Last month I really enjoyed, despite its flaws, Chuck Thompson’s travelogue To Hellholes and Back about his travels to four places around the world that scared him: the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Mexico City and Florida Disneyworld. I also re-read a few of my old blog posts, where I am unfailingly positive about every place I’ve ever visited. Thompson isn’t negative, per se – he is merely trying to communicate the reality of places around the world that are overrun with waste, illness, smog, crime and poverty (and saccharine cartoon characters). But it made me think about the politics of travel, and how it comes across when you criticise somewhere you visited, especially when that criticism comes from bigger bloggers, travel writers and industry names.
It’s worth saying that I find it very difficult to be negative about anywhere, for reasons that will form the main threads of this blog post. It is not in my nature to be negative, so I do struggle to see the perspective of someone who goes abroad and manages to put a frustrated or sad spin on an otherwise awesome experience. I’m sure I find it hard because I am a positive person generally, I feel like there’s something to like about everywhere and the places you hate are places that other people live and love and should be treated with respect, even if you’re not gushing about your experiences there. Anyway, I want to be fair, but it is alien to me that you would take a trip abroad, even as a travel writer, and shine a negative light on your destination.
Of course, I’m not advocating that people, especially people with influence in the travel sphere, should gloss over negative details. If you are writing to inform, then issues with petty theft, street harassment, poor late-night transport and region-specific illnesses are a matter of health and safety. It’s important to provide as full a picture as possible of a place when you know your advice will influence other people’s decisions. To me, the problem comes when people say they just don’t like somewhere because they had a bad time, regardless of external or personal factors, or that places weren’t nice because of poverty, pollution or poor infrastructure without providing any social or political context. The problem comes when a negative review is imbued with universal, almost moral, weight, making it less about a specific incident or factor but instead about the country or region as a whole.
Lots of places that are cheap to visit, and therefore popular with Western travellers, are only so cheap because the country overall is poor by global standards, which tends to come with issues including limited transport infrastructure, crime, high unemployment, poor healthcare and poor waste management. To visit India and then say you didn’t enjoy your trip because of the obvious poverty, constant demands for your valuable tourist dollars and questionable hygiene standards seems crass and narrow-minded. Of course places where you can find a nice hotel room for less than $10 per night tend to have worse infrastructure than London or New York (though it’s not like London and New York don’t have issues with smog or crime). That’s how economies work. And the reason why certain places, like Southeast Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe, are affordable for Westerners to travel to is inextricably linked with the rise of powerful Western nations over the past few centuries. So to then visit those places, where the cost of your trip may well be greater than the average citizen’s annual salary, and complain because it wasn’t that easy for you to get around, or because you became tired of being asked for money, or because there was a general sense of lawlessness when it came to traffic rules (cough Ho Chi Minh City cough) sounds so tone-deaf to me.
It almost feels arrogant, to assume that a brief tourist experience somewhere is ever universal enough to assign that place with an overall negative light. When you travel somewhere, you are a guest of that place. You don’t have pretend that everything is sunshine and rainbows all the time – nothing in life is like that – but you can put travel frustrations or destination-specific gripes in perspective and see them for what they are: the kind of issues that come with being in an unfamiliar place or a new situation (or of being a person in the world), but not serious enough to warrant writing off a whole country.
And for the kind of problems that are long-term and structural, we should approach our visits to these places with compassion, for the things that we find challenging will likely make the daily lives of locals challenging also, and are far more indicative of our relative privilege than our destination’s shortcomings.
The only place in my recent memory that I can remember not being particularly charmed by was Wrocław, in Poland, when I visited last December. But we visited in winter, and it was cloudy, which made photography hard (neither of which are permanent flaws), and, crucially, I still had a lovely time! I was with Jake and his family, I practised my Polish, I ate pierogi and we saw a meaningful exhibit about a member of Jake’s extended family. It was great.
Was Wrocław my favourite place? No.
Would I go back? Probably not.
But was there anything wrong with Wrocław, or Poland overall? Absolutely not! It’s a great country (I loved Kraków only one day later), which I was lucky to visit, as is the case whenever I am lucky enough to visit anywhere abroad.
That’s the other part of this. To be abroad at all is an amazing privilege and it pains me to hear someone gripe about a long bus journey across Panama or Vietnam as if that isn’t exactly what they signed up for in travelling to these regions of the world. Not everywhere has high-speed trains or widespread air-conditioning and if you can’t deal with that, then maybe it’s easier to stay home or to travel to places that offer a similar standard of living to your home country. And if you’re travelling while also dealing with personal issues, then by all means work through them, but try not to allow your personal funk to influence your lasting impressions of your trip. It’s not Laos’ fault that you were nursing a recent breakup or uncertainty over your future when you visited Vientiane.
It just rubs me the wrong way when public figures in the travel industry paint an unflattering picture of somewhere they only visited for a few days for reasons that were a) incidental to the place itself (e.g. personal problems) or b) rooted in deeper issues around development and economics that privileged Western travellers should be sensitive to rather than intolerant of. When Trump referred to many less developed nations as ‘shithole countries,’ the world gasped. It was awful. And while criticising Nicaraguan buses is by no means as terrible, it feels to me like it falls under the same vein of seeing the challenging aspects of life and travel in less developed countries (difficulties that tend to be related to their lack of development) as a national moral failing rather than a piece of the global political and economic puzzle.
It’s fine to share your experience. It can be important, even, to warn other travellers of safety issues or difficulties that are easy to avoid. But it will always seem off to me when prominent figures in the travel community – or anyone who loves travel – act as if certain places are universally terrible because they didn’t have a great or simple time during the few days or weeks they spent there. There is something to love everywhere. And if you have to share negative moments, then do so with the context that this was your experience, and attempt to put in perspective the unique challenges developing countries might face and treat these situations with understanding and compassion.