From My Chariot of Blood I See Visions of Freedom

/ May 2022

There is no “travel,” in the current version of the experience, without colonialism. A traveler in the modern era can choose between visiting the imperial core to view the spoils of war (beautiful architecture, museums of looted artifacts, cultural triumphs enabled by the wealth brought by empire), or having a more budget-friendly experience in the impoverished former colonies (which of course also have magnificent cultural achievements, but please allow the duality of cost and power to stand), which have continued to operate as de facto colonial dependencies. The second route is what I am interested in discussing.

The monthly cost of backpacking in most of Latin America, including buying all meals rather than cooking, constantly taking buses and other forms of transit, staying at hostels full of interesting (or at least relatively friendly) people, and going on incredible excursions, is less than my monthly rent. Through the lens of capital (what other lenses are there, after all), it is thus irrational to spend time off in the United States rather than abroad, particularly for those of us drawn to the distinct appeals of the “developing” (a term I will use unironically for the remainder of the essay out of convenience, but which is obviously subject to critique and interrogation) countries. I will return to these appeals later, but for now am interested in focusing on the problematic aspects of visiting the developing world.

A contemporary traveler rides through developing economies on a chariot of blood. I visit Latin America with an enormous amount of purchasing power due to the differential economic situations between the empire in which I work and the colonies which I visit. I come from the imperial core which has, over hundreds of years, systematically extracted wealth from the rest of the world. Thus I am able to voyage hedonistically and thoughtlessly through the postcolonial wreckage.

The apathy of global capitalism to analyze its colonial roots has brought with it a whole constellation of deceptive language and discourse surrounding travel. We are told that “tourism” is, in fact, quite a good thing – localities are encouraged to prostitute themselves through the commodification of their culture and natural resources in a desperate attempt to lure residents of the empire, with their comparatively infinite spending power. If a locality sufficiently embraces their role as a playground for Westerners, transforming their economy to cater to tourists and obliterating whatever vestigial authentic culture survived the first round of violent colonialism, they are rewarded with a flow of capital offering some hope of economic stability and prosperity.

Thus we face the bizarre game of modern tourism: residents of the deliberately-impoverished majority of the world competing with each other to provide the most comfortable, sanitized experience to the wealthy, desperately trying to regain some of the capital which was stolen from them by prostrating themselves before the thieves. This brutal reality is disguised, again, by rhetoric. Westerners are assured that they will be able to authentically share in rich cultural histories, despite encountering only commodified facsimiles, images of culture flattened into generic products of “experiences” and “immersions.” They are promised that their visits benefit local communities by providing cash, ignoring the structural violence facilitating their vacation and perpetuated by their participation.

This critique extends even more strongly to those who convince themselves that they are “travelers” rather than “tourists,” an illusory and nonsensical differentiation which pretends that staying in hostels and being critical of the travel industry provides some moral absolution. There is no escape from the machinery of empire underlying travel, not even self-consciously avoiding tourist-dominated spaces in favor of more obscure locales. There is an unavoidable power imbalance while traveling. While I have made many friends traveling, the harsh reality is that I have more money, often by orders of magnitude, than any of them. While these friendships are real and genuine, it cannot be ignored that they formed out of the collision of my carefree, romanticized adventure and their daily, laborious lives.

Another strange and revealing term of the trade is the ubiquitous “gap year.” It implies an unfaltering progression along a default trajectory, that being the ascension to professional-managerial class status in the West, which is interrupted by a brief sabbatical to see exotic locales and assuage existential dread before absorption into class comforts. The term refuses to acknowledge that traveling, or any adventurous activity, is in fact a fully dignified and narratively self-justifying way to spend time. I will never live through a “gap year,” for each year shall only be itself.

This is to say nothing of the enormous environmental damage wrought by travel in several ways: the planes and the physical deformation of natural spaces to provide luxurious tourist infrastructure loom large, along with the other modes of transit and general high level of consumption associated with Western travel to developing countries. Of course, this critique in particular is somewhat blunted by the vastly wasteful lifestyle commonly enjoyed in the imperial countries – it is easy to imagine that living a monastic lifestyle in the West and traveling frugally is less environmentally toxic than the aspirational American lifestyle of owning a massive house(s), multiple gas-powered cars, and generally buying vast amounts of metals and plastics to satiate existential dread. Of course, this is a comparison between two strategies of wasteful destruction which absolves neither of them, and realistically, those traveling the most are usually those consuming the most domestically.

With these basic critiques of travel out of the way, I now feel the need to justify why I am still so interested, perhaps to the point of obsession, in traveling. Let me begin by saying that the type of travel I would like to justify is only that in which I am interested: the low-budget variety facilitated by public transit and couchsurfing, with the goal of forming authentic friendships and understanding the cultural, political, and economic conditions of normal people in the places I visit. Again, this mode carries with it a slew of problematic baggage, but I believe it still is worth differentiating from the more overtly destructive model of, say, the Cancun resort dweller.

