Travel choices: When ethics, community solidarity, and ambition for personal growth collide
But first, let me tell you how spreading ignorance, fear, and misinformation of a place has influenced me personally.
When my husband and I decided to get married, we decided to do so in the Dominican Republic. It is not only a beachy, sunny, beautiful destination, it is also where half my family is from. Because my father owns vacation rentals there, we were able to secure a few beach apartments free of charge for my husband’s family all of which were traveling from Wisconsin and had never been to the island. We were all going to be close to each other and they would never have to navigate the area alone as I would always be around to translate.
We gave everyone a year’s notice to plan their trip and settle their budgets. Almost all of them were excited to come.
Except for one of my husband’s closest relatives. They were unsure about the safety of traveling to a “Third World Country”, a descriptor that no longer applies to the small island, whose technology is the same as that of the U.S. and which leads in comparison to most Latin American countries.
Would the water make them sick? What quality of care would they receive if someone needed medical attention? What about the prostitution problem? What about safety? What about…? What about…? What about….? There was even some anger at the fact that I would hold an event in an environment with so many risks.
In the end, those who ventured to the island from my husband’s side consisted of just three people: his gay uncle and his sister and her then husband. I mention that our uncle is gay because it matters – more on that later.
I want to be fair and say that the budget was a reason for some, but primarily, people didn’t come to our wedding because someone else who didn’t want to come had put the fear in them not to. They felt they had a responsibility to protect those whom they loved, to keep other out of harm’s way, and to keep them from making an irresponsible decision.
The pain and anger of this has subsided, but it remains a turning point for me because I got to experience and suffer the consequences of what it is like when someone else’s lack of information, lack of confidence, and embolden sense of uneducated certainty takes over not only the narrative, but also the image and reality of an entire country and its people. Not to mention how this served as a loss of income to a community that depends on tourism money, especially from larger events such as destination weddings.
Not only did my husband miss his family at the wedding, but I was left feeling hurt because I wasn’t someone they could bring themselves to trust. I get that. I was new to the family, and people believed this person would know best. Though they had never been there. (Some information on this subject has been retracted due to the distress this memory has caused some members of my husband’s family.)
For years, all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic (and still many others in island resorts world wide) spread fear among their visitors to keep them from venturing outside of their resort walls. Images of dangerous, thieving, sexually violent predators were spread in order to contain the crowds to spend inside the compounds, or pay the high fees of hotel affiliate tour companies. It wasn’t until travelers became braver, until bloggers shared stories of community engagement, that this form of travel became trendier forcing resorts to comply with the increasing demand from travelers who wanted the same. Previously, this scene would have been that of scary men, possibly criminals to avoid, now travelers venture far and wide in search of moments like these. That does not negate, however, that crime exists and you should always travel with caution. WORDS MATTER.
My travel choices don’t mean I am ambivalent to the reality
I have my issues with the Dominican Republic. I was one of the very few travel bloggers who spoke out against what the government has been doing to documented and non-documented Haitian citizens there. The violence, the hate, the murders – a continuation of the ugly, disgraceful history. But even when I raised awareness and pleaded for voices, I never once called for a complete boycott to the island. Why? Because the Dominican Republic is not just a country. It isn’t just a government. There are people, good people, hard working people, MY PEOPLE who live there and it is why though I never negate their flaws and the way in which they still fall short in addressing issues around racism, homophobia (I am so proud of my uncle for coming to our wedding anyway), women’s rights, and environmental concerns, I still go on press trips sponsored by their tourism board, a government-funded agency and write about my culture often and try to offer as much information as I can. I want to make sure that I contribute to not just educating people, but in sharing the narrative of the people who live there as they share it with me. That is my role, above all else, in this career I have chosen.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Travel Conferences.
One of the very first international travel conferences that I ever attended was through a sponsorship for a travel bloggers summit in Germany. I had never been to Germany, and the travel media being what it is – especially back then – I had very few voices of color to rely on for experience and reassurances about traveling through Germany as a woman of color. I even wrote about my apprehension.
It wasn’t until I arrived to Berlin that I would find it to be this forward-thinking, cosmopolitan, hip, fun, vibrant city where people of all sorts came together to create and prosper and grow. Even still, I have the voices of black German residents warning me to be careful and sharing their own experiences of racial hate while living there.
It wasn’t till I traveled through Leipzig, outside of the larger city, that I would discover a fun, young, university town with a rich history and an engaging community. And still, I read about how smaller towns and more rural areas were hubs for white nationalists and nazi groups, illegal – yes – but existent never the less.
I didn’t travel alone my first time there, I was almost always (except for a few days) with a press group or another. I was sheltered by the comfort and safety of the summit attendees and our hosts. Not to mention, their sponsorship and the benefits of being a conference attendee made it affordable for me to visit and experience all that I did.
It is how I later returned to Germany, for another press trip, but with a few extra days of exploring it completely alone, and why it remains on my list of places to road trip through with my family.
All of this was possible because of a conference.
Now some may argue that Germany is one of the most progressive countries in the world with no laws that inhibit your safety or freedoms. But it is still a victim of its history, a history that they continue to work to move away from. I would argue that laws are nice, of course, and they set the tone for what I could expect, but they don’t protect me from being harassed and verbally attacked in the streets – as I was in Memphis while walking hand in hand with my white husband. They don’t protect me from being humiliated and denied entry, as I was from a beach resort in the Dominican Republic because they thought I was a prostitute – being black and a woman was enough to come to this conclusion, or from being sexually assaulted, as my girlfriend was in Athens while I was behind the camera taking her photo with a street vendor as he grabbed her ass.
