but that shouldn’t prevent us from making the world just a slightly nicer place today.

I wrote yesterday (at the Matador Network) about an excellent effective charity fighting extreme poverty called GiveDirectly. What they’ve found is that one of the best ways of getting people out of poverty is to just give them money directly and unconditionally. People generally have a better idea of how to spend their money than aid organizations that have no insight into their lives. And GiveDirectly is pretty efficient in terms of getting the money you donate to the extreme poor: 85%-91% of your money ends in the hands of donors.

That money that doesn’t end in their hands goes towards the selection process, which confirms that the recipients are indeed needy, that they aren’t scamming the system, and also towards studies examining the after-effects of these direct cash transfers. Begging is a self-selecting game: people who choose to beg will do so for different reasons, and may not actually be the neediest people of all. This more evidence-based approach means you’re more likely to get your giving into the right hands.

So my advice is this:

Don’t give money to beggars.

Instead:

Give it to a charity that helps the extreme poor.

If GiveDirectly is not your thing, there are plenty of other organizations you can give to, including charities that will actually work to serve the homeless and the extreme poor. To help the poor abroad, check out these organizations:

To fight homelessness and poverty in the US, try some of these organizations:

A final note

As I always need to add at the end of these articles, the most effective solution is a permanent, systemic one. Many Americans are fed up with politics, but the fact remains that the most sustainable solutions are usually political ones. If we have systems in place that don’t perpetuate homelessness and extreme poverty, then we’re going to have a lot less of it. Giving to charities is worthwhile, because it does help people in need. But we should also take the long view and work to end the systems that allow homelessness and extreme poverty to exist. Get involved in the fight against poverty, the fight against economic injustice, the fight against the drug war, and the fight against the gutting of public health institutions, and we may see and end to this in our lifetimes or the in the lives of our children.

Featured Photo: John Christian Fjellestad

How much of the local language should you learn when you travel?

How much of the language of a destination do you think is important to have to not be a dick?

Sincerely,
Can’t Afford a Russian Dictionary

That’s a good question, CARD. My instinct is to just apply the Golden Rule here, and say, “Learn as much of the language as you’d like a visitor to your country to learn!” but I don’t think that would result in any sort of universal standard: I personally do not care for a minute if someone comes to our country not knowing a word of the language. It makes life trickier for them, but I’m not offended when I hear someone speaking German or French or Mandarin, and if they ask me for directions in the middle of the street, I have the opportunity to play a game of public charades.

But I know plenty of people who would prefer visitors speak to them in the local tongue.

And while I find that attitude irritating, I can’t say it’s totally unfair. When you enter someone else’s home, you implicitly agree to follow their household rules. This may mean participating in a prayer you personally don’t believe in, or this may mean taking off your shoes when you walk in the door. Language is a similar local norm: if you’re visiting, it’s only fair that you communicate on their terms using their language. Trying to speak the local language is, I think, a sign of deference and respect to the culture you’re visiting, and it’s never bad to make that effort. Again, my personal standard is low here: I think the effort alone is enough of a sign of respect to make you “not a dick.” But we can still go a bit further than that.

The obvious things that you should always learn are “Hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you.” I think that can work as the lower limit. But I’ve had a number of experiences where that has been insufficient. Now, in the service of lowering your dick quotient, CARD, I shall publicly embarrass myself.

An incredibly embarrassing example

I was traveling with my friends in Paris. We’d taken the chunnel from London the night before, and I’d spent the entire train ride making trips to the commode, as I’d eaten a tainted burrito in London (Important life lesson: Don’t eat "ethnic" foods in a city that contains no one of that ethnicity). When we got to Paris, we settled into our hostel and I set out to find a pharmacist in Montmartre.

I quickly found one, stormed in, and said to the girl behind the counter, “Um, hi! I have… uh…” And then I proceeded to mime my affliction by putting my hands down near my posterior, making wiggly “splatter” motions with my fingers, while making flatulent sounds.

The pharmacist sighed, and said in perfect English, “So you have diarrhea?”

For this reason, I am adding, “Do you speak English?” to the de-dickifying phrases one must learn while traveling.

A less embarrassing example

I’m on the streets of Vienna during the same trip. I’m standing confusedly at the corner of Einbahnstrasse and Einbahnstrasse, trying desperately to find Einbahnstrasse on the map. I’d been walking 30 minutes, had turned dozens of times, and had never left Einbahnstrasse.

“Excuse me,” I said to a friendly-looking old man passing by, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Where is Herrengasse?” I asked. “I’ve been trying to find it for quite some time, and I can’t.”

“You are on Herrengasse,” he said.

I looked at the street sign above me. “Isn’t this Einbahnstrasse?”

“Einbahnstrasse means one way street,” he said.

It is also worth your time to learn a little bit of the language used to give and receive directions, especially if you think you’ll be putting yourself in a situation where you might get lost and need to ask for help. If you’re going to expect someone to help you, it’s at least courteous to make it easy for them to do so. At the very least, you should be able to coherently tell a cab driver where you’re staying, in case of an emergency.

Other guidelines

Other guidelines are dependent on your personal needs when you go on the trip. Are you vegetarian, or have diet restrictions of some sort? Learn how to say so in the local language. If you follow the “point at something in the hopes it’s good” method on foreign menus, you are very likely to be surprised, at some point, with food you are not okay with eating (In two separate incidences in Iceland and China, I found out after the fact that I’d eaten whale and dog, respectively. I was not okay with either). If you have allergies or health issues that could potentially put your life into someone else’s hands during your travels, learn how to explain it so that you don’t put them in a terrible position.

Finally, take some time to learn about etiquette before you show up somewhere new. Most people will be quick to forgive a faux pas but why let it happen in the first place? Learn the proper greetings in the country you’re visiting. Learn when to shake hands and when to bow and when to give a kiss on one cheek or give a kiss on two cheeks (there’s a short, basic guide that here. Learn which hand gestures are offensive (I’ve included a handy infographic on that below).

Failing to fully educate yourself before you go does not make you a dick, and some miscommunication is inevitable (and is usually harmless). But you can find out ahead of time what types of miscommunication are likely to be harmful or awkward, and you can prepare yourself accordingly.

Infographic by  JustTheFlight.co.uk

Infographic by JustTheFlight.co.uk

Featured photo: David Goehring

When should I boycott a country?

WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE in college, I went on Semester at Sea. It was a 4-month study abroad program that sailed around the world. Shortly after I was accepted into the program, I was sent an email with two pretty big surprises in it: first, Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu would be sailing with us for the entire voyage. Second, as a precondition of Tutu joining us, we would now be skipping our planned stop in Burma and would be going to Malaysia instead.

Tutu had insisted on this change because his friend, Burmese leader (and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott to Burma. Tutu had cut his teeth in the South African anti-apartheid movement, which conducted a similar international boycott over the course of several decades. The international solidarity, Tutu claimed, was essential for bringing apartheid to an end.

This led to a huge debate on the ship: a lot of people really wanted to go to Burma, and argued that the cultural exchange was valuable and worthwhile. They also argued that we could visit Burma in a way that wouldn’t be supportive of the oppressive military regime that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy were fighting against. We could, they argued, make sure our money would go to the right places.

In the end, we didn’t go to Burma. Several years later, Suu Kyi and her NLD lifted their call for a tourism boycott as the country started to transition towards democracy. But since then, I’ve heard a lot of calls for tourism boycotts to certain countries. It’s a question worth examining: when is it right to boycott a country? When is it wrong? When is it just pointless?

When are boycotts pointless?

During the Bush years, I heard conservative friends and family members say more than once, “I’ll never visit France after how they bailed on us in Iraq.” It was usually uttered by people who were using patriotic fervor as an excuse to skip a country they were never planning on going to in the first place, but sometimes, conservatives who might otherwise have enjoyed a trip to Paris decided that they needed to make a moral stand. No France for them. That’d teach France to bail on America, “and after we did so much for them in World War II.”

The correct response to this type of crap is “ugh,” but lefties and liberals shouldn’t get too smug: I’ve heard plenty of my activist friends suggest they were boycotting a country as well, whether it was of Japan (because of their treatment of dolphins and whales), of Thailand (because of their Tiger Temple), or of Russia (because of the Russian government’s oppression of journalists).

Boycotts can be well-meaning and still be useless. The one case in which they are always useless is in the case of the personal boycott. If you are boycotting a country for moral reasons, that’s just fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re making any sort of difference. Boycotts are an expression of political (and sometimes economic) power. By saying, “I refuse to engage with you,” you are basically saying you don’t think that country is legitimate, and that it does not deserve your support.

The truth is that, unless you are a very high-profile person, a single person boycott of a country is meaningless. It’s just not a large enough expression of power to make a noticeable difference and to affect any change. Had Rosa Parks been the only person to boycott the Montgomery, Alabama bus system, the gesture would have been noble but totally futile. It was when hundreds of people (including high-profile leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.) joined that the boycott really did what it was meant to do. A boycott, to be done effectively, must be done collectively.

When is a travel boycott effective?

I’ve developed three tentative rules to when you should consider a travel boycott.

1. You must have power over whomever you’re boycotting.

You can’t boycott something you don’t have any power over. This is why, for instance, it would be impossible for Americans to arrange a travel boycott of North Korea: we simply don’t go there enough for the withdrawal of our tourist dollars to make any difference (and Americans shouldn't travel to North Korea anyway: they frequently charge American visitors with barely-supported crimes and then hold them as bargaining chips.). It’s only countries that we have a healthy relationship that we can effectively boycott.

A boycott is effectively saying is, “You’re not playing by rules that we accept, so we refuse to play with you.” You can’t threaten to walk off when you weren’t playing in the first place.

2. Money isn’t enough: You must have the ear of the media.

The economic results of boycotts are tough to gauge. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel has been going for over 10 years, but hasn’t necessarily resulted any tangible economic loss for Israel (BDS, incidentally, has not targeted travel in their boycott. They’ve focused more broadly on academic boycotts, culture boycotts, divestment, and the boycotting of certain Israeli businesses. I mention them here because it’s the highest-profile active boycott movement). The boycott of South Africa, on the other hand, is widely considered to have been a success in economic terms.

But ultimately, whether the BDS movement or the cultural boycott of South Africa had any real economic effect isn’t the point. The point is in getting enough media coverage to draw attention to the injustice and, presumably, to shame the perpetrators. As I write, this is happening in North Carolina, where a recent anti-LGBTQ law has resulted in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo boycotting travel to the state on official business, in Paypal pulling jobs from the state economy, and in rocker Bruce Springsteen canceling a NC concert (which, for me personally, is literally the worst punishment I could imagine).

