travel

A Hop, Skip, and Jump Away

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I was born and raised in Georgia and I absolutely love my state.

It’s the best out of all the US and, since this is my blog, I have no problem staking that claim even if it is arrogant. (I obviously mean this light-heartedly, although I do love our state rivalries.) People always ask me how I can say Georgia is the best after being in Hawaii and my answer stays the same: Hawaii is amazing, don’t get me wrong, I loved being there, but honestly, I wouldn’t want to live there longer than a year or two. Why? Because the island, I briefly called home, took a little over two hours to drive all the way around.

Think about that for a minute.

Let’s say you do everything there is to do on the island. Then, you do it again. Then, you do it again, and again, and again. After a while, it starts to feel a bit like you’re on a rock in the middle of the ocean… because you are on a rock in the middle of the ocean. I was closer to Japan and Australia than I was to home. Even hopping islands is limited and it costs thousands of dollars to get back to the rest of the states.

Georgia on the other hand…

Georgia is the perfect state. There’s majestic mountains in the north (hosting the start of the mighty Appalachian Trail), beautiful beaches in the south (arguably as pretty as some in Hawaii), the greatest city in the middle (Atlanta, duh), and countryside all the way around. It’s so diverse, there’s something for everyone. However, if you can’t find what your little heart desires, the next state is only a hop, skip, and a jump away.

I know I’m bragging so, to put it simply- I’m proud of my roots. I want to travel the world, but I will always come back home. The movie industry here is booming and celebrities and fans run amuck. Which means tourism is growing rapidly and I get upset whenever someone disrespects my home or when people visiting disregard our laws and customs.

Be good to my state, you’re a guest.

I grew up poor, which greatly impacted the way I saw and valued everything. I cherished any experience that came my way and ached for adventures and exploring. As a kid, I was fascinated by the local American Indians and made sure I paid close attention on field trips, willing my brain to remember every detail. I made my grandfather re-tell me stories about all the places he went in WWII, imagining them as best as I could. In high school, my favorite academic subject was History. My teacher, Mr. Duke, would start class every day by passing around some unknown artifact for us to guess its identity. Then, he would tell us stories about old cultures and societies. I always listened intently, probably the only class that held my undivided attention.

There was at least one major takeaway from growing up with an insatiable case of wanderlust and no real way to cure it- traveling is a privilege. Unfortunately, I never made it over the Mason-Dixon line or the other side of the Mississippi until I was nearly 30, when I found myself boarding a plane that took me over the Pacific.

This is also where I had my first lesson in harmful tourism and cultural appropriation.

There’s a big difference in learning about a place from books and stories and setting foot in that place with the realization it truly does exist. It took weeks for the distance from home to sink in and I walked around in awe of everyone and everything. I’d never been so immersed in another culture, save the Indians back home, or the Cajuns in New Orleans. What’s more, since Hawaii is a global holiday destination, there were people visiting from every country around the world. I found myself riding the bus around Honolulu just so I could close my eyes and hear 50 different languages all chorused together, like a massive choir practice, creating this wonderfully busy hum.

The bus was the only part of the city I cared too much about. I abandoned its chaotic streets after only a few days of wandering in favor of seeing the actual island.

Week after week, while chasing around my two little cousins, I carefully observed my surroundings and took in as much information as I could whenever I had the chance- I befriended locals, including the movers who had to repetitively climb three flights of stairs in and out of the house with large bits of awkward furniture because we lived high on the ridge overlooking Kahala. I began noticing the real people of Hawaii, not just the smiley bus drivers or the attentive shop workers, but the people who called Hawaii home, the people who didn’t have return tickets and spending money. Walking home, I’d pass houses that were similar to the ramshackle hut, I grew up in, not the grandiose resorts and hotels with manicured lawns where everyone walks around wearing a grass skirt and flowers in their hair. Homeless people would crawl out of the banyan trees as the sun went down, where they had been sleeping to escape the sun, and walk around aimlessly.

Increasingly, I noticed the difference in the real people of Hawaii and the people visiting it- the Hawaii people wanted vs the Hawaii being picked clean of its bones.

