As my WordPress username indicates, I live in a desert climate. May through September mean triple-digit temperatures are the norm. Summer lasts until around Thanksgiving. Schools are back in session this week, so everywhere I go folks are engaging in the polite exchange of “How was your summer?” and “Were you able to get away?” I’ve – no kidding – had this conversation ten times in the last week.
I preface this post with this little explanation just as a way of letting you know that I don’t hate travel. We *were* able to escape the furnace of Phoenix a couple of times… nothing extravagant, but some camping and a trip to visit family. I’m writing today about a very specific kind of travel: the I-must-see-this-before-I-die trip. It’s so common that we have a special name for it: The Bucket List. Haven’t you been part of these conversations?
“I went to Paris/Moscow/London/Alaska. It was part of my Bucket List.”
“I took a Bucket List trip over the summer…”
“What’s on your Bucket List?”
I hate this kind of exchange. And here’s why:
1. It’s an incredibly privileged way of seeing the world.
Bucket Lists are most definitely a First World Problem. Even in the US, who is traveling? The travel industry reports that domestic leisure travelers represent median household incomes of $62,500… more than double the median household income for all Americans ($30,932). When you consider overseas leisure travel across the entire population of our planet, the percentage of traveling humans is minuscule.
I had a friend once say to me, “You can’t truly be open-minded unless you travel.” I understand the sentiment (I hope she’s not offended if she reads this column), but how do you convey this idea to a single mom who barely makes ends meet in the service industry? Is there no hope for her to become open-minded too? Even more so, what does this idea mean to a factory worker in China? To a midwife in LIberia? To a farmhand from Brazil?
WDJT? Where Did Jesus Travel? Unless you give more weight to strange theories about Jesus than I do, Jesus of Nazareth traveled less than 70 miles away from his hometown in his life (about 68 miles walking distance from Galilee to Jerusalem, the central journey recounted in the synoptic Gospels). I throw this little informative bit in, just to remain true to the spirit of We Occupy Jesus.
I’m not saying Don’t Travel. Truly, I’m not. But let’s change the way we talk about how and why we head out into the world.
2. It inclines us to see other cultures as products for us to consume.
Travel and tourism can bring economic benefit to developing countries. But that benefit comes at a cost – a cultural cost, an ethical cost. The cultural cost comes when local artisans and merchants begin to modify their products to meet the expectations of foreign travelers. The ethical costs to the traveler is not insignificant: Do you understand the provenance of the product you bought in an exotic location? Do you appreciate what it means to own a piece of someone else’s culture?
When the Great Wall of China (or the Louvre or the Aztec pyramids or you-name-it) is just a tic on a box on a list on your ipad, what does that mean? Is it possible to visit a lot of places and not really SEE any of them?
I’m not saying Don’t Travel. Truly, I’m not. But let’s be self-aware when we purchase souvenirs and mementos and be respectful and educated about the cultures and contexts through which we traipse.
3. It reveals a cowardly and transactional way of understanding death.
This is the biggie. We can use a Bucket List (whether it’s entirely travel related or not) to help us manage our anxiety about our limited human life spans. If our List is incomplete, do we somehow think that we won’t die? If our List is complete, do we somehow think that we’ll be able to be at peace with death?
I’m inching toward a bigger question about the purpose of our lives. Is is better to take a memorable trip or make a difference in someone’s life? Is it better to fill a scrapbook or build a Habitat house? Is it better to snap an exotic selfie or plant a garden?
One more time, I’m not saying Don’t Travel. Truly I’m not. But let’s have a conversation about what we’re here for.
For me, for now, my suitcase is stuffed in the closet and I am content to be at home. Peace to all.