Yes, these moves may cost North Carolina money here and there, but more importantly, they build a political and social momentum behind the movements they support. It was not, in the end, economics that ended apartheid. It was external pressure worldwide (pressure which had to come from the grassroots, as leaders like Ronald Reagan supported apartheid), and volatile internal politics which brought about the end of that regime. Boycotts can be a powerful symbol that raise awareness of an issue and turn public opinion. If they succeed in this regard, whether or not they’re effective economically is beside the point.

3. Boycotts have to have an internal element.

Boycotts have more moral clout when they’re done in solidarity with people from within the place you’re boycotting. In other words, if local people say, “don’t boycott us,” then don’t (and it's worth pointing out that the voices of "the people" in any given country are never unanimous -- you must decide who to side with internally). So when the ANC and leaders like Desmond Tutu called for the rest of the world to boycott South Africa, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Aung San Suu Kyi called for tourists to not visit Burma, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Palestinians or liberal Israelis support the BDS movement, it gives the movement legitimacy.

Boycotts that are done entirely externally — as in you and your friends unilaterally deciding to boycott France because reasons — aren’t effective, and can be perceived as bullying, because you’re attempting to impose your morality on another country. If you don’t agree with someone’s morals, it’s usually better to talk to them and try and find common ground than it is to simply shut them out. But if you and your allies within that country are within agreement, and your allies think a boycott’s a good idea, then it may be worth giving a try.

So should I participate in travel boycotts?

The answer to this, I’m sorry to say, is annoyingly ambivalent: Sure. If you want. In some rare cases. Boycotts just too rarely achieve that rare combination of effectiveness and legitimacy to be worthwhile. Some excellent ethical travel sites like Responsible Travel don’t advocate travel boycotts except in rare exceptions like Burma. Philosopher Peter Singer told Traveller.com.au of travel boycotts:

“A boycott may be one way of getting some leverage on [political issues] when nothing else seems to work. But I don’t think that there is a general obligation to boycott all countries that are doing something unethical.”

The reason, he said, is because boycotts are only really effective when they’re accompanied by a public campaign. And it’s worth noting that there’s no such thing as a totally ethical country. You should definitely notboycott a country that there’s not already an organized boycott against unless you want to undertake the gigantic effort of organizing the boycott yourself. And in all honesty, there may well be much better ways of pushing your agenda politically than through a boycott: frequently, you may be able to push your government to act instead.

Boycotts really only make sense when they’re an attempt to undermine your government’s action: in South Africa and Israel, the US Government has acted in response to perceived geopolitical interests rather than in response to human rights standards, so those places make sense to organize boycotts around. In North Carolina, Indiana, and other states that have enacted anti-LGBT laws, the boycotts are in response to actions by the government itself. In these cases, participating in boycotts may be the just and right thing to do.

That said, there are totally legitimate arguments for not participating in boycotts, from supporting locals who may be unfairly harmed by a boycott, to simply pursuing other forms of protest and resistance that you believe would be more effective. Paul Simon’s breach of the UN-approved cultural boycott of South Africa during the making of his album Gracelandwas extremely controversial, but in the end, he used the breach to give an international platform to black South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba. While it may not personally have been my choice — and indeed was not the choice of many activist musicians, from Springsteen to Bono to Queen — it is conceivably justifiable.

It’s worth noting, though, that Paul Simon’s breach was at least thought-out and intentional. He didn’t simply ignore the cultural boycott for personal profit: he attempted to make things better for South African musicians. So if there’s a movement that you find yourself aligned with, and they are calling for a travel boycott to a country you want to visit, you certainly may decide to go anyway, but going will only really be justified if you engage in some other political act.

In the end, the only real sin, if you believe something wrong is being done, is silence. If you feel your voice is best heard through a boycott, go for it. If you feel you can speak out in a better way, feel free to do that instead. Just don’t do nothing.

Featured Photo: Pierre (Rennes)

How do I balance being a feminist with respecting other cultures?

Q: When visiting a country that has a culture that represses women, how far do you go in respecting their culture when visiting? Covering my head and shoulders seems okay. But I have a friend whose husband called out a waiter in India for asking him what she wanted to order when she was perfectly capable of answering for herself. That seems awesome to me but may have been offensive to them. Where’s the line?

Sincerely,
Yes Always to Solidarity with Kickass Women in Eastern & Extremist Nations

That’s a really great question, YASKWEEN. I have opinions, but I am also a dude, and as such, am at risk of mansplaining. So it seems worthwhile to ask a few women who either travel or live in more patriarchal cultures what they think before offering up my own dudepinion.

On cultures that repress women:

When we think of the most oppressive society towards women, we probably think of a country like Saudi Arabia. Sydney Meredith, the travel blogger behind Passports & Prose, currently lives in Saudi Arabia told me she doesn’t love equating “repressing women” with “covering your head and shoulders,” as many Muslim women consider it a personal religious choice to wear the hijab, and not something that’s imposed upon them by men. In regards to wearing it as a traveler, she says:

“I remember visiting historic churches in Spain and France during a trip in high school and the women were asked to cover their shoulders. Do I consider Spain and France ‘repressive?’ No. I was just respecting someone’s wishes.”

She also warns against developing a sense of superiority:

“I mean, aren’t women repressed everywhere? …The US is among only 2 other countries in the world who do not pay pregnant women who take time off from work.  We were only allowed to vote just a 100 years ago.”

On “calling people out”:

Traveler Sarah Lewis says it usually comes down to reading the situation, and points out there may be alternatives to “calling out” someone that are more effective.

“I feel like in that one specific situation, I would try not to be rude about it, especially at first, because the waiter was just doing what he considers to be polite in his particular culture in his line of work. As a server in the US, I’ve seen men order for women, so for some people that type of thing is still traditional, even in less conservative countries. If he addressed a man I was with rather than myself, I would probably just answer the questions and not necessarily “correct” him per se. (Similar to how in Japan, the server always talks to the Asian-looking person. You correct them not by calling them out, but by just responding in Japanese, and eventually they realize they can talk to you.)”

What’s important, then, is trying to gauge intent. She adds:

“However, if he continued or was being obviously rude to me, that would be another thing entirely, and I think that’s where the ‘line’ sort of starts. If a person is doing something that, even in his culture, would be rude (such as catcalling or harassment), that would not be tolerated.”

On the balancing idealism with safety and comfort:

My friend Nandika Kumari is an Indian human rights activist, and she says this regarding the clothes issue:

“The class divide in India often means that urban girls/women from the upper classes will usually dress like any other American twenty year old. However, this is a very small number of people. Most women in India will dress as per their cultural traditions (which are often conservative)… The one rule I’ve always followed is to be 100% comfortable with myself. This also means that in a place where I am likely to get stares if I wear shorts, I will make the functional decision to wear something more conservative so I don’t have to get into arguments with creepy men every 10 steps.”

In regards to the what visitors should do, she adds:

“If someone is just on holiday it probably makes sense to dress close to the way most women in the area are dressed simply to reduce chances of harassment (I know how that sounds). A dress code is only likely to be enforced in religious places. Everywhere else, you are free to dress the way you like. If a woman feels comfortable wearing a dress in an Indian market, then please go ahead and do it. The culture of trying to control women’s behaviour doesn’t need encouragement. Seeing a western woman in different clothing may actually do some good.”

She also noted, “This is India, where you won’t get a death threat for pushing cultural boundaries.” This doesn’t hold true for every country, however, and there are other places where pushing the envelope may be a much more dangerous thing to do. Sarah Lewis adds:

“If something isn’t exactly rude in their culture, but I feel uncomfortable with it, I would probably say something, although again, depending on my level of comfort, I would probably in varying degrees attempt to be sensitive to the culture and not aim to immediately embarrass the person (unless I was really in danger or in a bad situation).”

And, of course, some mansplaining.

Okay, so this isn’t technically mansplaining: I don’t really know what it’s like to travel as a woman, and I won’t pretend to. But I have come across similar situations where something happens in a culture I’m visiting that clashes with my own personal values. A quick story:

When I was working a journalism internship at an English-languge newspaper in China, I really wanted our editors to cover issues like human rights. My bosses had to worry about government censors, so they weren’t really on board with taking editorial advice from an uppity 22-year-old foreigner. I pushed them on it, and all it did was alienate me from my bosses, to the point where I wasn’t being given any work. Towards the end of the internship, I was grabbing drinks with a British journalist who’d worked in China for years. I bitched to him about the Chinese journalists, calling them cowards.

“That’s not been my experience of Chinese journalists,” he said. “I’ve found them to be quite brave.”

I asked how. He said, “You’ve been here what, two months? You need to get to know the system better before you can attack it. These journalists are quite subversive, but they have to be more subtle in their attacks than a British or American could be. They don’t seek to topple anything, just to chip away. Keep in mind very few western journalists are actually risking their necks when they go to work every day.”

He went on to tell me how Chinese journalists would frequently undermine government-mandated stories through the subtle use of puns. For example, when the government wanted to show off their expensive new language-teaching program (which was incredible ineffective), the paper’s editors titled the piece, “GOVERNMENT CREATES ARMY OF CUNNING LINGUISTS.” This effective pun-usage has become so pervasive among Chinese dissidents that censors in China have actually banned the use of puns and idioms.

The lesson of that internship for me was that while the causes I was fighting for were just the world over, the tools for fighting for them changed from place to place depending on the context. It’s easy to fall prey to the whole “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” trap, and for a lot of Westerners, becoming confrontational over small or large injustices is our hammer.

Your impulse to resist misogyny is always a good one, YASKWEEN, but you may simply not have the localized knowledge to resist it effectively. Which is fine. It creates an opportunity to learn and listen. The best thing you can do if you want to support feminists in the area you’re visiting is to ask them how you can best support them. Some may say money. Some may say political support from your government. Some may say “call out the waiter when he ignores you to talk to your husband.” Some may say, “definitely don’t call out the waiter.” The response will change based on the place you’re in and even on whom you’re talking to.

That said, respect cuts both ways. If you are trying to treat another culture with respect, you’re allowed to insist they treat you with respect as well.

Writer’s note: could we all  take a second to appreciate how far I came in a single week with my anonymous questioner acronyms? Last week, I dubbed my questioner “TUTBFTS.” This week, I pulled off motherfucking YASKWEEN. At this exponential rate of improvement, I’ll be a billionaire in a goddamn MONTH.

