Traveling To Poor Countries Doesn't Make You A Better Person

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”

— Marcel Proust

In 2018, I’ve traveled more than I have any other year of my life that I can remember. I traveled to Barbados twice, visited different cities and towns all across the East Coast of the United States from New York to Washington, DC. My travels were to both rural destinations, fully gentrified cities and cities enduring the destructive transformation of gentrification street by street.

Traveling has opened my eyes. I don’t mean this in the corny way white girls do when they take a picture with an exuberant (or more hilariously, totally uninterested) mahogany colored child. Opening my eyes to my internal journey throughout my 2018 travels has cracked open a major myth about traveling that is all too easy to believe when you’re fantasizing about Santorini from a bed.

Travel is not inherently transformative. Travel doesn’t break down the barriers between visitors and tourists. Traveling doesn’t make you a better person.

Can traveling have a positive impact? Absolutely. But the myth that change, transformation and a better understanding of social inequalities erupt inherently from travel serves only to perpetuate the capitalistic myth that our consumption is equivalent to activism.

The relation between a tourist and a travel destination is, through the inherent nature of our economy, a consumptive exchange. The tourist is the consumer and the travel destination is the product. For this relationship to exist, every aspect of the travel destination must be dehumanized, distilled and objectified into a product. This is a part of the reason why hotel workers in the Caribbean experience such high rates of harassment and sexual exploitation.* As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this relationship between tourist and destination is why we have the term “vacation packages”. Experiences and services are represented by physical, grounding terms which influence the visitor's expectations surrounding the interaction.

Most people who travel throughout the Caribbean (although not all) come from positions of significantly greater privilege than the people they are visiting. Most American citizens and English citizens can travel to Saint Lucia without visas, yet Saint Lucians cannot set foot in the United States without enduring the lengthy, expensive and unpredictable process of visa application. Wages in the United States are higher, and the greater opportunities in the country lead to most people from first world countries who visit being wealthier than the average Saint Lucian they will interact with. I’m not arguing “why” this is the case here, merely observing the power imbalance.

People from wealthier countries also arrive in Saint Lucia with a currency that has an increased value when they arrive. Combining this with the greater earnings, and the difference in economic power is probably one of the most unequal dynamics that a tourist could experiences first hard. Most tourists are insulated from ever having to regard the people that inhabit the place they're visiting as people due to a combination of segregation and the nature of the resort design. 

Such power imbalances don’t only occur in the Caribbean. Many of the currently popular travel destinations like Bali or Malaysia are hailed for how “cheap” they are. The fact that someone’s income is “good for where they are” doesn’t mean that it’s fair, nor does it eliminate the massive power differential between a first world and third world resident. For example, people who visit Bali tout the low cost and are quick to assert that they are all but saving the economy because ‘it’s good money there’. I wonder how many people who claim that their pithy offerings are “good money” would leave their first world lives behind to live and work for the same wages of the workers they are helping with their gracious acts of consumption.

The expectation that tourist destinations cater to your personal growth and exploration indulges in this dynamic of exploitation that is very nearly inherent in the relationship between a tourist and a travel destination. This dynamic of exploitation exists between the tourist and the local as well as the tourist and the physical land itself. When the same relationship is phrased differently, sometimes the exploitation becomes easier for people to see. The white married woman who travels to the Caribbean for the purpose of having a sexual relationship with an underage (or near underage) black child can be clearly identified as exploitative and fetishistic. Strip the dynamic of the overtly sexual aspects and the exploitation remains, but there is plausible deniability that allows the powerful to pretend their power doesn’t exist. Sexual abuse and verbal abuse are not the only ways to exploit people and interpersonal exploitation is not always overt. Objectification can exist in another common situation where a tourist snaps a picture with a black child after visiting Africa, or Haiti, for example. In this instance, the child is dehumanized as their presence isn't about who they are as a person but rather the purpose they serve in providing the tourist with the appearance of worldliness, open-mindedness, and adventure -- perspectives that are also associated with both "goodness" and wealth.

