Simple Words; Hard Truths

I don’t know about you, but I rely pretty heavily on my friends to keep me up on the latest happenings in various social circles – let’s face it, there’s way too many for me to keep track of on my own. And, most recently, two of them were telling me about a book of poetry that was the newest craze and that I absolutely had to get. I asked them, “who just sits and reads a book of poems for fun? Do you read just one poem and put the book down, or are there chapters so that you’re reading mad poems back to back?” I was completely confused.  Although I love reading and even majored in English in college, my experience with poetry up to this point has been limited to specific works suggested by professors to spark classroom discussion – I’d never had or wanted a book of poems for leisurely reading (unless you count Dr. Seuss, who obviously was robbed of the Nobel Prize).  But their response was simple: “No chapters; you can read whatever you want – read one and think about it or read a bunch and see how you feel.”

They had sufficiently piqued my curiosity so I went on Amazon later that night, found Salt by Nayyirah Waheed and hit the checkout button.

I can’t lie to you, though, for the first few days after it arrived the book sat on my dresser untouched. Something about it was just daunting to me. I once read that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful” (Rita Dove)– and as beautiful as that concept seems, poems have historically had a way of either going completely over my head or being so literal that I didn’t see them as interesting.

When I finally sat down to read I found myself flipping pages extremely quickly – for me it was a page turner of a different sort. Each poem barely filled a page, and some were only one line!  Like, bruh, really?  They were interesting and somewhat thought-provoking, but honestly I just felt silly.  Then, around 10 pages in, right as I was about to give up and put the book down, I read this:

would

you still want to travel to

that

country

if

you could not take a camera with you.

 — a question of appropriation

And then I did have to put the book down. Not because I was over it or because I thought reading a book of poetry for fun was pointless.  Rather, I had to put it down because that messed with my spirit.

I have been the proud holder of a U.S. Passport for only a few years and as a result have accumulated only a few stamps so far, but in that short time and from only few experiences I have literally fallen in love with travelling – even if where I’m headed doesn’t require a passport. I went to Cape Town and Durban, South Africa for Thanksgiving one year and got to experience both a larger African city where there were tourists galore and a population of locals more diverse than I had expected, as well as a more rural town where I ate game-meat such as zebra and wildebeest and where electricity was completely shut off every day in the middle of the day to conserve energy (you read that right: during the hottest part of the day – in AFRICA of all places – there was no electricity for a few hours anywhere in town).  I also spent a spring break in Barbados with a group of classmates and we explored caves, rode jet skis and often danced the night away with the locals.  And when my sister and I went to Puerto Rico last fall we literally spent all day every day at the beach and did little to nothing else – and it was glorious.

Travel has afforded me a variety of experiences in a short amount of time and I am fortunate to have made memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve made it my personal mission to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year, to drag my sister and my friends to as many places as I can, and to not-so-subtly nudge my extended family members into planning family trips as well (I haven’t yet been successful at the last one, but I’ll break them one day!).

I often post my adventures to Instagram and Facebook, share them in photo albums and group chats, and talk about them to whoever is willing to listen. But I never once thought that my actions could potentially be assisting in the further appropriation or commodification of local cultures and people. I am obviously familiar with these phenomena on a conceptual level, but the thought that I might be personally contributing to their occurrence truly escaped me — there was no feigned ignorance here, just a young woman with a genuine excitement for travel birthed from having the time and the means.

So that very simple question posed by Waheed hit me hard; it slapped me right across the face, and the intentions and implications behind my newfound love were immediately questioned. Had I been blind to my own actions?  Do I want to go to these places just to say that I was there? Is it about bragging? Is it about curiosity? Am I embracing a sense of freedom that my parents didn’t have or am I only chasing after one? Do I care to learn more about the people and cultures I visit?  Or is my focus instead on how many likes my pictures get on Instagram?

Simply put: would I go if I couldn’t take my camera? And as I was sitting there reading, I honestly could not answer that question… and it freaked me out.

After days of having it on my mind, I still cannot answer the question fully. However, what I can say is that studies show that Millennials (which I learned is defined by most scholars as today’s 18 to 34 year olds, although I think it’s more accurate to describe us as those aged 25 to 34, but what do I know?) are more likely than any other demographic to travel for leisure.  Some might say we are less likely to have children and other major responsibilities at this age so we are in a better position to be able to travel, but at least one article that I read suggested that Millennials with families are even more likely to travel than those of us who do not have those responsibilities.  So I think that at the end of the day we simply have different priorities for our lives than older generations, and travel is one area that we see value in – it factors heavily into the “work-life balance” concept that reigns supreme in our eyes and governs everything that we do.  The question that I haven’t yet been able to answer for myself is what exactly that value is.

I’m planning a trip to Greece this summer, though, so now that my eyes have been opened hopefully I’ll be more cognizant of how I experience my travels and what I ultimately aspire take away from each trip – as well as what it is that I would hope to leave behind. So this conversation is to be continued…

Needless to say, I’m hesitant to pick up that book again – but for different reasons this time. Simple words. Hard truths.

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