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Featured image by David Sorich.

A basic guide to low carbon emissions travel

THE BIGGEST ETHICAL CONCERN confronting today’s traveler is how to still see the world without leaving environmental destruction in your wake. This is, to be totally honest, a pretty impossible task — to get to most places on a normal schedule, you have to use some sort of carbon-emitting means of locomotion, and that in itself is contributing to man-made climate change. Presumably, you’ve already thought about this, and have decided that the benefit of traveling outweighs the negative impact of the emissions. It’s cool, I’ve done the same thing a bunch of times, and am in no place to judge.

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve decided you want to travel somewhere, and want to get there as green as you can. Congrats! The fact that you didn’t just go blundering out into the world with no consideration of the environment around you means you’re already less of a dick than most people. Here are the basics.

Zero-Emissions Travel

Photo:  Peter

Photo: Peter

This may seem blindingly obvious, but it’s worth noting that the best way to get from Point A to Point B in terms of low carbon emissions is by going the non-motorized route. There’s no such thing, incidentally, as zero-emissions travel, because you’re a carbon-emitting organism, and as such, nothing you do is zero-emissions. Presumably, you also fart, and farts contain methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. So the best thing you could do for the environment is to… well, not exist. But let’s assume you’ve rejected that option, and want to keep the emissions as close to zero as possible.

Your options tend to be slow, labor-intensive, expensive, or some mix of the three, and they’re fairly obvious — in the no-vehicle camp you’ve got walking or running, in the very-small vehicle camp you’ve got cross-country skiing, skating, and skateboarding, and in the larger vehicle camp you have bicycles, recumbent bicycles, tricycles, rickshaw cycles, and velomobiles. You also have water-based and sky-based forms of transportation, such as kayaks, canoes and sailboats for the former, and pedal-powered airplanes and helicopters for the latter.

The drawbacks for these forms of travel are obvious — the quicker ones tend to be pretty expensive, and the slower ones are, well, super slow, and limit your options significantly. There is a movement for this type of travel, though. It’s called slow travel. Slow travel is its own philosophy: not only does it focus on low emissions, but it also aims to reduce the element of rush from the travel experience, while emphasizing enjoyment and connection to locals and patronage of small local hotels and businesses.

Even if you don’t have a lot of time for, say, a slow travel trip around Europe, taking a walk or a bike ride is a pretty great way of seeing the area immediately around you. On top of that, walking has been proven to be good not only for your physical health, but for your emotional and mental health and for spurring creativity. So if you have the time — or have something particularly cool within walking or biking distance — this is absolutely a cool and legit way to travel.

Motorized travel

Okay. You’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided not to walk. What are your best options for low-emissions? Fortunately, the Union of Concerned Scientists has done some research in this field, and has found that the greenest mode of travel is…

Drum roll…

Photo:  joshr0ckx

Photo: joshr0ckx

Motorcoaches. Yup. Taking a Megabus, Greyhound or BoltBus is the most eco-friendly (and usually the cheapest) way of getting from Point A to Point B.

You might have been expecting something along the lines of a motorcycle or a small car to be the answer here, but the UCS’s reason for saying motorcoaches have the lowest carbon emissions is simple: busses split their emissions among a lot of people. So yes, a bus with 30 people on it will emit a lot more than a car, but it will emit a hell of a lot less than 30 cars.

The best of the rest

After motorcoaches, your options vary depending on how many people you’re traveling with, how far you’re traveling, and what type of vehicle you’re traveling in. Taking a train is usually the best form of travel otherwise, especially if the train is powered by electricity (which is common in some parts of the world, but not in the US outside of the Northeast Corridor).

When you’re driving by car, you cut your emissions every time you add a new person into the vehicle with you. So doing a one man (or woman) road trip is going to have about four times higher emissions than traveling with three other people. Buddy road trips are better anyway. It also helps to plan your trips so that you’re not going to be spending much time in traffic. Idling in traffic is a great way to pump poison in the atmosphere while not getting anywhere.

For cars, it also matters what type of car you use. Obviously, fuel-efficient cars, hybrids, and electric cars are the best, and obviously, gas guzzlers are the worst. Gas guzzlers, however, are not the most fuel-inefficient form of travel in every circumstance. That honor belongs to the first-class flight. The rationale behind this is that first class seats take up space that may otherwise have fit two or three other people. Flights aren’t eco-friendly regardless, but by taking up space that another person could have sat in, you’re effectively doubling your personal emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a tremendously useful little chart breaking down what the most efficient mode of travel is based on your circumstances (specifically, based on the distance you are going and the number of people you are traveling with).

This graphic was made by the  UCSUSA .

This graphic was made by the UCSUSA.

You can check out the full report here.

What about motorcycles?

Photo:  Phlubdr

Photo: Phlubdr

UCS didn’t include motorcycles in their analysis because they are a ridiculous way to travel, especially if you have more luggage than a Camelbak1. Your instinct may be that, because motorcycles have more fuel efficiency, that they’re a really great way to get around. While it’s true that they’re more fuel-efficient, Mythbusters proved that they’re not particularly better than cars because they tend to release a lot of other harmful particulates, like the ones that cause smog, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. Mythbuster Adam Savage says: “At best, it’s a wash. Motorcycles are just as bad for the environment as cars. At worst, they’re far worse.”

I personally don’t recommend riding motorcycles because a) they are wildly impractical for hauling luggage, and b) they’re suicide machines. I mean, have you seen the highways lately? They’re totally jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.

Tips for air travel

Flight isn’t ever the best way to get around, but it’s also not always the worst. Flying economy is, if you’re going long distances by yourself, a better choice than taking a car. And on top of this, there are ways to lower your emissions as much as possible. The UCS suggests doing the following to keep your flight emissions down:

  1. Fly economy. If you have to fly, just suck it up and fly cramped. Your discomfort is good for the environment. If you want to get really serious about it, some airlines offer more economy seats than others on the same type of plane. Use these airlines when you can. Southwest and JetBlue both offer economy-only flights, and these are better to take from an environmental perspective2.

  2. Fly non-stop. You’re adding to your total emissions by zig-zagging. If you have to connect, try and make it as straight a line as possible. Don’t, in other words, go Chicago-Atlanta-New York when you can go Chicago-Cleveland-New York.

  3. Fly at airports that aren’t super congested. Much like driving in traffic, busy airports mean more airlines taxi-ing on the tarmac, which means more idling emissions. Go to less-used airports to limit the congestion.

How about offsets?

No, this is not an offset. Photo:  Ekke

No, this is not an offset. Photo: Ekke

Okay, so you’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided to go by plane. Is there a way you can maybe counteract some of those carbon emissions?

The short answer is yes: Carbon offsets are basically programs you can invest in that absorb carbon or other greenhouse gases in some way shape or form. Some of the programs are geared towards capturing cow farts. I’m not kidding about that. Others simply plant trees, while others still are basically simple investments in renewable energy (wind and solar) companies. 

The longer answer is more complicated. Lots of environmentalist sites don’t advocate the use of carbon offsets because they see them as a kind of half-assed attempt to make ourselves feel better about our excessive carbon emissions. The truth likely lies somewhere in between: we should try to lower our carbon emissions on an individual and collective level, but carbon offsets are also worthy of our investment.

If you’re looking to offset your flights with a carbon offset, you need to shop around. Not all carbon offsets are created equal. But respected Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki recommends the Gold Standard as having the highest standards for offset quality. Suzuki also put together a guide for buying offsets which is worth checking out.

I also personally like Stand for Trees. They focus on conserving forests and communities that might other be clearcut or destroyed, thus depriving the world of a very natural way of absorbing carbon. They’re also spectacularly easy to use, and are pretty affordable as well.

In order to figure out how much carbon you’re dumping into the atmosphere by traveling, visit this travel carbon calculator, enter in your info, and it will give you a number. You can then buy carbon offsets that are equal or greater to that number and your damage has (theoretically) been offset.

Other solutions

On an individual level, the best thing you can do to lower your total travel emissions is to quite simply travel less, and to only travel by plane when totally necessary. Here are a couple more ideas:

  1. If you own a small business, or have the say over these types of things, try and do videoconferencing instead of actual conferences as much as you possibly can. If you don’t have control over this type of thing, then maybe lobby your bosses for it. Business travel is becoming less essential in the age of the internet, and if you can make cuts, you should make cuts.

  2. Set aside a year or two and spend zero time on a plane. Treat your hometown and the area around it as a tourist destination. Bike around one weekend. Try local restaurants and bars. Visit the touristy things you’ve never visited before. Learn about the history. Treat your home like it’s Paris. Mercifully, for most of the world, air travel is still a luxury, which means that this is something that you, as a flying member of the privileged few, have an opportunity to make a big impact in. You can fly less while traveling the same amount.

It’s worth noting, however, that while individual efforts to lower carbon emissions are worth making, they are ultimately insufficient to adequately address the problem of climate change. The solution to climate change is going to have to be a collective one. If you want to fight climate change, here are some really solid non-profits you can support:

On top of that, if you really care about this issue, get involved! Go protest something! Travel and environmentalism go hand in hand: if you love seeing the world, you should fight to keep it from being destroyed.

Featured  Photo: Everett Taasevigen

What are the best resources for ethical travelers?

Q: Besides your column and asking people who live where you are traveling, what is your favorite source of information about how to avoid travel dickishness?

Sincerely,
Trying to Undermine This Blog From The Start

Seriously, TUTBFTS? Simultaneously sending my brand new readers away from me immediately and demonstrating my incompetence at inventing clever name acronyms? Yeesh. I promise I’ll get better at the acronyms. I was trying to come up with something clever, but I liked the sound of TUTBFTS (which I’m saying in my head as “Tutbuftees”), so I’m rolling with it.

Okay, that’s a fair question, Tutbuftees, and it’s a good one for me to start this column off with. A large part of the reason I’m writing Don’t be a Dick is because there isn’t a really solid one-stop shop for ethical travelers. There are a lot of really great resources and websites, but most of them focus on really specific niches, or are overly academic, or are insanely broad and cover millions of things other than ethical travel, or are just booking sites. So hopefully, the answer to your question will very shortly be, “ME. I’M THE BEST.”

But this is my first column, so this site isn’t really fleshed out yet, and as such, I have no problem giving you a few good resources in your quest against dickishness that will lead you away from me.

