Erica and Matt Chua: Travel Guilt

When I decided to take a trip around the world with my husband I never thought that we would have a constant, often unwelcome third wheel: guilt.  In my mind it is impossible to do third world travel and never feel even a twinge of guilt about the fact that your traveling in a place where your daily expenditure, even if you’re on a budget, is often equivalent to a month’s salary (or more) for the average resident of the country your visiting.

It is impossible to avoid history, politics, the morality of tourism and the complications of charity while visiting developing countries. In fact thinkCHUA and I often can’t help but wonder if third world travel is one of the most selfish things you can participate in.  Enjoying the wonders of impoverished nations at dirt cheap prices then writing home to our family and friends about our adventures.  Sounds pretty selfish and makes me wonder about my role in it all.

Are some of the issues, such as begging that I find so hard to face, actually my fault?  Are the children selling me bracelets, postcards and flowers exploited because so many people fall victim to their adorable smiles and disarming requests for “one dollar, you buy something, one dollar.”  Do the adults that send them out to peddle their goods and pester tourists really mean ill or are children just better salespeople because their efforts are more fruitful?  Is the answer to say “no” to the children and if so, have you ever done it?  Because it’s not easy, it is so hard to tell a grinning child that you won’t part with just a dollar for their benefit.  Or to tell a leg-less man that you won’t give him a few dollars as he drags himself along the sidewalk by his hands.

Traveling responsibly requires that we make an effort to know more about a country than simply the location of its monuments and the bargains in its bazaars; it charges us to have a better understanding of the reality of peoples’ lives.  The only way to learn more about a country and it’s culture is to experience it on the ground, which is where the “catch 22″ comes in.  We have enjoyed our time in developing countries immensely and would recommend it to anyone, but from my experience it is difficult to avoid the guilt completely no matter how responsible you are.

“Power lies in the growth of awareness.”
Herbert de Souza, Brazilian human rights activist

I also have to remember that travel is about seeing the world with open eyes, stepping outside your comfort zone and taking the bitter with the sweet.  The more I travel, see and learn about the world the more I realize how little I know, how many more places there are to travel to and how much there is to see and learn.  This awareness is arguably the most important part of this entire journey.  Without my intense feelings of guilt and my confusion about what is the “right” thing to do about it this trip would simply be a sightseeing adventure.  However, it has been much more than that and it will change me and how I see the world forever.

From my experience traveling in the developing world it is more often positive for everyone involved than it is negative.  As I mentioned a huge part of making the experience positive is awareness.  The awareness of my guilt is in actuality a beneficial part of third world travel and sharing my stories and experiences on this blog is helpful for me and in raising awareness about these issues.  As Herbet deSouza says “Power lies in the growth of awareness.”  So, my hope is that by sharing my thoughts and anecdotes from our journey I will at least in a small way raise awareness about the triumphs and struggles of the developing world.

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