The physical representation (photograph) of a tourist's foray into the heart of darkness, represents a tremendous amount of social capital in a world where acts of consumption are marked with the same value as activism. In these situations and similar exploitative yet non-sexual situations, locals are objectified and dehumanized to become a part of the “vacation package”.  Their struggles are made invisible to exalt the appearance of "goodness" that the tourist desires to feel as if they are "helping" or making a change somewhere. Within a few months, if I’m generous, the local is forgotten and memorialized as a part of that “crazy” vacation that the tourist will “always remember”. 

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Resort owners, colluding governments and policymakers — elite members of the upper class — collude to manufacture the “package” that tourists expect. Foreign expectations don’t exist in a vacuum away from social issues. Racist people (whether consciously racist or not) will bring their prejudices with them when they travel and the experience of visiting is not enough to undo implicit racism. Since implicit racism can exist beneath the surface of awareness, it's nearly impossible for it to be "cured" on its own. And certainly, the cure would not be sitting at a resort while under-paid black workers clean up after you and serve you. 

The myth that traveling (and being near black Caribbean people) is enough to instigate an internal paradigm shift invokes a negative (and false) belief regarding diversity that black people’s mere existence is enough to subvert decades of anti-black programming from schools, family and media, not to mention the legacy of imperialism and entitlement that tourists from most first world countries feel with regards to the Commonwealth nations and other formerly colonized countries. This simply isn't the case and prejudice cannot be wished away. The consumptive nature of the tropical vacation devoids the interaction between tourist and local of any real chance at empathy, meaning, and understanding. For the vacation package to maintain its integrity it must "entertain" and thusly render the local's struggles invisible. 

Tourism provides an avenue for practitioners of modern manifest destiny to enact their fantasies of domination and control under the guise of moral superiority for their dedication to being “free spirits” or “explorers”.The globe is seen as virtually uninhabited. The “locals” exist merely as tools for their personal enjoyment — as part of the package and experience of travel. Locals are not perceived with the same depth and dimension as visitors due to the transactional nature of tourism, every local becomes a pseudo-customer service provider.

Claims that our society “needs to do better” after a tourist is robbed in the Castries market, for example, indicate that we see it as the responsibility of individual citizens to act as customer service providers who do nothing to tarnish the experience of the hallowed tourists who have deigned to visit us and consume.

This exploitation need not be an intentional act of individuals, but those individuals exploit dynamics established from the days of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean. The current relationship between the major first world countries where tourists hail from and the Caribbean are relationships fraught with abuse, where Caribbean nations are forced or encouraged on an international stage to make concessions for these first world countries, without receiving any benefits in return aside from the mythological “wealth” we gain from hotels — yet to be seen in the form of filled roads or high-quality public services.

Our tax code favors large breaks and tax incentives for foreign developers that may enable them to pay either nothing at all or a fraction of what they truly owe. These hotels and resorts hire black locals for the lowest paying jobs and prefer to keep the highest ranking members of their staff foreign. Even if locals do attain these jobs, the number of high paying jobs provided by these hotels is significantly lower than what their tax breaks might suggest. Many of the hotels exist as parts of multi-billion dollar conglomerates, yet we are supposed to believe that a contribution of a few jobs well under $100,000 USD a year is considered a generous boost to the economy and accept that this gives foreigners and hotel owners the rights to do whatever they please.

Our nations become playgrounds for the rich and we are supposed to be grateful that we get the chance to clean up after them once they’re through playing.

Tourists do not think about this. If they did, I doubt they would feel comfortable in their segregated first world enclaves in a country with crumbling public works. Their perspective insulates them from the larger issues and implications of the tourism industry’s grip on our economy and the exploitative dynamic is purposefully invisible to them, allowing their consciences to remain unencumbered as they traipse freely through whichever nations they please.

A tourist’s experience exists largely in fantasy. Popular travel blogs will often make claims of there being a difference between a tourist and a ‘traveler’, a claim intended to imbue moral superiority amongst the various shades of exploitation — both the oblivious and self-righteous. Yet, the act of visiting a place or even in a rare case, extending empathy (gasp!) to the people that live there, doesn’t remove the dynamic of exploitation. Travel in itself is not enough to remove prejudice and even extensive travel does not either.