The best site

My favorite anti-dick travel website is Ethical Traveler. They are a small NGO based out of California that organizes small group tours and, on a yearly basis, releases the 10 most ethical destinations in the world. They calculate these locations by examining all of the world’s developing countries, and by ranking them in four categories: environmental protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare. This report is designed to use the economic power of the tourism industry to encourage good behavior. Check it out. The other thing they offer that’s neat is this simple article, 13 tips for the accidental ambassador, which in a few hundred words renders my entire website moot. Read it before going anywhere.

The best of the rest

After that, I have either very little or far too much to offer… as it is, there are thousands of sites that sell or promote ethical, eco-friendly tours, and there are a few blogs like this one that sit abandoned on the internet like horrifying ghosts of website future.

Academic research on ethical and sustainable travel has (justifiably) focused more on governments, businesses, and systems than on the ethics of the individual traveler. This means it’s easy enough to find sites that book environmentally-friendly tours, or that target travel industry experts who want to encourage and promote more sustainable forms of travel. But, while there’s plenty of writing geared towards the ethical choices of the individual traveler, those articles tend to be spread out over publications, and aren’t necessarily to be found in a single place. That said, I’ll give two more sites that are worth looking at:

  1. The king of traveler-geared ethical travel sites is Ron Mader, who runs the genuinely old-school travel site Planeta. There’s a lot of really cool stuff there, but the site is literally old enough to drink, and it can be jarring for the modern web user to navigate.

  2. Much of the best ethical travel info is found on social media. My favorite is the Responsible Travel & Tourism Collective. They run a solid site, but the highlight of the project is their weekly Twitter chat (Wednesdays at 6 p.m. GMT using #RTTC), which takes on different issues facing the responsible travel community, and always features a pretty interesting conversation from pretty interesting people on how not to be a terrible dick while traveling.

The best method

Most ethical/responsible travel sites are geared towards environmentalism and ecotourism. Which is fair: this is the biggest issue facing the travel world (and, you know, humanity) today. But there are smaller questions of etiquette and cultural sensitivity that aren’t covered on these sites, and which you have to find by simply doing your research. Before going on a trip, just read up on the stuff you plan on doing.

For example: holding a baby tiger at a Thailand “Tiger Temple,” sounds insanely cute, right? Right. But also, the temples are absolutely terrible for the tigers. That’s literally the first article that comes up when you type “Tiger Temple Thailand” into Google. Point being, you can find the information if you take the time to look for it.

Of course, Tutbuftees, you also totally showed me up in my first column by suggesting what is literally the best option before I could suggest it myself: asking people who live where you are traveling. Damn you for undermining me. Communication is key, and the truth is, you’re not always going to know what’s going to be offensive when you enter a new culture. My advice is, when in doubt, ask, and when not in doubt, maybe consider giving doubt a try.

Simply and obviously put, just don’t be a dick. All you can do is be thoughtful, respectful, and curious. Sometimes you will accidentally do something that’s not cool*. What makes you a dick or not is if you get defensive, mean, shitty, or refuse to learn from your mistake. Travel is a learning process. Learning, by necessity, means failing from time to time.

Fortunately, there’s a world of information out there for the thoughtful traveler. I, your humble writer, plan on compiling the best of that information here on this site3. I hope that you’ll find it both engaging and entertaining. Becoming a better person is fun, and becoming a better person through travel is just the best.

Featured photo: JFXie

*Case in point: While in Iceland, I accidentally ate whale. This is not something that’s particularly okay, or that I’m particularly okay with. I didn’t know it was whale until after I ate it, I felt like a bit of an asshole, and then I decided to maybe ask for a translation of unfamiliar words next time, rather than just pointing at something that looked tasty and then unthinkingly sliding it down my dumb gullet while wondering why this steak tasted so fishy.

How I got over my squeamishness and started eating bugs

"WHAT'D YOU DO YESTERDAY?"

"Went to the Night Market," my roommate, replied.

"Ah," I said, "I keep meaning to do that." Our summer internship in Beijing was coming to an end, and the Donghuamen Night Market was a sort of tourist's rite of passage. "You try anything?" I asked.

"I ate a scorpion on a stick," she said. "Decided to skip the spiders and maggots, though."

"Maggots?"

"Yeah. Some of them were still alive."

"Nope. Nope nope nope." And that was it. I didn't get to the Donghuamen that summer. I just never woke up and thought, "I'm gonna eat some maggots today." I'll never make it there on any trip back -- it shut down last year, apparently when tourists finally realized that actual Beijingers don't eat bugs. The Market existed solely for visitors who wanted to dare each other to eat weird shit.

But I always regretted not seeing if I could do it. So I told Kae Lani Kennedy, our social media editor here at Matador, that I wanted to eat bugs on camera, and she said, "Okay."

Why Americans don't eat bugs

What made me finally decide to go for it was this video:

Humans, it turns out, have been eating bugs for as long as we've been eating anything else. They're everywhere, they're relatively easy to catch, and they're high in protein. It wasn't until the agricultural revolution that we stopped seeing bugs as food and started seeing them as pests that would destroy our crops. The humans who moved out of the tropics became even more separated from them -- nature was harsher in the colder parts of the earth, so it had to be kept out of our shelter and homes. Bugs were nature's way of trespassing into our safe, sterile, human-only zones.

People in the tropics, though, never stopped eating bugs. An estimated 80 percent of the global population eats bugs as a regular part of their diet. Westerners like to think of this as a cultural quirk, like the natives in the less civilized parts of the world are eating weird junk to freak us out, a la chilled monkey brain soup in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But the culture behaving irrationally is ours.

As the TED video that turned me into a bug-eater points out, we eat plenty of weird stuff already. Lobsters are basically sea insects. They look as weird or weirder than your everyday cricket. We also eat oysters -- slimy, amorphous blobs of goo that we shoot straight out of their salt-and-grime-encrusted shells.

There's no good reason why we should be squeamish about bugs, but not lobsters or oysters. It's merely a matter of getting over the "ick" factor and normalizing bug-eating. And as it turns out, there are a lot of great reasons to eat bugs.

Bug-eating is the future

The reason, of course, is climate change. Raising livestock contributes a lot to greenhouse gases (cow farts contain a lot of methane, which is even worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide), and it also takes up a lot of arable land which could be used for more efficient foods. This, along with a growing animal rights movement, is part of the reason so many people are becoming vegans or vegetarians.

Bugs, it turns out, are a great replacement. They are high in protein, they are lower in fat than meat, they are don't produce much in the way of emissions, they are super cheap and easy to raise in comparison to livestock, and they can feed on our food waste -- making them little edible recyclers.

The only real reason we won't eat bugs is because of a fairly irrational taboo. But taboos can be beaten -- it used to be considered taboo in the United States to buy life insurance (it still is in places like China -- placing what is basically a bet on human life is understandably considered bad form), but a concerted advertising campaign ended that in the 1840's.

I eat bugs

Kae Lani did some research and found a place in Manayunk, a neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia that would serve us bugs. It's called Taqueria Feliz, and Chef Tim Spinner told us we could film him cooking up the bugs.

Most Mexican joints in the US don't serve chapulines, a fairly common dish from the state of Oaxaca. Chapulines are crispy grasshoppers, and are usually seasoned with some mixture of salt, lime, garlic, and chili powder. Once they're grilled up, they basically taste like your typical bar snack -- salty and crunchy.

Spinner allowed us into the kitchen to watch him cook. The grasshoppers were not prepared in a way that made them look like something other than grasshoppers. He just threw them onto a hot skillet, drizzled lime juice on them, and let them get nice and toasty. He said that most of the people who order the chapulines do so on a dare, and usually after a few drinks. He served us ours on a taco. It was -- much to my surprise -- pretty damn good. We filmed the experience live on Facebook (we had some problems with sound quality, but we eat the bugs at about 10 minutes in).

Once you get over the hyper-awareness that you're eating bugs, it is not significantly different from anything else we eat. Spinner gave us a bunch of sauces to put on our tacos -- habanero, chipotle, salsa verde -- and served the tacos with a guacamole puree. It made the difference: if they hadn't been well-prepared, I wouldn't have been as jazzed about them as I was when I left the restaurant.

We're a long way from being a culture that regularly eats bugs. But the hurdles aren't as big as they might seem. Bugs -- like literally every other food on the planet -- are downright tasty if prepared right, and we might just save our planet if we eat a bit more of them.

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

Travel is a form of resistance

YOU CANNOT LOOK AT something from another perspective unless you move. This is not some grand statement about the importance of travel, but a simple fact of optics. In order to get a different view of the bookshelf that sits across from my desk, I must move my head a little bit, or perhaps go sit in my easy chair. Actually, that sounds really comfortable. I'm going to do that.

Okay. Back to the point. It must be hard, getting perspective, as a tree. Rooted to that same spot for a hundred or even a thousand years, changes only coming slowly and imperceptibly with your growth and the change of the environment around you. Even if trees had mouths and large cerebral cortices, we'd have trouble debating them. "Look at it from my point of view," we'd say, and they'd respond with "I can change my point of view about as much as you can drink water through your toes."

Humans, on the other hand, are movers. All animals are, but humans especially so. Crawdads scuttle from the bottom of one rock to another, and gila monsters may lumber to a neighboring stone with better sun, but none of them move as radically as humans. Even the birds and fish and bugs that make great, massive migrations don't travel to as diverse and strange places as we do. They may move from tundra to jungle, but they don't move from the stratosphere to the depths of the Marianas. And they certainly don't leave their kind behind in search of a new and different life.

The sedentary life.

"For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy. Unfulfilled," Carl Sagan once said. "Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven't forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood."

"We invest far-off places with a certain romance. The appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection, as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game… none of them last forever. Your own life, or your bands, or even your species might be owed to a restless few drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds."

In times like our own, the command from above is to be like a tree, to stay in one place, and to accept what can only be seen from your own spot. It is comfortable being a tree, no doubt, with little change or upheaval, and with the satisfaction of knowing what you see when the sun goes down today is what you'll see when the sun comes up tomorrow.

To be anything other than a tree, to move, to see things from other perspectives, is heresy. A tree does not need anything beyond what's immediately around it. Sunlight, soil, rain, maybe a gentle breeze -- what more could you want than that? Why is all that is necessary not enough?

It is an understandable thought for a tree. For a tree, to move too much is to be killed. We, mercifully, are not trees, and should not imagine that we are. We are humans. We move.

The threat of "They."

