Spain 2017

Introduction to my blog: Erin’s 8 pillars of travel

Tourist, go home.

That’s what the graffiti said, words sprayed in narrow black letters on the side of a wall at the base of Parc Güell.  

Parc Güell is among the most popular tourist destinations in Barcelona, right up there with the Sagrada Familia and the sandy beaches of Barceloneta.  The park offers panoramic views of the city and a look at the amazing architecture of Antoni Gaudí.  People from all over the world pour in throughout the day, clutching their cameras and iphones, clamoring for a chance to pose for a photo with the perfect view that’s free of random strangers in the background.  And then, the graffiti.

Tourist, go home.

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Graffiti at the base of Parc Guell

At the same time that I was preparing for my 90 day trip to Spain last week, I started reading a book given to me by my friend Megan, called Inmenso Estrecho II: Cuentos sobre inmigración. The book is a compilation of stories by different authors about immigration in Europe.  It was an interesting moment to be reading such a book, with its unflinching portrayal of the issues of immigration, nationality, and freedom of movement in the part of the world that I was about to visit.  

One story in particular really stuck with me: La restitución del mundo, a trancas y barrancas by Moroccan author Ahmed Ararou (the version i read was a Spanish translation of the original Arabic, and the quotes included here are my questionable English translations of the Spanish).  The story follows a Moroccan-French man as he vacations in Italy, and creates a fascinating portrait of the intersection of race, nationality, and class in the tourism industry.

The tourists in Italy were content, Ararou writes from his protagonist’s perspective, “content as all tourists should be that knowingly or unknowingly accept a scam in the name of culture”. He observes how the tourists move frantically through the streets to check things off their lists and demonstrate how cultured they are, even as they ignore uncomfortable moments such as when the train passes by a border station on the edge of EU territory.  In one particularly striking scene, the protagonist, exhausted and overwhelmed by the pretension and desperation of those around him, decides to stay and watch his luggage rather than venture out on yet another excursion: in that moment, “protecting his old underwear seemed more important than a visit to one of the architectural jewels of the island”.  The tourist-stuffed cities of Italy, Ararou writes, are “an appropriate place to understand nothing”.

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View of the harbor from the top of the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya

I found this story to be a powerful reminder of how my thoughts about tourism have evolved over time.  My personal travel philosophy was especially influenced by my study abroad experience in Argentina in 2014.  The program I took part in through the School for International Training (SIT), which specifically focused on human rights and social justice, frequently took us behind the scenes to see what Argentina was like for the people of the country that tourists are all too often oblivious to.  We met with blue collar workers’ unions that were fighting to change factory culture in Buenos Aires.  We spent several nights with indigenous Mapuche families fighting to protect their lands and language in Patagonia.  Just a short car ride outside of the glitzy Aspen-esque Bariloche, we entered a poorer neighborhood to talk with environmental activists standing up to government agencies that continue to poison their air and water.  

Following that trip, I started consciously building an approach to travel that would allow me to gain a deeper knowledge of the places I visited and fit with my values of social justice.  Therefore, before getting into the stories and details of my current adventures in Spain, I wanted to share my 8 pillars of travel in the hope that they will guide me on this trip and give you something to think about when you hit the road for your next adventure.

-Erin

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Ready to board the plane at the Dulles Airport!

ERIN’S EIGHT PILLARS OF TRAVEL

1) Your trip, your itinerary

One of the mostly commonly used phrases in guidebooks is “must see”.  This museum is a “must see” attraction.  That statue is a “must see” site.  I’m here to tell you that there is NO SUCH THING.  Each person has different tastes and gets enjoyment in different ways. Yes, you should try things that are outside of your comfort zone or typical areas of interest. But if you consistently find art museums to be extremely boring, are you really about to buy a ticket to the local art museum just because Trip Advisor says you should? Because your snotty friends will judge you if you don’t?  Maybe your time and money would better be spent elsewhere.  

2) Flexibility is key

I am generally an extremely type A person, so people are often surprised with how laid back I am when it comes to travel.  Actually, they are misreading my flexibility for lack of plan.  Before I travel to a place, I tend to do a fair amount research ahead of time.  I’ll orient myself to how a city is laid out and have a rough idea of some of the things I might be interested in doing or seeing there.  If you go in with this background knowledge, you can afford to be more flexible in the moment.  My absolutely favorite thing to do in a new place is just wander around and soak in the environment.  I almost always value my time wandering around without a specific destination more so than I do any museum or attraction that I visit.

3) As a tourist, your money is powerful

Just like you should already be doing back home, think carefully about where your money is going during your trip.  Are you buying lunch from a tourist trap restaurant opened for the sole purpose of catering to people who look and speak like you?  Or are you supporting a local business that very likely has more authentic food and atmosphere?  Are you buying overpriced, made-in-bulk souvenirs?  Or are you supporting local artisans whose designs the other products are ripping off of?  

4) Be respectful

When you travel, you may find yourself stressed because things aren’t exactly like how they are at home.  That’s understandable.  But that’s no reason to be rude to anyone, including museum employees, hotel clerks, waiters, or people you run into on the street.  Don’t expect everyone to speak your native language perfectly or cater to your every whim just because you think you deserve it!  Be aware of power dynamics, and don’t tokenize local people for your photos or social media posts (especially important if you are outside of the US or Western Europe!)  And for the love of God, don’t take photos in places that say no photos, especially sacred spaces! (This is one of my personal pet peeves).  

5) Take care of yourself

Tourist burnout is a thing.  Don’t use up all your energy on your first day or two.  Build in time to rest and reflect on your adventures.  A few hours of people watching and journaling in a café can do wonders.  You will enjoy your trip a lot more if you take care of yourself rather than feeling compelled to complete thousands of activities over the span of a week.  Quality>quantity.

6) Learn something

Take the time to learn a few small things about the place you are visiting.  Obviously you can’t be expected to learn the entire history or become fluent in the local language of every country that you visit, but you can most definitely learn a few facts or a few words.  Reflecting a bit on what you are seeing can point you to social issues that initially might pass you by.  I take note of demographics; what’s the racial/ethnic/generational makeup around me?  What does that say about this neighborhood/park/bar?  Are there any groups noticeably missing?  I also keep an eye out for street art; graffiti can give a really interesting glimpse into the political and social atmosphere of a place.  

7) Stop using travel as a status symbol

Here’s the deal: travel is a luxury, one that is not available to a lot of people for all sorts of reasons ranging from financial situation to country of origin to health.  Obviously, you will want to talk about your awesome travels and experiences, and you should!  I love hearing what my friends are up to around the world.  But I have also seen people throw around their travel to assert dominance and claim they have knowledge about a place or issue that they clearly do not have.  Being well traveled doesn’t automatically make you an expert on something, and it certainly doesn’t make you better than anyone else.  

8) Give back

I always make an effort to give back to the people and places that make my trip special.  If you love a restaurant, write them an awesome Yelp review.  If an artist takes the time to explain to you all about the craft she is making, buy one of her products.  One thing I like to do if I stay with a host for an extended period of time is offer to make a meal for them, as an extra way to say thanks and share a piece of my (nerdy tofu loving) culture with them.

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La Aljafería, a Moorish Palace and the headquarters of Aragon’s Parliament, located in Zaragoza

These are my most important rules of travel; is there anything I left off?  Stay tuned for more soon about my adventures in Barcelona and Zaragoza!

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