Why must we go so far away to “discover ourselves”?
In a journey of self-reflection, documentary filmmaker and writer, Sabrina Jones, revisits her gap year travels with a candid outlook on her past behaviour in this travel diary of sorts.
Late in 2019, I was listening to someone I know talk about their travels. Somewhere between relaying stories from Argentina and Peru, the topic of the Bolivian protests came up. Despite the grave consequences of these demonstrations, they were not mentioned in the context of a tragedy. Instead, the person referred to the protests with more of an air of nuisance, explaining that the situation in Bolivia was “really fucking annoying because we had to reroute our trip”.
Something about the blasé nature of this statement felt familiar. I began to reflect on my own travels, specifically one journey where I was stuck on a coach travelling from Minca to Cartagena, caught in a cross-fire between rebels and the police. Our coach was one of hundreds of vehicles wedged in the middle of this political feud, and it was a thrilling and unnerving experience. Every time I’ve recounted this story, I mention how I had to miss my flight to Mexico, the lack of aircon on the bus, and the company of a small puppy named Colombo.
When narrating this memory, the details of why the shoot-out took place escaped me. With hindsight, I realise that I had always focused on how these events affected me, instead of considering their effect on surrounding communities. Like the person who produced the ignorant comment about the Bolivian protests, I had failed to acknowledge that there was a long history leading up to this moment, and an unclear future for those affected by this violence. I simply passed through the difficult present, seeing the incident as beginning, and ending, with me.
Up until recently I only focused on the positives of travelling. I was generous with my recommendations, refuted the ‘gap yah’ stereotypes, and believed myself exempt from the clichés surrounding the image of the Western backpacker. I created a narrative which understood my travels as conscious, culturally sensitive and immersive. This may have been partially true, but ultimately, the time I committed to inform myself on my surroundings was not enough to warrant this idealism.
Why must we go so far away to “discover ourselves”? Does the inner voice proclaiming: ‘this is who I am', only become audible once we are free from the shackles of cultural or moral responsibility? The young, urban middle-class travel to escape the rigidity of their own societies, and in turn show no concern for the organisation of the countries they travel through. For many, a cultural education is cast aside in favour of numbing your palette in Colombia, developing a small prescription drug habit in Hanoi, and getting shit-faced at any Wild-Rovers establishment encountered in either Southern or Eastern continents. That’s not to say we don’t occasionally visit a museum, which without a doubt, merits an A* for effort.
With years to reflect on my first long-distance trip, I’ve concluded that a more accurate portrayal would be to recount how I largely surrounded myself with Europeans, exploited the perks of a western budget in less developed economies, and failed to research the political landscapes of the places I mindlessly roamed through. I perfectly fit the cookie-cutter mould of an ignorant backpacker - right down to my harem-pant shaped silhouette.
The beauty of backpacker trails across East Asia or South America, is that these cultures are so foreign that one is able to abstain from any effort to understand them. Packaged as a consumer good selling escapism and self-discovery, a narrative emerges echoing something similar to colonial relations. Countries are quickly reduced to nothing more than a geo-tag on Instagram, accompanied by a selfie and an unnecessarily long caption stating something along the lines of: ‘I’m completely overwhelmed by the people and places I’ve experienced’.
What can a culture you spend no time educating yourself on, really show you about yourself? I, in no way, refute the power of cross-cultural education. Mostly, I am concerned that the group of us who fall into the privileged category feel that it’s enough to simply float through, shielded safely from the harsh and complex realities of certain countries by the walls of an impenetrable Western bubble. It is possible to appreciate a foreign landscape without reading a history book, but it is ignorant to travel in search of yourself without learning anything about the destination in which you choose to do it.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s Santiago released hundreds of prisoners in fear that the illness would produce something akin to a mass-killing. Faced with the reality of a country in crisis, the backpackers flew home. It’s understandable for individuals to return to their homes and loved ones in the fog of uncertain times. But what really struck me about this event was that COVID-19 presented a situation where Westerners were no longer able to forge a route that avoided poverty, corruption and chaos. The pandemic imposed itself on backpackers; it wasn’t so easy to simply turn a blind eye when shit went west.
When I first went away, I was so overwhelmed by independence and new people that I failed to consider how a limited knowledge of my surroundings could tamper with my perceptions. It’s easy to overlook that which seems too complicated to understand, but we risk being narrow-minded by limiting our perceptions to individual experience. Is it moral to privilege our personal experiences over cultural education? And are the young, Western, middle-class doing enough to resist a repetition of colonial sentiments?
There is a need to distinguish the difference between escapism and self-discovery. Without seeing, reading and listening to our environments, we can’t expect to gain much from our travels. There’s nothing wrong with backpacking across South East Asia or South America in search of a good time. But if you view yourself as gathering something deeper from those experiences, stop to consider how well your perceptions match the reality.
For the foreseeable future, matters of the self will be kept to ourselves. So, if your gap year has been put on hold, or a long-distance trip cut short, consider the ways in which you could travel more consciously in the future. Whether that means learning the basics of a foreign language, educating yourself on the political state of potential backpacking destinations, or simply asking yourself the question: what exactly am I looking for? Countries and continents are rich with knowledge and experiences; there is much more to find than just ourselves.
Photography by: Ben Cole and Sabrina Jones