This post is intended on shedding light on a very specific moment in your travels abroad: post-trip conversations. When my older sister and I decided to backpack through the British Isles, we were 18 and 19 years old. We had no idea what we were doing, and everyone applauded us for our audacious behavior. Teachers and family friends praised London’s cultural landmarks and Ireland’s famous Blarney Stone, and our conversations were consistently bubbly and animated.
Years later, I realize our conversations were light-hearted because my sister and I were traveling to familiar territory, a place my friends and family could understand within the context of their own lived experience in the United States. And I knew how to talk about my European adventure because the questions prompted me to speak positively about the places I visited. This, however, has not been my experience when telling friends and family about my travels to Latin America.
When I decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, everyone had questions. I hardly knew how to answer them, because they were typically accusatory: Was I prepared to go to the Third World? How much ransom money did my friends need if I got kidnapped? The most offensive question I got when I returned from England was whether or not I was brave enough to try black pudding, and here I was trying to explain why I was putting my life in imminent danger by traveling to Argentina.
Now I’m preparing to leave for a summer internship in rural Ecuador. The interrogation has begun again with even more gusto, as I’m planning a week-long trip to Colombia before my contract begins. While the days before I left for Argentina were punctuated with questions about whether or not I’d encounter Nazi sympathizers in Buenos Aires (I didn’t), the questions I receive now are a little harder to dodge.
My older family members and professors remember tragedies from 20 years ago that made Colombia an absolute no-go zone, and they’ve seen countless headlines that highlighted Ecuadorian border skirmishes. While I could roll my eyes at questions about fascists roaming through the Argentine Pampas, it’s been harder to negate worries that stem entirely from living memory.
In subsequent blog posts, I’ll talk in detail about sustainable volunteering and international travel that does no harm to local populations, but before we even hop on a plane, there is something we travelers need to remember: Whenever we travel to a new country, we become a sort of ambassador for the culture we experienced once we return to our own communities. This was a realization I had about halfway through my study abroad experience, when I realized nobody I knew from my hometown in West Virginia had ever been to Argentina or to any of the other Southern Cone countries I had visited. Therefore, what I said had a direct influence on their opinions about this part of the world.
Sure, we all know that we represent our home culture when we go abroad, but I suggest that we think about the scope of our role and the effect we can inadvertently have on perceptions of foreign cultures once we are hundreds or thousands of miles away in our own familiar communities. An offhanded comment about a country’s inefficiency or a lighthearted joke about police presence in an urban setting might seem innocent, but for individuals who have never visited that particular place, those words have a lasting impact on their perspectives of that culture.
I propose, with this effect in mind, that international travelers adopt a sense of diplomacy whenever discussing culture, whether it be our own or another’s. We should be candid about our experiences, of course, but we must also remember that our experience is only a single scene from a larger story even though some folks back home might regard it as a encompassing truth.
A trip abroad requires an individual to step outside his/her comfort zone. If you order olives on your pizza in Argentina and it comes peppered with round, dark objects with the pits still inside and you were expecting small black slices, that doesn’t mean their version of the dish is any worse.
In fact, it’s better than okay! Locals are not required to accommodate travelers by speaking their language, although I firmly believe traveler should be able to speak a few words in their host country’s dominant language. As vacationers or as volunteers, we are guests and should be the ones who adapt to local practices, which includes making an attempt to communicate in the local language.
Instead, volunteers especially should think about their trips to other countries as a mutual cultural exchange. While a construction worker might have valuable skills in a rural community that needs assistance building houses, no foreigner, by any means, has a skill set that will transform a community alone. Believing such causes tension between the two parties involved, which can cause lasting damage for the local community.
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