By: Steve Mullaney
Today I ate what translates as “divorced eggs.” They were delicious. Pretty much everything that I’ve eaten here in Guatemala has been amazing. Black beans are a universal hit with the group I’m travelling with; other favorites include plantains, papaya, and pretty much every breakfast food we’ve tried. I mention food not for the cheap point of “things sure are different here in a country that’s not the United States” but to put the kibosh on what can be thought of informally as “Y’all Gonna Die Syndrome”
Before leaving, it seems that every single student in the travel group was harassed within the confines of a formalized travel presentation by someone who went on and on about how they were going to die/get sick/get attacked—by rabid dogs no less—over the course of their trip. I’m absolutely NOT attacking the concept of safety here; knowing what awaits you is very important, as is knowing how to properly deal with situations as they arise. I am, however, opposed to artificially constructed scenarios which pass as absolute truth that create an enlightened Us and an ignorant Other. In the case of all the presentations we were made to sit through, dangers of other countries were highlighted at the expense of the dangers in the USA. Relatively mundane setbacks (traveler’s diarrhea, pickpockets, the horror!) are made to be extremely damning—almost to the point where one would want to consider taking a trip at all.
Through this presentation the presenter is normalizing an extremely problematic juxtaposition: the US is safe (read: superior), the Global South is unsafe (read: inferior). In the case of traveler’s diarrhea the implicit suggestion is being made that by going somewhere else you will be exposed to inherently inferior water/food/other and that it—the other culture more so than the water/food itself—will physically attack your body and take you out. Never mind that people get sick EVERYWHERE, or that travel and everything that goes along with it is a shock to the system; inferior Guatemalan lettuce from inferior Guatemalan farmers will make you sick. By focusing solely on one aspect of health, this decontextualizes the realities of public health and sets up a very easy jump in logic: if US lettuce is superior to Guatemalan lettuce therefore the US is superior to Guatemala. Furthermore, this comparison completely removes the historical context for why it is safe to eat American lettuce and not Guatemalan lettuce: colonialism allowed the rich white male elite to mobilize political, economic and military forces against the poor, the female, and/or people of color. This favored safe agricultural methods in the areas where the elite were concentrated over areas where the masses were concentrated (this is even true within the US itself—produce in grocery stores in wealthy areas is infinitely better than produce in poor areas; this trend has been well documented). Consequentially, the elite are able to enjoy lettuce in their salads, whereas the non-elite cannot without risking illness. Clearly, presentations on health risks need to highlight certain topics—it’s important to know the necessary vaccinations or that lettuce should be avoided, however, this is a very, very incomplete picture that needs to be acknowledged as such. Statistics and factoids taken out of context lead to erroneous assumptions and the reinforcement of xenophobic stereotyping and attitudes.
The foreign pickpocket is another troubling image conjured up in these presentations because it makes the assumption that pickpockets do not exist in the United States. While true that there are certain areas where pickpockets are more likely to strike, this fact still leads to the jump from “in Guatemala there is a small percentage of people who in certain areas are likely to try and take my money” to “all Guatemalans will try and steal my money”. Much like illness, crime happens everywhere—people are more prone to falling victim to crime in unfamiliar areas (travel = unfamiliar, folks) and when they stand out as easy targets, like the author of this post who is six feet tall and white as the underbelly of a dead toad. The racialized foreign pickpocket (pickpockets are rarely thought of as white) is always emphasized at the expense of strategies for dealing with theft: spread out your money, only bring what’s necessary and leave everything else in a safe place, accept that this might be a cost of travel and that $20 is not that big of a deal in the long run. Crime seems to be much more shocking on the small scale: when you lose twenty bucks it’s the end of the world, however, when a government conspires against its people to start a war based on false pretenses which costs billions upon billions of dollars, kills thousands and disrupts the lives of millions (hypothetical example) then that’s just hunky dory.
Finally, the traveler’s presentation omits dangers of living in the US—like watching an average of five hours of TV a day and becoming boring, or chasing money at the expense of relationships. It’s dangerous to be alive; life is something which leads to death. While there are things that will make it more likely that one dies at a young age (smoking, not wearing a seatbelt, etc) the travel presentation creates the illusion that by staying in the country it is impossible to die. Nothing could be farther from the truth; at any point you could be crushed by a falling rock, whether in the United States, Guatemala or any other place in the world. Through highlighting foreign dangers exaggerated visibility is given to another place and the US is artificially normalized as safe, and by extension, superior.
In some ways this essay is a bit nitpicky, in others it doesn’t go far enough. Travel at its best breaks barriers and humanizes, the travel presentation fights this. Through travel (whether one neighborhood or one ocean away) there is the unique opportunity to interact with and build relationships with folks who would have otherwise been strangers. In the fight for a more just world creating solidarity is one of the tools that exists to achieve these ends. By putting up artificial barriers to interacting with folks from other countries the travel presentation undermines the ability of the US traveler to engage with locals on the level of equals.
…have fun and be safe on your trip, and if you come down to Guatemala make sure to try the huevos divorciados. But you will most likely get traveler’s diarrhea. And you will like it. So there.