Decolonizing The Way We Talk About Travel

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You hear it over and over: Travel changes you. Travel allows you a chance to figure out the world in a deeply personal way. Travel makes you grow. But what if what you’re learning is only re-enforcing destructive myths, outright lies, and vitriolic stereotypes? What if your realizations on the road are actually regressive?

As a person who grew up in an Indigenous community in the Pacific Northwest, I was raised with a wholly different history — some would say current reality — than the rest of America. My people’s history wasn’t about triumphs, manifest destiny, or a grand pioneering myth. It was about genocide, lies, and a continued destruction. Growing up Indigenous in America meant you were never going to be equal and your history didn’t matter, certainly not in any concrete way.

So, I escaped. Both my community and my country. I made my life about travel. And it was fun. But if I’m being honest, I can’t say it was better. Traveling while Indigenous meant coming face to face with Indian stereotypes — where my culture’s destruction was celebrated as a triumph. I found it psychologically devastating and I’m not the first to have that experience.

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Here’s an example: On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, while touring Old San Juan, we hit all the monuments, murals, and architectural spots that make that place unique. Every single one of those spots was a celebration of the colonial annexation of that island. “Here’s the great Christopher Columbus monument!” our guide exclaimed with pride as we rode past a towering statue to a man who, by his own words, was one of history’s greatest monsters.

“This is the church where the founder of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de Leon, is buried,” our guide said later. “Very important place for Puerto Ricans.” I asked if there was anything about the Taino people who Ponce ethnically cleansed from the island. I was told those people are “all gone. Extinct.” Then without further prompting, the guide said, “Without Juan Ponce de Leon there’d be no Puerto Rico. He discovered the island.” I know this is a lie. There were literally hundreds of thousands of Taino (possibly millions) on the Caribbean islands in 1500 and the remaining Taino are still trying to be recognized by the Puerto Rican government.

The place wasn’t “discovered” and the people aren’t “extinct.” But to be Indigenous is also to be seen as argumentative in the face of pain. A problem starter. So I didn’t say any of this — just “um-hum’d” and moved on.

As the day wound on, we passed more monuments to Spanish “explorers,” Abramhic saints, and those from history who are presented as settlers, civilizers, and saviors. In reality, they were colonizers, rapists, and mass-murderers. The breaking point came later when we were walking from the barricade walls back into Old San Juan and we passed what I was told is “the oldest building in all of the Americas,” the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, and “the oldest house in all of America,” the La Fortaleza. I mention that the homes still occupied to this day in Taos Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo predate these colonial buildings by over 500 years.

I received a shrug in return. The tour moved on. Systemic erasure is par for the course when it comes to colonial history.

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Let me be clear. I was not furious at my tour guide. I was upset that his education led him to be an unwitting hopper –spreading warped lies to make colonialists feel special. For me, this isn’t about an individual not knowing or having the time to know real history. It’s about a system that bases its education on being the victor over being honest. That tour guide in San Juan is a victim of that system.

Go to Spain, Portugal, or Italy and you’ll find the same reverence to the “Age of Discovery” that you’ll find anywhere in the Americas. Europeans who spread diseases and enslaved entire populations until they were decimated beyond recognition are celebrated as national heroes to this day. And this isn’t a relic of the past. A massive Columbus statue in Puerto Rico was erected in 2016.

This mentality seeps deeply into how the average westerner views the world and travels around it. You can’t go two seconds these days without hearing or seeing someone post about “exploring” a “new culture” or even “discovering” a new corner of the planet or a new food in someplace “exotic” or “dangerous.” All of those words are loaded. Unless you’re diving to the bottom of the ocean or flying off to Mars, you aren’t discovering or exploring anything. As for exotic or dangerous, well, that’s all relative. To a German, America is an insanely dangerous place where gun violence is endemic and several minority communities are still facing daily violence. So there’s little meaning to designations like that unless they’re qualified with “from my vantage point.” Yet you see them again and again.

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This isn’t me telling you not to travel. I’m literally a travel writer, for God’s sake. The problem is that placing these monikers on travel disconnects you from real connection with humans living in the places you visit. Instead, they become something for you to “explore” or “discover” which, more often than not, translates as a place for you to exploit.

How does this tie into the myth of the “Age of Discovery?” Well, it’s right there in how we look at that era: “Discovery.” Would we have the same reverence for that time and those actions if we called the Age of Genocide or the Age of Slavery or even the way more innocuous Age of Colonialism?

The past is the past. Though it pains me, I can’t change it. But how we react to this is what’s important. Either we deny all of this and dig into trenches of the myths. Or we accept that there’s room for improving ourselves and how we view those destroyed by colonization and move on together. The former is easy. It’s what we’ve been doing for 500 years. The latter is hard because it means admitting that a group of colonizers perpetrated the greatest mortality and cultural destruction in modern history — an event that’s still being celebrated as a good thing.

The best example of actually learning these hard truths and moving forward from the lies of our shared colonial past is in Argentina. When the Argentines finally acknowledged that they carried out a brutal genocide against the Indigenous population there (in the 1870s), they had to reckon with the fact that the man they considered their George Washington was, in reality, a monster and not a hero. Julio Argentino Roca was removed from the currency, street names, and monuments and relegated to history as a force of evil instead of reverence.

Can we, as Americans, learn from this? Would you be willing to reconsider Washington or Columbus? What about as travelers? How can we visit countries that are new to us without pushing them into the realm of “the other?” How do savor the feeling of exploration without acting as if stumbling into a food you haven’t tried is a “discovery?”

The answers aren’t always easy. But the questions are one that we as travelers have to dig into if our travels are going to change us for the better.

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