Laws are wonderful, but they don’t erase the concerns that many of us, who can’t be silent or secretive or “pass” as being anything other than who and what we are when it is convenient and safer to do so, have.
Travel conferences, press trips, summits, and other similar ventures serve not only as an access to these destinations for financial reasons (if the tickets aren’t insanely priced), but also as a buffer to the fears that many of us have when we consider a destination to travel to.
The ethics of things
About 3 weeks now, Alabama celebrated its Confederate Memorial Day. This “holiday” further settled my stance on not wanting to go to TBEX Alabama. The House of Representatives recently advanced the H.B. 24 bill which rejects the rights of members of the LGTBQ community to adopt or foster children. They are increasingly reforming laws that appeal to the religious right and threaten the freedoms and rights of the LGBTQ communities and women. It wasn’t until they were economically affected as a state, that the aggressive and hostile H.B. 56 bill which targeted not just immigrants but anyone who “looked” like a foreigner (i.e., brown people), was voted down because Latinos stopped showing up to church, work, and school, and over 50,000 fled the state leaving it with a $10.8 billion dollar loss in tax revenue and income.
Homosexuality is criminalized in Jamaica, punishable for up to 10 years in prison.Warnings about this were prominently featured in hotel literature throughout the island. My family and I have twice attended the Social Media on The Sand Summit, which is held in Jamaica every year.
A similar bill in Oregon has essentially disseminated communities there, as Latinos are being heavily targeted. The World Domination travel conference is taking place in Portland, OR this summer (July, 2017).
The ACLU has issued a warning for people traveling to Texas because of laws in place which are targeting and violating the rights and safety of Latinos. SXSW takes place in Texas every year, and will again in June 2018.
World Travel Market just took place (April 2017) in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Like in the United States, the number of blacks murdered by police in Brazil have drawn the attention of human rights watch groups. Though same sex- marriages are “legal” in Brazil, the protections to the LGTBQ communities are limited, with the recognition of the union still not classified as having equal rights as heterosexual unions. Women rights are equally limited and rural crimes and protests are at a rise. The New York Times called the murders and torture crimes against trans women in Brazil an epidemic.
I have yet to come across a protest movement from our travel blogging community leading up to these conferences, nor a call to show solidarity to impacted groups through the boycotting of the same. And I have seen many comfortably promote and travel to these countries without a comment of the issues mentioned above. If they come around, I will not be heeding the call because it is often meant to incite fear, anger (but only when convenient), and ignorance, and these boycotts and call for solidarity stand in the way of us telling our own stories, having our own experiences, and contributing however we can to improve and take back the narrative from a very privileged few.
Confronting my prejudice, humbled by my limited views
I went to TBEX Alabama, granted Rick Calvert, CEO of TBEX, contributed to this effort. I am glad I did. I went against what I felt in my damn, progressive soul to be the right thing to do in protest. I went, knowing that my presence could somehow contribute to its getting attention.
But I was confronted, almost like a slap in the face, with my own limited views, prejudice, and stereotypes. I would later find out that Hunstville, Alabama is one of the more “progressive” cities in the state, with its Space Center and other NASA initiatives, as well as growing art and food scene, but even the most progressive cities in America have serious racial problems to deal with.
I was humbled by the kindness of artists like Dave Nuttall and his wife Jodi, whom I just fell in love with. The kindest, most welcoming people I met on my first day there. And Danny Davis, who makes these breathtakingly beautiful guitars, and took the time to play for me while chatting at his music lounge, The Tangled Strings. The Uber driver who made me laugh and laugh and was just happy to have me in his hometown. The bartender who insisted I try that one last beer he and his friend had brewed. The woman at the nail salon who was fascinated with my life in New York City. The list goes on and on. I didn’t venture through the rest of the state on my own, except for one day, my being there didn’t change the politics or fix the issues I have with what is happening in the state. I was sheltered by the goings on of the conference and friends, but I left Alabama humbled and ashamed and remembering, governments are not people, and though some people are the worst, they don’t always define an entire community.
My cultural history is riddled with dictators and corrupt governments in bed with the governments of this here United States. I grew up witnessing how foreigners/travelers come in and abuse and mistreat my people who don’t cater to their every whim, to their language, or to their sexual demands.
We can talk about the ethics of corrupt governments and our responsibility when trying to decide to visit the countries they rule, but I have stories too, and most people would hate to see the roles they have played in them.
Ambition of personal growth
Travel blogging has often pushed me into positions I would have never entered on my own. More often than not it has forced me to face my fears and my prejudice. There are places that I will never travel to again, there are places I can’t wait to return to. There have been times when I am just sick to my stomach over a place that I have essentially forced myself to go to, and I appreciate the conferences, press trips, and professional responsibilities that have put those choices before me because they have literally affected my life and view of the world.
I crave this from travel. I crave this from life. I want to learn more. I want to help give a voice, improve an image, change a perception, even if that is my own. I get that I am just one person and that I can’t change all that much. But what a world this would be if more of us tried.
People who have ostracized me and my culture out of ignorance and fear have pushed me to try, at least because I so often forget, to be better, do better and to remember that even if there is a hurdle for a place that I just cannot get myself to visit, that I have no place in convincing others to follow me on that path. It is not my role to take away an opportunity for growth from another simply because I choose to inhibit myself, whether out of concerns for my safety, or political or moral stance, all of which are mine and mine alone.
Travel is personal to me, as it should be to you. I may not always agree, but I will try to respect. If I am lucky, I will learn something along the way.