Christopher Columbus was a traveler and that didn’t stop him from being a rapist and a murderer.

I’m not entirely cynical, and I do think that travel can have the potential to change an individual’s perspective. Often times, that “change” is a lot shallower and more temporary than tourists and the travel-obsessed are willing to admit. Yet, it’s possible. This change cannot come however from wishful thinking, nor from pretending that tourism and travel exist in a vacuum unencumbered by the forces of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy (to quote bell hooks). It will take more than messy buns, luxurious resorts and $1,000 plane tickets for significant internal change to occur… But I’ll leave that discussion for another month.

*Regardless of individuals opinions, the unequal power dynamic of guest vs. Hotel worker renders all sexual encounters inherently exploitative. Add racial fetishism and elitist entitlement to the mix and this sexual exploitation becomes more clear.

IS SAINT LUCIA GAY FRIENDLY?

 I get this question often. Most commonly, I get this question on YouTube, since I've recently started a channel about life and travel here. It's a question that's difficult to answer in a YouTube comment when you have a limited amount of time and space, and the additional difficulty of not being able to "read" the person you're talking to in order to determine if they're really hearing you. The more I get this question, the more I do want to address it somewhere because the answer is both simple and complicated."Is Saint Lucia gay-friendly?" The short answer is no.This answer should be a national embarrassment, yet it's one that many of our residents who rely on tourism as their bread and butter hold proudly and dear to their hearts.I've heard all the excuses and justifications of homophobia stemming from slavery (true) and also from Christianity being used as a tool of violence to keep enslaved people obedient to European rule (also true). While these historical facts paint the picture of why the Caribbean is homophobic, they don't excuse it.The violence Christians enact today in the name of misreading an excessively butchered translation of the Bible, is 100% their fault. And I'm going to come right out and make a controversial claim:

We deserve every dollar lost due to our violent intolerance and discrimination. 

I'm not sorry to make that claim because discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. End of story. There is no "religious" justification that can take away the ultimate alleged message of Christianity: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR.Love is not conditional and if you believe it is, you need to hit that Bible once more and correct the hell out of your poisoned definition of love. The religious justifications for homophobia in this country are no longer an excuse. The legacy of slavery is no longer an excuse. While it may explain why our country is homophobic, this doesn't excuse it.

What are we doing right now to change the oppressive system enacted into law by slave masters? Answer: The majority of us are doing nothing.So yes, I'm tired of coming up with excuses and yes, Saint Lucia is very much a homophobic country. You know you're starting off on the wrong foot when you refer to sex as "sodomy" on the books. "Sodomy" is forbidden under Saint Lucian law.Now, let's get to where things get a little more complicated.While legally, two men are not permitted to have sex and as you can imagine, getting married is out of the question, the law is difficult to enforce. Also, I've asked and there's no word on whether two women having sex is forbidden. Loopholes on loopholes, I suppose.I know a number of people in the LGBT community in Saint Lucia who get by here. I'm not sure how happy they are so I really don't want to portray a message that I have no evidence of. Happy or not, LGBT Saint Lucians consider this place their home and have hope that the country will move forward in the future. Some people live with their partners in Saint Lucia as well and as far as I know, have not been arrested for doing such.I will not promise that existence is without fear, threat or discrimination. However, it is a reality that we have an LGBT community in Saint Lucia and some people live openly.

To act as if gay people do not exist here is an act of violence itself, and I don't wish to perpetuate that. (If you want me to expand more on this, comment down below.)Now, the question at hand that often accompanies "IS SAINT LUCIA GAY-FRIENDLY?" is, would I recommend that a tourist visit Saint Lucia?Let me put it to you this way. I would not put my money in the hands of a government that had "banned" black people or interracial relationships, lets say.If the question isn't a matter of where you're putting your money, I would say that if you come to Saint Lucia as an LGBT person you can remain unbothered if you conform to the standards of dress acceptable for men and women in our culture. Also, I would not recommend public displays of affection towards your significant other or anyone of the same sex. (Usually, I find it's more acceptable for women to dress "like men" than the other way around down here but I'm open to correction from women who have lived this experience.)