I've been told, by trees that I know and trust, that our culture cannot be reconciled with theirs. Today, "They" are usually Muslims, but "They" is title that designates different groups from generation to generation -- it was once communists, it was once Jews, it was once Native Americans, it was once the British. But the attributes of "They" never changes -- "They" aren't to be trusted, "They" are a threat to our way of life, "They" hate us, and thus must be fought or kept out, "They" are all of these things because that's just the way "They" are.

But I have been to visit "They," and I can't entirely distinguish "They" from "Me." Except for the accident of my birth, I expect that I would be exactly like them, and no better or worse for it. Many of them are trees, and are surprised to find out that I look so similar to them, now that I'm up close. I run home and tell the trees that -- well… how to explain it?

You know how when the wind blows really hard, and you bend, and can see just a little further around the corner than you usually can? Okay -- imagine that without falling down, you bent all the way around the corner and down the street. Imagine you bent all the way to the top of that mountain you can see in the distance, and you were looking down on this same spot from up there.

You'd be looking at the same place, right? But it would look really different, right?

This, understandably, is not an easy thing to explain to a tree. It may be better to just say to them, "You are not a tree. You are a human. Now move!"

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

I went to the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination 2 days after Trump’s election.

THE NIGHT OBAMA WAS ELECTED, my friend, sitting next to me at a Buenos Aires bar, almost got into a fight with an Argentine man, who loudly insisted that the Americans would kill their first black president. My friend and I drunkenly insisted that we wouldn’t -- that the violent, racist America we’d been raised in was drawing to a close, and that the future was bright.

8 years and two days later, I was in Memphis, Tennessee, at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. I stood underneath the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered. And I walked through the museum with my wife, somber and depressed. We had spent the previous two days sporadically bursting into tears, and being at the site of MLK's assassination brought what had just happened into sharp relief.

The layout of the museum moves historically, taking you from the slave trade to the Civil War, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow and the rise of the KKK, from Civil Rights to the election of Barack Obama.

The election of Obama is almost a triumphal endpoint to the museum. It's the end of history, and is placed as a way of saying, "Look how far we've come!" Now, on November 10th, 2016, that progress felt further away, and the legacy of the man who had died here -- right there! Right in the room through that plate glass! -- did not feel as secure as it had back in that Buenos Aires bar in '08.

The Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis has a kitschy, 1950's look. The facade of the building still exists, and it looks more like a stop along Route 66 than an assassination site. It's painted a shade of baby blue that hasn't been used since the 1970's, and giant old cars with fins are parked out front. Up on the balcony, there's a wreath, at the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.

Back in the day, the Motel was a popular lodging place for prominent black artists and activists. This was still at the time of segregation, and the building itself was right by Stax Records, so it was a convenient spot. The owner, Walter Bailey, named it after his wife Loree. Hours after King's assassination, Loree suffered a stroke, and she died five days later. Bailey permanently closed room 306, where King died, as a memorial, and later, the building was foreclosed upon. Bailey managed to rally a movement to convert the hotel into a memorial, and now, behind the old motel's facade, is the museum depicting the centuries of oppression against black people in America. Bailey never lived to see the museum completed.

Post-racial America

When Obama was elected, I have to admit to being one of the people who, at first, bought into the idea of a "post-racial" America. Racism had been my parents problem -- my parents, unlike their parents, had shaken off white America's history of bigotry, and had raised us untainted by that ugliness. I was on board with racial justice, but I was not what you would call "woke." Until the rise of birtherism (led, of course, by by President-elect Donald Trump), I was convinced that Obama's election had meant we'd moved on, and that whatever racism remained would simply become more and more marginalized until it eventually vanished. His election -- for the briefest time -- even felt like an expiation of our white guilt.

I knew, deep down, that this was naive, but I justified it, ironically, with the old Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Equality, we told ourselves, was inevitable.

The Obama years did not see equality. There was Trayvon Martin, then there was Eric Garner, then there was Michael Brown and Ferguson. There was Alton Sterling, there was Philando Castile, and there was the Charleston shooting. That is not a remotely comprehensive list, and these names may well end up on the walls of a future exhibit at the Lorraine Motel.

It is totally possible they already are. My wife and I walked out of the motel -- only half of the museum -- and wavered. Across the street, there is the boarding house where James Earl Ray shot King from, and the museum owns that building as well. There were more exhibits, but we couldn't handle it. That morning, my mother had found racist, pro-Trump graffiti on the playground where my nephew plays in Cincinnati. The days after the election had seen a spike in hate crimes, including some in neighborhoods I'd lived in. We walked back to our hotel, through the empty streets of Memphis.

Cincinnati, my hometown, incidentally hosts a similar museum, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Cincinnati was the first northern city, so it was a prominent spot along the Underground Railroad. It, like the Lorraine Motel, should be no more than a memorial. But these are buildings that we are, unfortunately, going to need to keep adding to.

This is the "long" part of the moral arc of the universe.

Over the course of the Obama administration, it slowly became clear to me that I was one of the "white moderates" Martin Luther King spoke of in his 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":

"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

I began to notice my white friends and family members blanching against Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick, railing against their methods instead of against the violence that made their methods necessary. I heard people I know and love get far angrier at the possibility of their being called racist than they ever got at actual instances of racism. And I knew I was part of the problem.

One of the most striking images at the Lorraine Motel is after a video at the beginning of the main exhibit. It tells the story of civil rights activism in the United States, and it ends with a silhouetted video image of people marching, holding up signs of protest. The speakers play the sound of footsteps walking -- not of chants and protests, but of the sound of feet hitting ground. To get to the next part of the museum, you must march with the shadows.

Martin Luther King's mountaintop seems further away now than it did 8 years ago. The Lorraine Motel no longer feels like a finished museum. It's time to start marching again.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo by Brad Montgomery.

Here's why I never give to beggars while traveling

"HEY MAN," THE GUY SAID, "I just got out of jail and I need bus fare to get to a job that social services set me up with. Any chance you guys could help?"

My friend reached into his pocket and handed the guy a couple of singles. The guy said, "Thanks," and then glanced over at me.

"Sorry man. No cash."

As we were walking away I debated telling my friend. I don't want to contribute to a stereotype -- I know that everyone who begs isn't necessarily strung out on drugs, that some of them are legitimately down on their luck -- but I decided it was better to tell.

"I've seen that guy like, 5 times over the past two years," I said. "He used to hang outside the bars and give that same spiel."

My friend shrugged. "Maybe he's using it for food."

"Yeah," I said, "Maybe."

Beggars at home.

One survey found that the "they'll only spend it on drugs," line of thinking is somewhat justified and somewhat overblown. Around 44% of panhandlers admit to spending the money they earn on drugs, while 94% use the money for food. There's obviously room for lying within a survey, so the actual number might be higher. But not all beggars are spending the money on drugs.

And begging is not a particularly lucrative business: a "career" beggar can make between $600 and $1500 a month. Even on the high end, that money goes quickly: remember, they have no way of saving that money, so the incentive is to spend it quickly.

The thing is, there are some pretty effective ways of helping the homeless, but giving them money directly is not one of them. The problem has to be attacked on a societal level, not on an individual level: Utah famously reduced homelessness by 91%. How? By giving the homeless homes. At the end of the day, it turned out that the cost of giving someone a home was cheaper than footing their hospital bills and legal fees. And, state governments aside, there are really effective charities that fight homelessness that could absolutely use your money (I've included a list of them at the bottom of the article).

There's a psychological element to wanting to give money directly to the beggars: first, it feels good. The National Institute of Health has found that we experience more pleasure in the brain when we give our money away than we do when we spend out money on ourselves. And it's upsetting to see someone in such dire straits -- the look of disappointment, frustration, or even humiliation on their faces when you say "no" is enough to make any decent person die inside, just a little.

But there's a greater morality than what just makes you feel bad: instead of providing the beggars with short-term (possibly drug-induced) relief, you can help them in the long term, by setting aside the money you would've given them for long-term, institutionally-backed relief.

Beggars abroad.

The "they'll only spend it on drugs" rationale crumbles when you're abroad. If you go to Southeast Asia, for example, you'll notice immediately that many of the beggars are amputees. The high amputee rate in countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia is largely because of the millions of unexploded ordinances that the US dropped during the Vietnam War.

If you go to a place like India, you'll notice that most of the beggars are kids -- but maybe there's a mother here and there who is carrying an infant with severe elephantiasis.

In corners of the world that have had much more difficult recent histories than we have had (and whose difficult histories we may have played an unfortunate hand in), begging is less a symptom of drug dependency than it is of extreme misfortune, extreme poverty and extreme wealth disparity.

So we should give money to these beggars, if not the ones in the developed world right?

Still nope.

Gangs, violence, and Effective altruism

There's a scene in Slumdog Millionaire where one of the children, Salim, wanders into a thug's home. The two main characters have been begging for the thug, and he's been giving them a cut of their earnings. Sometimes the kids wear eyepatches while they beg, knowing that disabled or deformed kids are more likely to make money. But the thug knows what's more convincing than an eyepatch: an actual deformity.

So when Salim walks into the thug's home, he sees the logical extension of this mindset: the thug is intentionally blinding children.

This, unfortunately, is not a total fiction. There are organized crime syndicates that use "organized begging" as one of their ways of making money, and they have been known to intentionally deform children to increase their begging revenue. They also have been known to forcibly get the kids addicted to drugs, so the kids become dependent on the fix and can't run away.

And this isn't an enterprise that's confined to India: organized begging exists on most continents, including Europe. This isn't to say the money you're giving to beggars abroad is guaranteed to go directly towards organized crime… but it's also not guaranteed to not be going towards organized crime.

In effect, it's the same abroad as it is in the United States: giving to beggars will feel good no matter what, but it's a roll of the dice whether it will do any actual good whatsoever -- and it might do harm.

So what should you do instead?

If you don't want to do harm, but still want to help, there are ways for you do effectively do that. Some people suggest giving out packets of food and/or water, but this can also be tricky -- there are no shortage of beggars that would accept food and eat it, for sure, but in an impoverished economy, anything can be resold. So you might just be adding another step to the same eventual end.

Instead, maybe try this: keep track mentally of how many beggars approach you on your trip. Have a designated amount of money set aside for each beggar. Then, at the end of the trip, give that money to a charity that works to help people in desperate need. Here are some charities you can give to internationally:

Here are a few options focused on the US:

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

Should I use Airbnb?

From the consumer’s side, the sharing economy is pretty fucking rad. Anyone who grew up riding in taxis and then suddenly switched to Uber knows why: getting into a cab used to be like stepping into a scene from Mad Max: Fury Road, with drivers who were very frequently about as sane as the War Boys.