I realized, tourists came to Hawaii to take from it only the parts they wanted, scenery and imported souvenirs, a staged luau and gourmet meals, while ignoring everything that was not on their itinerary. These souvenirs everyone was snatching up weren’t even made in Hawaii, so they benefited other companies, if not other countries. Visiting, I thought, was acceptable, touring their museums and learning about their culture, but there was a great injustice being done to the native people by strangers flooding in to take only the parts they want as a novelty while the Hawaiian people watch, powerless. The majority of this state lives in poverty, the true culture being shrouded by a marketable version. It appeared they were hidden outsiders on their own island.

These tourists were not here to learn as guests, they were here to take advantage.

To further my greater point, I recently(yesterday) toured a Hindu temple. Not being a true follower of the religion, I researched it and consulted the Hindus I knew about their policies and practices before I went. Luckily, there were also clearly marked signs indicating different rules and regulations so I didn’t stray unintentionally, “no photography,” “modest attire inside the mandir,” “please remove your shoes,” “silence beyond this point.” So, I was horrified to witness some people, and even a group of kids on a field-trip, paying no attention to these at all, parading and marching around as if the temple had been created for their amusement. They went inside the gift shop and bought religious ornaments to wear as fashion statements, not caring what they were originally meant for.

Let me just say how kind and patient the Hindus were- I would have went full-on table flipping Jesus on everyone and chased them off with a whip.

We were invited to attend a service and, before it began, the guide segregated us, men in the front and women in the back. This is because the Hindu monks have sworn a vow against lust, so women are being respectful of that (the same as you would not eat a giant slice of cake in front of someone who just went on a diet). I knew this ahead of time, so I was prepared, but a lady and her adult daughter were enraged at the idea of “segregating women in America,” period, and marched out without knowing or caring why it was their practice.

Okay, this is America, sure, but we have freedom of religion(just about every man in my family has fought to preserve) and you have been invited, as a guest, to witness a service you know will be different from your own. Was this not the point of visiting? I was appalled and ashamed- Do your effin’ research and get off your high horse. Were they there to learn about another culture and religion or conform it to theirs?

While we’re mentioning the Hindu religion, I’d like to note I had a friend once who got an elbow to shoulder tattoo of Ganesha without even knowing what it was or what it stood for. The ignorance in that… Do I need to talk about how important it is to know what you’re branding your body with? Or the fact that it’s belittling to the people who cherish that symbol?

This brings me to my last concern, people who pay large amounts of money to volunteer while they’re on vacation. This practice is called Voluntourism and is increasing in popularity. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love volunteers, I happen to be one, myself, but you have to stop and consider your reasons for going to another region to pay to volunteer as opposed to volunteering for free in your local community. You buy your groceries from local businesses to support your local economy, right? So, why would you not want to support your local people in need? Are you going to lesser countries to patronize them? To glorify yourself?

Let me take this moment to clarify: Go. Be. Do.

I’m in no way trying to tell people not to travel, explore, or volunteer. I’m trying to raise awareness in people who do. If you go to a different country, remember that you are a guest and that your visit is a privilege. If you’re exploring another culture or religion, be respectful of their traditions and abide by their rules. You’re an observer, you’re not there to press your beliefs. Be mindful you don’t make a mockery of something they hold reverently by labeling it a souvenir. If you volunteer in another country, be sure you’re not taking away local opportunity, or sinking money into a place that isn’t truly giving it back.

If someone was visiting your house, how would you feel if they just walked in like they owned it and started going through your things to take what they wanted, the things they considered valuable, or they took pictures of everything personal or sacred to you without your permission? You would feel outraged, deeply offended, insulted- you wouldn’t want them back. On the other hand, if someone were visiting your home and they allowed you to welcome them in, show them around, listen to your explanations of why this is valuable or how that is sacred, they respected the rules of your house, and honored you by being gracious, you would want them back because it was a mutually enjoyable experience.

Do your research. Be respectful. Don’t be an ass. There’s a difference in cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

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