Would I recommend you traveling here? Hell no! That's messy! I don't like taking responsibility for people's decisions like that. I would not feel comfortable assuring a tourist 100% of their safety in any homophobic country. My recommendation is to assess the situation and determine what you're comfortable with.If more tourists vote with their dollars and take a stance against homophobia here, I am certain the profit mongers in our tourism industry would inch slowly towards progress. However, that's going to take a lot of dollars considering homophobia is not just a Caribbean issue, but a global one. If it's your dream to see the Caribbean before then, I don't think you should deny yourself the opportunity.It's possible to be safe. It's possible to be unbothered by anyone. If you've survived anywhere else in the world where homophobia exists, you can certainly do it down here. Sadly, none of this prejudice is new.

Be warned that while the country's laws may be lax, some of the rules of the resorts here are not and the white foreign resort owners are the ones most likely to enforce the rules that LGBT couples cannot stay there. Be mindful of this and do your research beforehand.We have a lot of work to do in the field of human rights. Homophobia isn't the only rampant discrimination that exists here, as with most other places in the world. I won't sugar coat it and pretend it's all a fat mug of cocoa tea. We have a lot of work to do as a country, let's get to making a change rather than jumping through hoops to avoid accountability for the reprehensible.If you hope to visit Saint Lucia and you have any more questions, I recommend that you check out my YouTube channel. My latest vlog is right here: https://youtu.be/7-SZQ5Sv_oc  

Women's Wednesdays: Carnival Is Not A "Feminist" Space

Carnival is not a feminist space simply because there is nothing that materially or theoretically differentiates carnival from what it is like living as a woman in the Caribbean on a daily basis. While carnival can be a positive space for some women on an individual basis, we cannot too liberally apply the label of "feminist" to any space where women feel happy.

Yes, Caribbean women deserve to feel happy, positive about their bodies and to enjoy their lives. I would never debate this! However, Caribbean feminists need to recognize that feminism isn't the accidental result of large groups of women gathered together. It is intentional activism that requires challenging the patriarchal system of oppression in the Caribbean daily. We cannot assume that feminism will manifest without work.

There are many angles to approach change in our culture since issues affecting women and feminists appear on every level. But it's of utmost importance that we do something and avoid falling into the trap of neoliberal white feminism like what's popular on social media. We need to be cautious and more importantly, we need to invest our time in constructive community building activities that can ensure a safer country for our women.

Women's Wednesdays: We Need More Than 'Empowerment'

Empowerment is one of those subjects for feminists that sounds like a good idea in theory and of course since the entire focus is on feeling good/strong, it can be a compelling "focus" for feminists. Caribbean feminists, however, should be focused on anything but empowerment. Empowerment is a feeling, an idea, a notion. Empowerment is nothing concrete and tends not to have any real long-term measurable impact.

"Empowerment" is about a feeling but feminist political action should be focused entirely on the concrete. We live in a country where rape and incest have been normalized. We live in countries where street harassment is so normalized that some women even believe that they "like it". (What they really like is the validation which is another tragedy to unpack on another day). We live in countries where there are anti-buggery laws and where teachers tell their classrooms that we "are not ready for a female prime minister*)

This focus on "empowerment" seems to be a part of the popular feminism espoused by the upper-middle and upper-class women in this region. Feminist praxis fails to extend beyond their scope which is truly rooted in a desire for the same economic power that men have. They do not desire liberation for working class women or poor women because their self-image still hinges upon their superiority.Without examining class as it relates to empowerment and as it relates to feminism, any Caribbean feminist movement will seem half-baked. The praxis will be weak and when a movement is supported by weak praxis, it will easily be destroyed as the foundation is built on sand. A feminist movement that doesn't center the most marginalized communities in the Caribbean will be doomed to fail.

Upper-middle and upper-class feminists that feel a drive towards feminism that focuses on "empowerment" need to ask themselves tough questions about their priorities and work on empathizing with women who come from less privileged circumstances. Who are you empowering? What is the long-term and tangible impact of empowerment? What motivates you to be a feminist?All of these questions form a good starting off point for building a feminist movement in this country that will be built to last.