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Uber drivers, however, depend on good ratings from those riding with them, and as such, have an incentive to not drive like lunatics. Likewise, you as the consumer get rated, so you have an incentive to be on your best behavior.

Consumers get the same sort of benefit with Airbnb: it’s not free, like traveler favorite Couchsurfing, so it doesn’t have the same sketchy feel, and it grants customers the opportunity to stay in actual homes in the neighborhoods they’re visiting, rather than in a generic hotel room.

The problem is that the “sharing economy” manages to conveniently undercut decades of labor laws, housing laws, and civil rights laws in ways that the legal system hasn’t caught up to just yet, which is causing some pretty ugly side effects. Uber deserves attention — it dodges and fights regulations that would apply to other cab companies, underpays its drivers, and leave cities that set a higher standard for them — but for now, we’re just going to focus on Airbnb.

What’s wrong with Airbnb?

Airbnb has two really big problems with it that ultimately stem from the same issue. And to be fair, these aren’t necessarily issues that were created by Airbnb, so much as they are issues that stem from the entire concept of the “sharing economy.”

1. Airbnb is playing by a different set of rules.

I live in the seaside town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Airbnb is a thing here: a lot of people will rent out their homes for a weekend to get some extra money, and Airbnb and its competitor VRBO are the simplest ways to do it. This is a tourist town, so the town encourages people to invite tourists into their homes. But some of the larger businesses in town are hotels, and there’s a good number of boutique hotels and BnB’s as well. And while they are large for the town, they aren’t mega-conglomerates like Hilton or Marriott. They’re small businesses. So it’s easy for them to be undercut by Airbnb. A homeowner’s profit margin doesn’t need to be as big as a hotelier’s — they aren’t running a full operation, they’re just trying to make some extra cash.

All of this would be fine — competition makes the market work, etc., etc. But users of websites like Airbnb and VRBO often don’t submit to fire safety and coding regulations that would be required of hotels and regular BnB’s, despite being legally required to. It’s also relatively easy for the Airbnb hosts to dodge paying their taxes, as they’re small enough to fly under the radar. This puts the Airbnb users at an unfair advantage, and it pisses a lot of hotel and BnB owners off.

Airbnb presents themselves as scrappy underdogs fighting big mean corporate hotel chains. When New York hoteliers claimed Airbnb was cutting into their business, Nick Papas, an Airbnb spokesperson told Bloomberg News:

“In fact, without Airbnb many of these travelers wouldn’t be able to visit New York City at all or would have cut their trip short. While the big hotels have been clear that they are concerned about losing the opportunity to price gouge consumers, we hope they will disclose the percent of their profits that stay in New York City and the percent they send to corporate headquarters outside of New York and, even, outside of the country.”

But Airbnb is not an underdog — last year, it was valued at $20 billion. That’s in the same league as Hilton ($27.8 billion) and Marriott ($22.9 billion). Since Airbnb isn’t responsible for making sure it’s users are paying taxes and are up to code, it’s basically just playing with the bumpers up.

By presenting themselves as a mere platform connecting people in the “sharing economy,” rather than as the manager of a huge network of small vendors, Airbnb is skirting regulations and making out like bandits.

2. Airbnb may be the reason “the rent is too damn high.”

The publication Grist explained the basics of this problem in a recent article, using the example of Tarin Towers, a resident of a rent-controlled building in San Francisco. Her building was bought by a real estate developer who wanted to charge way more for the rooms, so he offered the residents buyouts. Towers did the math and realized that even with the buyout, she wouldn’t be able to afford a new apartment in the city’s absurdly inflated rental market. From Grist:

“Towers held out as her old neighbors left and new tenants started moving in. Unlike the old neighbors, these new people were young, mobile, transient. And there were a lot of them. [Her landlord] O’Sullivan, it turned out, had leased the building to a startup called the Vinyasa Homes Project. Towers soon discovered that Vinyasa had listed her building on Airbnb, advertising it as a ‘co-creative house.’ The listing made it sound almost like a commune. ‘You want to join a community of like-minded peers who are doing inspirational things?’ it read. ‘This is the place for you.’ Unlike in the communes of yesteryear, however, each bed is going for more than $1,500 a month — and these are bunk beds in shared rooms. That means each apartment could now be bringing in $10,000 a month in rent.”

Towers eventually was forced out of her apartment, and took the buyout. She can’t afford a new rental in the city, so she’s housesitting until she figures something out.

This is a problem everywhere, though: in Barcelona, in Berlin, in New York, in New Orleans. It’s particularly tragic in the Big Easy, as it’s forcing out the last long-term residents who held on in neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

It’s the worst for cities with tight housing markets and a heavy flow of tourists. Remember the New York City mayoral candidate whose platform was “the rent is too damn high”? It may have gotten that high in part because of services like Airbnb — it’s way easier to wait for someone who will pay $2 grand a month for an apartment when you can rent the apartment out for exorbitant prices to travelers in the short term.

You could argue that Airbnb isn’t responsible for the misuse of its service. But they aggressively fight any measure that would put the onus of responsibility on them. When San Francisco tried to pass a measure that would restrict the number of nights a year a unit could be used for short-term rentals, Airbnb spent $8 million fighting against it. When San Francisco tried to pass a rule that would force Airbnb to ensure its hosts were up-to-code, they donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to local political campaigns.

Some cities have fought back effectively. Barcelona has seen a population drop in its historic neighborhoods thanks in large part to its tourism industry, and as a result, have started slapping Airbnb with fines for offering apartments that weren’t registered with the city, and Berlin and Paris and even New York have been fighting back as well. But this is a problem that’s far from solved.

3. It’s not totally Airbnb’s fault.

In Airbnb’s defense, there’s no good business reason they would voluntarily take responsibility for policing their users. It’s not a charity, and it would be very expensive for them to check up on every single host. It would be a guaranteed way to decrease profits, which, incidentally isn’t legal — companies are required by to take actions that benefit their shareholders.

But this is why we have regulation. Airbnb isn’t tasked with doing what’s best for the local communities: our governments are. So this is a problem that’s fixed not by Airbnb being benevolent, but with good policies and effective enforcement. Which means it’s a battle that needs to be had on a city-by-city and country-by-country basis.

The problem is that we simply don’t know how serious the problem is yet — there’s been a little bit of research, but it’s far from conclusive, and has possibly been biased against services like Airbnb. There’s no reason to think that good policies couldn’t help solve the problems that Airbnb and its “sharing economy” counterparts cause. But more work needs to be done.

So what can we as travelers do?

Let’s be up front: staying at an Airbnb is a cooler experience than staying at a hotel. I have a friend who stayed in a goddamn castle in Italy. I know people who have stayed in treehouses in Oregon and igloos in Norway. In the Netherlands, you can stay in an honest-to-god windmill. And it’s cool that we’re giving regular people this platform to make some extra money, host out-of-town guests, and maybe try something new. So I won’t say “don’t ever stay at an Airbnb or a VRBO.” This is the future, and the solution to its problems will be through systemic change, not through any single individual’s actions. But it’s also time to call bullshit:

There is no such thing as the sharing economy. It’s just called the economy,and it’s been around for millennia.

Are you trading goods and services for cash? Yeah — that’s the economy. You’re just doing it in a different place. Airbnb and Uber haven’t reinvented the economy, they’ve just used the internet to create a new space in which economic transactions can happen.

So with that in mind, here are a couple of things you can to be a part of the solution:

1. Support fair regulation of Airbnb & VRBO in your hometown.

If your town has a lot of tourists, try to be supportive of government attempts to regulate businesses like Airbnb and VRBO. The companies will do shitty ad campaigns about how your city is turning it’s back on money and innovation, but that’s just a scare tactic. Anyone who has lived in a tourist town knows that, even if the economy is dependent on tourist dollars, what’s good for the tourists isn’t always good for the locals. Try and push your local governments to strike a balance between making money and supporting the local community. Get involved. Get organized. This is pretty much always the best solution to anything.

2. Try to avoid the shitty Airbnb hosts.

You can take steps to avoid giving money to the douchebags who are misusing the service. Think of it as another thing you want to research, along with “safety,” “service,” and “cleanliness.” In short, you want to seek out spots that the current owners actually live in.

Becky Caudill over at Casa Caudill has some great tips for spotting the shitty hosts using the platform itself. Here’s what she suggests looking for when you’re checking out the photos of the location provided by the host:

  • "Seek out properties that are decorated like you or your friends would decorate your own homes.

  • Look for plants (not just fresh flowers).

  • Check out the art. Is everything from Ikea or another mass market supplier? Or are there original prints or photographs on the wall? On shelves? Is there any artwork at all?

  • Does the kitchen come with basic supplies like salt, pepper, olive oil, etc? People who live somewhere will have these things on hand. (Although maybe not in NYC? It’s my understanding from friends there that people eat out every night and never cook so maybe they don’t need these things?)

  • Do the owners read? Are there books other than travelogues visible in the pics? (And for goodness sake, if you see hundreds of travel brochures that’s a dead giveaway this place is operated solely as a vacation rental property).

  • Stay in real neighborhoods, not tourist areas."

It also helps to delve into the comments a bit. Can you get a sense from the comments as to whether this is actually someone’s home, or is it more of an “operation”? Are there big discrepancies between the reports of the rooms? That could be a sign that there are multiple rooms that are lived in by different people in your building, indicating that this is being done by a landlord, not an owner or a tenant.

And of course, if you end up in one of these “operations” in spite of your best efforts, it’s okay: just go onto Airbnb and mention it in the comments. Helping others identify exploitative hosts is as important as helping them identify bigots or creeps. And that’s what the review process is for.

As always, the name of the game is damage control — try your best to support the local communities you’re visiting. Sometimes you’ll fail. Other times you won’t. And don’t assume that all things that are shiny and new are inherently good.

Writer’s note: This article is a work in progress. The story’s changing constantly, and so much new stuff is coming out that it basically took 2 months to write, at which point I was like, “Fuck it, I’m just going to put it up and add to the advice as I come across it.” I even ended up skipping an entire section on racial discrimination within Airbnb’s platform, which is obviously worth discussing. In short — comments and input are welcome, and I will continue to study this issue and report back to you.

Featured Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

What the hell is the matter with the Olympics?

