What kind of traveler are you? Visiting Myanmar has opened my eyes not from the 2000 pagodas that roam the horizon but from the naive imbeciles I have met while I have been here.
Years before I made Burma my 72nd country visited, I used to feel apprehensive to tell other foreign travelers that I am American. This was especially the case if the traveler was European, who by virtue of his geographic locale fancied himself to be a more worldly, more refined explorer.
Over the past few days I’ve come across this prototypical or atypical Euro traveler (depending on which side of the aisle you are on) who goes out his way to be gracious to the local populace, overuses the word ‘amazing’ in any description, and fails to recognize the reality of the country he is visiting.
Instead of being sheepish about my views of my experience both positive and negative in order to not be classified an ‘ignorant American’, this time I made it a point to school the misinformed that pretty pagodas and smiling faces don’t equate to social progress.
“They’re having an election next year,” a German replied to my shrewd assessment of the situation on the ground. “When has an election washed away all the troubles of yesterday?” I countered. (See Afghanistan/Iraq war pre and post President Obama.)
“Riding elephants for half a day instead of an arduous trek is more ethical than having an elephant chained in a zoo,” another said.
These convenient rationalizations have nothing to do with Mr. Traveler’s views on social responsibility and everything to do with Mr. Traveler needing to rationalize that the dollars (euros) spent while traveling are not always used for the most pious of purposes, no matter where in the world he is.
To be clear I am not advocating a boycott of Myanmar and elephant riding. I’m advocating an end to this naive mindset that the world is an endless field of beautiful flowers, make it your playground.
Travelers from all countries should hold themselves accountable for where they are going and the activities engage in without fooling themselves that their mastery of ‘hello, thank you, and goodbye,” in the local tongue does nothing to cure the situation on the ground: “I took a picture for Facebook. Everyone smiled. Everything must be all right.”
If I’m pigeonholed a dumb American for thinking otherwise, it beats the alternative of believing that the architects of man-made wonders constructed them so one day motorbikes, buses, and masses of polluting travelers could come and visit.