*This happened in my younger cousin's classroom in primary school in Saint Lucia

Black Feminism: Menstruation Taboo

I recently felt challenged to condense my thoughts regarding my experiences with menstruation and taboo in Caribbean society. I don't think it's completely necessary to frequent fliers here but I will add the disclaimer that the experience that frames my experiences and observations about menstruation in the Caribbean are the experiences of a cisgender Caribbean woman and I'm applying my knowledge of black feminism and black feminist thought to how I view the subject.

Like most things considered to be "feminine" in the Caribbean, menstruation faces heavy stigma within our culture. There is both shame and pride surrounding the first menstrual cycle. Shame is one of the first lessons that we are taught about menstruation and it's a lesson sowed so deep that the shame becomes instinct -- and therefore, goes unquestioned. This root of this shame is a socially backed feeling that during menstruation, your body is disgusting and repulsive.

There is also shame surrounding your choices for handling menstruation, perpetuated by parents, peers, and educators. For the majority of Caribbean people who menstruate, it's far more common to use menstrual pads than tampons due to this shame. Menstrual pads are considered to be "appropriate" for people who have not had sex whereas tampons are seen as "inappropriate". This has the effect of sexualizing children considering the average age of the onset of menstruation is 12. There is nothing "inappropriate" (in reality) about a 12-year-old using a tampon; their vagina is not a vessel for sexual activity and treating it as such leads to shame surrounding the entire menstrual process.

Even as a child, I was cognizant of this, although my awareness might not have been conscious. I was aware however that tampons were all but forbidden and it would have been deviating from expectations to wear them.This can actually carry damage to a child's psyche as they approach adulthood. For people who menstruate who are nonbinary or transgender, I can image the damage is even deeper due to the unexamined transphobia embedded in our post-colonial society. For cisgender people who menstruate, the damage might include feeling anxiety about deviating from using pads or carrying other beliefs of humiliation surrounding their bodies that are unshakeable despite technical knowledge of the "facts" about menstruation.What informs this seemingly harmless cultural preference of pads vs. tampons is nothing positive and the stigma against tampons is steeped in patriarchal assumptions about virginity and sexuality. To be blunt: people believe that tampons damage your sexual purity. Some people might deny it and claim that it's preposterous but it's the truth of the majority of our society.

Largely, the discomfort around tampons has to do with how "improper" it is to insert anything into your vagina. Now this is ridiculous on a number of levels but namely, there is nothing sexual about menstruation regardless of your age and there is certainly nothing sexual about a two-inch tampon.

A "lack of education" doesn't explain it all away because it isn't simply education. The expected shame surrounded menstruation is rooted in misogyny. And the lack of education simply feeds into this misogyny. However, they are separate entities that feed off of one another to inform our culture's attitudes on the human body.

Shame about menstruation doesn't just apply to your choice between menstrual pads and tampons. (Note: There are other options for menstrual management but I'll get to this at the end.) Through each menstrual cycle, a healthy amount of shame is required to ensure you keep your menstruation a "secret".There is a high value placed on keeping menstruation hidden from people. Just keeping periods from cis-men isn't the limit to the stigma. For the two years I attended secondary school here, teachers and administrators placed great emphasis on being "discreet". Even in an all girls school, there was still supposed to be a significant shame attached to menstruation and it had to be kept a secret. This isn't about menstruation being disgusting in that example... There's nothing disgusting about going to the bathroom with an unused pad to change your own. This is about how our culture perpetuates patriarchal beliefs about our bodies; even educators are in full agreement that patriarchy is correct and doesn't deserve questioning. It is a way of forcing us to stay "in our place". Now, there's an argument (albeit a weak and unnuanced one) to be made about this "shame" surrounding menstruation being related to the fact that menstruation is "dirty" or "private". I do believe that certain amount of privacy makes practical sense when it comes to menstruation but the level of shame expected and propagated goes beyond privacy and protecting young people who are experiencing their first menstrual cycles as well as the uncertainty that goes along with it. Menstrual blood is not actually dirty and much of the stigma surrounding menstruation is not based on scientific fact but patriarchal mythology intended to shroud a body's natural process in humiliation and discomfort.