THE OLYMPIC GAMES ARE STARTING TODAY, and the news from Brazil during the lead-in has been almost invariably bad. People are freaking out about Zika. Body parts are washing up on the volleyball beach. Brazil is in the middle of its worst recession since the 1930's. The Brazilian President is in the midst of impeachment proceedings. Crime is spiking, and in response, police are imprisoning street children with no cause -- sometimes, the children are even disappearing entirely. And the Olympic village is underprepared.

The news out of Brazil has been so uniformly bad that some Olympians are complaining that it's a sign of the media's negativity, of its desire to ruin everything fun and good. And it's understandable that they feel this way: pretty much every Olympics in recent years has dealt with alarmism in the run-up to the Games, and often, the issues that were presented as so terrible before the Games seemed to leave the conversation altogether as soon as the closing ceremonies wrapped up.

In 2008, the scandal was over Chinese repression in Tibet (repression that had been happening for literally half a century prior to the 2008 Bejing Games). In 2012, Mitt Romney said London wouldn't be ready for the summer games. It ended up being totally ready. In 2014, the hashtag #SochiProblems blew up on the interwebs -- but many of the complaints, like the ones complaining of the no-paper toilets that are extremely common in much of the world, were overblown.

And it didn't start in 2008. Just check out the Wikipedia page for Olympic scandals. In 1904, an American marathoner was stripped of his medal because he hopped into a car for half of the race. Hitler's 1936 Olympics were controversial because of the awfulness of his regime. The 1960 Olympics were controversial because of the inclusion of apartheid South Africa's inclusion. And the US boycotted the 1980 Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The problems can be real and overblown at the same time.

It's tempting, given the biennial freak-out, to assume that this is just another example of the media exploiting an easy story. And hey, I'm a member of the media. To an extent, it's true: It's incredibly easy to find good stories about what's going down in Rio.

But it's not that simple. The truth is that the Olympic Games provide an excellent spotlight on the host countries, and it's a spotlight that can be exploited by both tourism boards and by political campaigners. If you were fighting to save Rio's street children, why wouldn't you use the Rio games as an opportunity to shine a light on the country's problems with drugs, street gangs, and systematic police killings? Samesies for opponents of Putin in 2014, Free Tibeters in 2008, and Nazi-haters in 1936.

So it's not an entirely bad thing to focus on the problems with the Olympics. Those problems will change from country to country. But there are a few problems that seem to recur every two years. And these deserve our attention.

The economic catastrophe of major sporting events

When cities try to sell their citizens on hosting the Olympic Games, they have to try to appeal to more than just hometown pride. Pride goes a long way, but it can be counteracted by the giant crowds, the heightened terrorism risk, giant, the giant, disruptive construction projects, and the general lunacy that comes with being the home to the Olympics.

The most obvious reason to host the Olympics, then, is because it's such a giant boon to the local economy, right?

Well, as time goes on, we're learning that the Olympics doesn't really help local economies in a big way. We know that the Olympics does mean a brief, intense rise in tourism to the host country, which undoubtedly makes the country a lot of money, and which may mean more tourism in the long run. There's also research from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that finds that countries that host the Olympics see a 30% rise in exports, which is also undoubtedly good for the economy.

But the question gets murkier when you factor in the costs of hosting the Olympics. You may remember hearing, a couple of years ago when Brazil hosted the World Cup, that a lot of stadiums and roads had to be built that, after the event, would never really be used again. John Oliver even did a segment on it.

Well, there's the same problem with the Olympics. Brazil's spending on infrastructure for the event is expected to top $25 billion, which is an incredible amount of money for a country that's in economic recession, and which just recently spent a similar buttload ($15 billion) on the World Cup.

And there's no doubt that some of the stuff that gets built for the purpose of the games is useful to the country afterwards. Better roads, for example, are always a good investment. But a lot of the facilities used for these mega-events end up being unused afterwards, and take up valuable space. And it's worth pointing out that Brazil could've just built better roads anyway, and skipped building the one-time-use stadiums and sports facilities. That would have been a much more effective investment.

Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist, has found that pretty much across the board, the Olympics aren't great for local economies. And cities are catching on -- twelve cities made a bid for the 2004 games. For the 2022 games, only two did: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Remember that NBER report that suggested the Olympics made exports rise by 30%? They found the same rise in cities that made a bid, but did not win it. As a result, they concluded that "the Olympic effect on trade is attributable to the signal a country sends when bidding to host the games, rather than the act of actually holding a mega-event."

The human rights of the Olympics

When Oslo, Norway withdrew its bid for the 2022 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee was stuck with two not-great choices: China and Kazakhstan. Both countries have authoritarian governments and both countries have pretty poor human rights records. China very effectively used the 2008 Olympics as a sort of international propaganda tool, and Kazakhstan would likely do the same.

The pro-Olympic argument says that the spotlight the games shine on the country will help to improve the human rights conditions, and there's certainly a case to be made that the world hears more about social problems in countries that host major sporting events. But countries also tend to get very concerned about presenting a clean, orderly Olympiad, which can lead to crackdowns on protesters, dissidents, and outsiders.

In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that Chinese officials had arrested and imprisoned activists, that they had evicted thousands of residents and then demolished their homes to make rooms for the games, that they had restricted foreign media, and that they had ejected "undesirable" people such as beggars, sex workers, and migrants out of the city in the run up to the games.

But it's not just authoritarian China that cracks down before big events. Democratic Brazil is doing the same in Rio. In an effort to get a grip on the city's crime problem, police are arresting and sometimes even murdering street children who are found outside of the favelas. They aren't fighting crime. They're just covering it up by committing more crimes.

It's not surprising: things like political dissidence and crime are thorny, complicated issues with dozens of contributing factors, like poverty, economic inequality, and drugs. Ideally, we'd like to think a spotlight would force Olympics hosts to address those factors. But historically, it appears more likely to force a mere cosmetic change at best, and a cover-up at worst.

So what's the solution?

The problems with Rio, the problems with the selection process, and the problems with the economics of the games are starting to get overwhelming. And if the choices keep coming down to cities like Beijing and Almaty, the IOC may be forced to make some serious changes.

One really interesting idea that would basically fix all of these problems has been floated around recently:

What if the Olympics were just always in Greece?

Greece is the home of the Olympics, and there are already facilities from the 2004 games there. Instead of spending constantly on building new facilities in new countries that could probably use the money in more productive ways, what if funds were just spent on keeping up existing facilities?

The idea's gotten support from IMF chief Christine Lagarde, the Washington Post, and a number of activists as well. Another similar solution would be to pick several locations -- maybe one in each hemisphere, or one on each continent -- and have the games there on rotation. It would solve the human rights problem, for the most part -- Greece has a pretty decent record -- and would also be way less wasteful and much more sustainable.

The IOC also needs to be fixed. It's been beset by corruption allegations for years, with many activists comparing it to the awful snake pit that is FIFA. But this can't happen until participating countries like the US start really demanding it, or start prosecuting the corruption like they did with FIFA.

At their heart, the Olympics are one of the better things we do as a species. The games are about friendly competition between nations, they're about achievement, they're about sportsmanship, and they're about putting differences aside and coming together as a world. Even in spite of all of the terrible news in 2016, there are still some amazing stories coming out of the Games: this year will feature, for example, the first ever refugee-only Olympic team.

But politics and money have started to turn the games sour. We're hurting the poor and marginalized people of the host countries, which runs directly counter to the Olympic ideal. Unless we can make serious changes, we're going to keep seeing scandals like Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014, and Rio 2016. The Olympics is about pushing ourselves to be better. We should hold the games to the same standard.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

How surfing in Costa Rica made me into a beautiful human being

WHEN I CALLED MY WIFE A FEW hours after my surf lesson, I decided not to tell her about the surf shop owner’s eye color. This was not because I was ashamed of how quickly I noticed how handsome the guy was — I’m pretty sure everyone who has ever looked him in the eye has felt a small puff of God’s breath blowing back their own mousey, inadequate hair and rocking them ever-so-slightly off balance — but because either I lacked the mastery of the English language required to adequately describe his eyes, or because the English language was incapable, in its infinite combinations and metaphorical twistings, to adequately explain what it was I saw.

I would have had to say, “His eyes were the color of granite mountains reflecting off of the waters of the fjord.”

To which she would reply, “So…. they were gray.”

“No, no, no,” I would say, “They were… the color of the earth rising over the dark side of the moon.”

“So blue?”

It would have served only to embarrass me and to commit a sacrilege by describing something that, like God, ought not be described.

The dude was handsome, is all I’m saying. And it’s this inherent handsomeness in every surfer I’ve ever met that has kept me from becoming a surfer. They all have long, bleach-blonde hair, cut, naturally-tanned physiques, and easy-going demeanors that make you want to lay down on a bed of palm leaves and do as they say.

I’m a doughy, pale, pudge-wad. My beard has bald spots. My hair naturally grows into the shape of the douchebag frat-boy from every 80’s movie’s pompadour. The only exercise I ever do is yoga, and that’s because there’s always a nap at the end.

So surfing — though always alluring to me in a very real way — has always felt forbidden to me. As if it was only open to the beautiful people, and not to the chinless cave-people who populate the internet. Even though I live a ten minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean (and a pretty decent surfing beach, by Jersey Shore standards), I’d never once tried to surf.

 

The internet’s cave-boy among the beautiful people.

But then Matador flew me down to Dominical, a small surf town on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and after a week of jungle hikes, beach-bumming, and cerveza-drinking, I was given a free day.

So I signed up for a surf lesson at Hunky McDreamboat’s Surfatorium (honest to God, I forget the name, and wish I didn’t, but in my defense, I was too busy composing metaphors for his eye color to remember piddling little things like names). It was the perfect opportunity. Matador’s staff is a pretty outdoors-y, surf-y crew, and they all got up early to catch the waves at high tide, so I knew that they wouldn’t be out during low tide to see me fail miserably. I went to the school, was swept off my feet by Hunky McDreamboat, and was assigned a surf instructor named Jossue.

Jossue was a Dominical native, and he wore a long-sleeve surf shirt, thank god. This was a very confusing sport for a man who had always identified as straight. After Jossue taught me the basics of standing up on a surfboard by making me jump up and down in the sand (which would have been embarrassing, but my mind was just shouting “LET ME BE ONE OF YOU” on repeat at this point), he took me out into the water. The waves smacked into me, knocking me over, as Jossue glided effortlessly through them like a chiseled Greek sea-god, or a more-handsome Moses.

Then he put me on the board.

It was then that I discovered why all surfers are easy-going.

First off, in other sports — like roller skating, biking, skiing — falling is an inevitability in the early attempts, but through the slow acquisition of competence, it becomes something that you can eliminate almost entirely.