A big part of the culture surrounding menstruation revolves around keeping menstruation a "secret" from cis men as I mentioned before. Tampons and menstrual pads must be obscured. The realities of menstruation are hidden (and often times, not even really understood) and menstruation becomes something "disgusting" and something deserving of mockery. This comes from the fact that schools and families are both unaware of the scientific truth behind menstruation and our patriarchal culture requires cis men remain protected from the realities of "the feminine" as it is repulsive and to be avoided at best, despised at worst.My first academic encounter with menstruation in primary school in St. Lucia involved the girls in the class being separated from the boys to learn the truth because the boys would laugh? Because they didn't want to make the girls ashamed? But the only reason for either of those things to occur in reality would be because of the teachers.

Teachers and educators set the tone for what is acceptable in a school environment -- not nine-year-olds. Education surrounding menstruation should not be gender specific. For this to be the case is transphobic and it's sexist. Every person alive should know how the human body functions. Othering bodies of those who menstruate serves no practical purpose in our society.Another facet to the poor education surrounding menstruation includes poor education about complications surrounding menstruation which are actually quite common. Conditions like endometriosis (affects in 1 in 10 people who menstruate), Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (affects 1 in 10-15 people who menstruate) as well as PMDD (3-8% of people who menstruate) affect many people yet these common disorders are not included in a comprehensive education regarding menstruation. Combatting stigma comes first with a comprehensive education based in reality, not myth or pseudoscience.

The ways mainstream feminism chooses to combat this stigma is incongruent with Caribbean culture. Largely, the stigma surrounding menstruation is discussed from a first world white American ciswoman's perspective. Combating the stigma doesn't take into account the specific ways misogyny is enacted in the Caribbean. It doesn't take into account the religious fundamentalism that's widespread in the Caribbean and how that might affect attempts to eliminate the stigma surrounding menstruation. It doesn't take into account that the shame surrounding menstruation runs so deep that transitioning to complete comfort with the subject of menstruation will not happen overnight and might make the target audience (people who menstruate) less accommodated by a movement to de-stigmatize.When people are not properly educated about menstruation from an early age, there is room for patriarchal culture's myths and pseudoscience to take the place of scientific facts. Removing stigma is not about shocking the population into blindly accepting "okay periods are fine now, I guess".

We can remove uneducated beliefs with factual evidence and ensure that we talk about menstruation casually (not necessarily crassly) like we do any other facet of life.The Caribbean does have an advantage here where we understand that women should be able to breastfeed publicly (and this has never been up for debate). We do tend to have open conversations amongst our family members regarding the sometimes unpleasant truths surrounding our own menstrual cycles. However, this is not culturally widespread enough for there to be no room for positive change.

Going forward, I think what the average person can do is:

- Educate themselves about menstruation from reliable sources (Google it.)

- Speak candidly to their children or the children they're responsible for regarding menstruation.

- Educators and those involved in education can work towards changing their classroom environments to be more accommodating towards people who are menstruating, setting the example that menstruation is not shameful or disgusting, but a natural process.

- Communities can work together towards providing free tampons, pads or menstrual cups to people in need.My mention of menstrual cups here brings me to my final point.

In a previous post, I wrote about my foray into using menstrual cups and all the benefits associated with them. Now, menstrual cups are not for everybody but they do provide an option for managing menstruation that is simple, sanitary and doesn't require multiple changes throughout the day. A push to increase the usage of menstrual cups in the Caribbean and provide free menstrual cups -- especially in communities where buying tampons and pads might be too costly -- would be positive for the people of our region. You can check out my previous post for a more in-depth explanation why.

We have a lot of work to do with removing the stigma surrounding menstruation. We do not have to do this the way mainstream feminism dictates; rather we can fit our solution to our culture. Honest conversations, practical discussions and individual changes in our mindset are a good place to start followed promptly by organized community action.