This is not the case with surfing. In surfing, you have to fall off the board every single time. Even if you get up. Even if you have the best ride of your life. You do not glide up onto the beach at the end and hop off upright onto the sand. No — a surfer always falls.

Falling has always felt like a failure to me in other sports. But in surfing, it was constant. I knew, after the first wave, that I would fall. And when you know that, it’s hard to care about failure anymore. This mentality makes you an infinitely less neurotic person, and is undoubtedly why surfers are all chill as fuck.

 

Where the handsome comes from.

It was shortly thereafter that I discovered why all surfers are handsome. It’s in part, yes, due to all of the seawater and sunlight turning their bodies bronze and their hair blonde, but it mostly has to do with how incredibly tiring surfing is as a sport. You maybe — maybe — stand up one in five attempts when you’re first learning. And this takes an insane amount of balance, as well as leg and core strength. It’s a motion that clearly only comes with muscle memory, and with a lot of failure.

After my lesson, I talked to one of the editors at Matador, also a surfer, who said that he only learned the sport by going out literally every morning for two hours for an entire summer. That amount of effort is, inevitably, going to give you a rockin’ bod.

What I earned, after two hours of splashing around like a kid in a tub, was a chance to sit on the beach with Jossue and eat a half of a pineapple he’d cut up for me. We sat there wordlessly, looking out at the waves.

“His eyes are the color of sea spray in the Pacific wind — nope. Nope. I’ll just tell her he was handsome.”

Editor’s Note: the name of the surf school is Sunset Surf. Jesus, Matt, get a hold of yourself.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Featured Photo: Lenny K Photography.

How a single travel writer managed to piss off an entire country

LOUISE LINTON DID WHAT MANY OF US DID: She volunteered abroad, then came back and wrote about it. Unlike the rest of us, though, she managed to piss off an entire country. Linton, a Scottish actress and producer, went to Zambia back in 1999 when she was 18-years-old to volunteer at a commercial fishing lodge in Zambia. While there, she claims she was caught up in the Congolese civil war which had spilled over into Zambia, and eventually had to leave. Her book, titled In Congo's Shadow: One Girl's Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa, is being accused of being a wildly inaccurate depiction of Zambia, and of also being one of the worst examples of the "White Savior Complex" in travel writing today.

You can read an excerpt she wrote for the book's release over at the Telegraph. If you don't want to subject yourself to it, just know that yes, it does indeed contain lines like, "I tried not to think what the rebels would do to the 'skinny white muzungu with long angel hair’ if they found me," and "Should I stay and care for Zimba, risking my life? Or flee to the safety of my family and break her heart?"

Zimba, of course, was a 6-year-old HIV-positive orphan, whose "greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola."

Inaccuracies and outcry

There's been a bit of an outcry among Zambians since the piece was first published in the Telegraph, and the hashtag #LintonLies is now trending. What "lies" are they referring to? Well, Congolese rebels never came over into Zambia, which is actually one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. And the name "Zimba" is a tribal name -- from a tribe that her character Zimba did not belong to. On top of this, she mentioned "monsoons" (Zambia doesn't have monsoons), "12-inch-spiders" (nor do they have those), and she said the rebels were spilling over from the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, which, incidentally, happened in neither Zambia nor Congo, but in Rwanda.

Most offensive, though, is that the piece hits every stereotype about Africa -- political unrest, HIV, orphans, poverty, and the idea that the only thing that can fix the problem is a white girl.

For her part, Linton is surprised at all of the negative feedback: "I am genuinely dismayed and very sorry to see that I have offended people as this was the very opposite of my intent. I wrote this book with the hope of conveying my deep humility, respect and appreciation for the people of Zambia and my sincere hope of making a positive impact there as an 18-year-old volunteer in 1999."

In truth, Linton's piece, terrible though it may be, is part of a much larger problem within travel writing.

This isn't confined to Linton

As a professional travel writer, this story hits a little bit close to home. Not only have I read a hundred different versions of this piece over the past decade, I've probably written it myself (though I really hope, when I did, that mine was a bit more self-aware). The main difference is that she managed to get her story published over at The Telegraph, while mine went up on my Facebook page and a now-defunct Blogspot site.

You've undoubtedly seen Facebook friends post their "white savior" pictures as well: they are pervasive enough that there's a "White Savior Barbie" Instagram account dedicated exclusively to parodying them.

What's most upsetting is that most people who write pieces like this have the best of intentions, and genuinely think they are making the world more "aware" of problems like HIV and extreme poverty. And it's understandable that people would find this to be a compelling narrative: movies like The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves and even Avatar have "white savior" themes, and have been relatively popular. So it's no surprise that kids who travel abroad find themselves drawn to the idea that they are saviors rather than guests.

Travel writers need to do better

As a genre, travel writing is spectacularly guilty of fetishizing other peoples, playing up Messiah narratives, and making other cultures seem worse than they really are. In fact, there's a very big problem at travel writing's very core: why would you send me, a white dude from Ohio, to tell you about life in "darkest Africa," when you could very easily ask an African who has lived there all of their life to tell you about it instead? We have the technology to solicit travel tips from locals literally everywhere on earth. So why is travel writing still so predominantly white?

Mercifully, we live in an age where Linton (who is almost certainly being genuine when she says she meant no ill) can't write something deeply inaccurate without getting pushback online. But the catastrophe that is her book launch should serve as a reminder to travel writers everywhere: you can't speak for anyone's experience but your own. You have to aim for accuracy and avoid hyperbole. You have to be more self-aware. You must understand your own privilege. And, if it's in your power, help provide a platform to a more diverse set of voices. [mn-post-ender]

Update: The Telegraph has removed the piece. We've linked to the reproduced piece on another blog. Photo: Grigory Kravchenko. This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Why I will never cancel a trip because of a terrorist attack

I MOVED TO LONDON AT THE END of the summer of 2011. This was a couple of months after the city had exploded in riots following the police shooting of a man in Tottenham. My aunt called me a few days before I left.

"You're still planning on going?"

"Uh… yeah." I said, "I'm not going to skip grad school because of riots."

"Hm. Well, be safe, I guess."

I hung up confused. Ten years earlier our own hometown had exploded in race riots. I (and I'm sure my aunt) never actually saw or was affected by these riots in any real way. Most riots are pretty easy to avoid.

And why on earth would I let some looting hooligans keep me from living in my favorite city on the planet?

Paris and Istanbul

I've heard disturbingly similar sentiments following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Istanbul. I imagine others canceled plans to Orlando after the shooting in June. "It happened once!" people think, "So it may be about to happen again soon!"

This isn't totally faulty logic. Istanbul has had three terrorist attacks this year, thanks to Turkey's ongoing conflict with a Kurdish separatist group and with the Islamic State. But Istanbul receives millions of visitors every year -- the Grand Bazaar alone is the most visited tourist attraction in the world, with over 91 million visitors per year -- and your odds are still extraordinarily low of getting caught up in a terrorist attack. The US State Department advises against traveling to Southeast Turkey (especially near the Syrian border) but otherwise just says to exercise caution when traveling in the country.

For my part, I will never cancel a trip because of the threat of terrorism, unless the threat is truly overwhelming. There are practical reasons for this -- canceling a trip is a really great way to waste money, and fewer tourists in tourist-heavy cities is always a cool experience -- but I have moral reasons as well.

We blow threats out of proportion.

I was at my buddy's bachelor party in Charleston, South Carolina, a few months ago. We were at a paintball range when the manager of the place said, "Ever since that Paris shooting, I've been carrying a gun on me at all times."

She'd just admitted to having a gun, so I refrained from asking the first question that popped into my mind, which was, "Why on earth would ISIS attack a Charleston paintball range?" and I also held back on the second question, which was, "Really? It was Paris that did it and not the Charleston church shooting last June?"

As of last December (prior to Orlando) only 29 Americans had died in jihadist attacks on American soil in the previous ten years, while 132,349 Americans had been killed in gun homicides. The woman at the paintball range had protected herself from a very small threat by carrying around a much, much larger threat.

And this isn't to single out gun violence -- air pollution kills 5 million people a year. 725,000 people a year are killed by mosquito-borne illnesses. 1.3 million die in car crashes worldwide. Simply put: we're not very good at determining risk when we travel. Terrorism is terrifying (oh hey, look, it's there in the name!), but it's ultimately not a huge threat. Air pollution is atrocious in China -- but I'm not going to cancel my trip because of it, regardless of the risk it poses to my asthmatic lungs. So why would I cancel a trip because of terrorism?

I refuse to help terrorists at their game.

Back during the Revolutionary War, Mel Gibson and other revolutionaries resorted to guerilla tactics as a way to defeat a superior army. The British viewed this type of fighting as cowardly, but the Americans very sensibly figured that, if they couldn't win by following the rules of conventional warfare, then they didn't have much of an incentive to follow those rules now, did they?

The Vietnamese adopted a similar tactic against the superior military of the United States nearly 200 years later. And it's an extension of this same idea -- if the rules guarantee you lose, break the rules -- that has led to the growth of terrorism. Al-Qaeda, the IRA, ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and other terrorist groups all know that they can't win their fight face-to-face with their enemy. They can't even pose a legitimate existential threat to their enemy. In no conceivable world would ISIS overthrow the United States Government.

So instead, they attack morale. They attempt to strike terror into the hearts of their enemies by creating a sense of insecurity. If you're not safe at the airport, or in the market, or in the public square, where are you safe? Can you ever really be safe?

These are the questions terrorists want you to ask yourself. They know that they don't have a great chance of actually killing you, but they can make you behave as if they are a true threat. They can make you stay at home. They can attack a public place in Istanbul or Paris and hurt the country economically by scaring away tourists. They create the illusion of insecurity and draw your country towards their home turf, where they've got more of an advantage.

For sure: There are times that travel isn't safe. You should probably not travel to Syria at the moment, for example. But there's a difference between being stupid and being scared. There's a difference between putting yourself at risk and behaving the way a terrorist wants you to behave.

You can choose not to play along. You can choose to be unafraid. You can attend the Orlando Pride Parade, or attend a show at the Bataclan, or run in the Boston Marathon, or go to church in Charleston, or take in the Hagia Sofia. You can choose not to be the puppet of a terrorist or a fearmongering politician by simply continuing to travel. Living fearlessly is the best way to fight terrorists, despots, fundamentalists, xenophobes, and anyone else who gets their power from their ability to scare you into submission.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.