I will begin with the fundamentals of the situation before moving into the specific attractions of the places I would like to visit. I am a machine which renders stimuli into narratives, and so I crave new stimuli. Of course, there exist essentially infinite stimuli present everywhere. Traveling to new places, however, offers qualitatively distinct stimuli, in many ways, from those to which I have access wherever I am living. In my previous essay, “There are other worlds they have not told you of. They wish to speak with you,” I discussed the liberation afforded by the sense of traveling the open road, surrounded by infinite possibilities for new experiences, a combination of your own agency and cosmic chaos providing a relentless stream of novelty and reflective opportunities. While this experience can theoretically be had anywhere, traveling to places more different from one’s residence gives us access to the truer sense of “other worlds.” You are exposed to dramatic differences in language, design, urban and general organization, political realities, artistic norms and sensibilities, and infinitely more. You are offered endless opportunities for better understanding the way your own home environment operates, and its inexhaustible possibilities for transformation, inspired by the overwhelming amount of new data gained from traveling in an unfamiliar locale.

More broadly, traveling offers a tool in the struggle against alienation. We can think of the imagery in Waiting for Godot of the disorientation and confusion created by spatial stagnation, by the sense of waiting for an undefined absolution which never comes. A fixed physical location produces circular, labyrinthine psychological motion instead of emancipatory physical motion. This captures how I feel in my daily American life: alienated, estranged, and deeply disoriented, waiting for changes outside of my control, unsure if such changes would even provide the narrative freedom I crave. Thus despite language barriers and cultural differences, along with the difficulty of navigating unfamiliar systems and modes of interaction, I consistently find myself less alienated while traveling than while living my daily life. When traveling, I have much more control over my movement and activities, owing to the existence of both functional regional transit in most places outside of the United States and of free or cheap activities in public spaces. I also am able to socialize more freely in places which have been less impacted by algorithmization and the total commodification of physical space: I have consistently made friends on the street or in parks in developing countries, an experience which is irregular to the point of being shocking in the United States. Traveling also provides a sense of urgency to socialization due to its ephemerality. All friendships must be made and solidified in the duration of your stay which, even if the stay is long, provides more of a sense of necessity and intensity than while living somewhere indefinitely.

Another note on the topic of friendship, which I alluded to earlier, is that the friends which I have made traveling are remarkably different from those I meet during my normal life. This is due to a mix of the willingness to transgress class-segregation, the ability to meet people in public spaces in other countries, the interest of locals in conversing with travelers who can speak their language, and my embrace of chaos and general willingness to do anything while traveling. Regardless of its reason, having an expanded range of conversations and friendships is one of the highest beauties of traveling. To name a few, I have befriended a stone cutter, employees of a car dealership, multiple hostel proprietors, a construction worker, refugee street vendors, a baker, a music producer recording bird sounds, and several public-space characters of indeterminate profession (alas, how I have resorted to categorizing people by their professions for brevity…). The density of characters and interactions I have while traveling incomparably exceeds that of my daily life, and I have found this aspect of my voyages overwhelmingly rewarding. The range of goals, aspirations, origins, and lifestyles of those I have met has radically expanded my understanding of the human experience and my imagination thereof.

To the extent that I do feel alienation while traveling, it tends to be in a more enlightening and productive form than my daily experience of alienation. I am alienated at home by structural design, by an incoherence of physical space, a passive hostility between strangers implied by our Darwinian socioeconomic structure, and extreme segregation and physicalized social stratification. These damages of capital exist also in the developing world, but are in many ways less intensified than in the imperial core. The exception is ethnic and economic segregation, which absolutely exists to an incredibly strong degree in developing countries I have visited. However, being a visitor allows me to feel more comfortable moving between the spaces of different classes, knowing that I am a temporary observer rather than an ongoing participant in the machinery of separation. The remaining experiences of alienation are those inherent to being a stranger in a strange land, and they provide opportunities of reflection and connection: being a humble foreigner invites residents to educate you in their own image, and visiting a place of confusing newness returns you to the experience of radical learning and imagination of childhood. It provides also a deepened empathy with immigrants venturing into the imperial countries, a lesson obsessed over in the Bible: consider (among many similar candidates) Exodus 23:9, “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The voluntary estrangement of traveling has proved enlightening for me in many ways.

I am impelled to recall the framing of Dante’s Inferno, in which Virgil explains to Dante the need to travel the circuitous route through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in order to return to his daily life. Indeed, from the first canto:

He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness…

Therefore, for your own good, I think it well

you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried

in endless pain, and hear there lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.

Virgil, representing Reason, must take Dante on a physical journey functionally indistinguishable from the spiritual journey needed to restore him to the righteous path (“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray / from the straight road”). The literal march through Hell is the metaphorical Recognition of Sin, one of three integral components to Dante’s return to divine favor. So too is the physicality of traveling, with the sense-data it provides, a necessary experience to understand the reality of global inequality, suffering, resistance, and celebration. There is no better political education than to actually see and speak with a diverse set of people, and traveling vastly expands the scope of this diversity.

So my experience of traveling has provided me with political education, meaningful and lasting friendships, opportunities for self-actualization and reimagination, a sense of unmatched freedom, and scenes of natural and cultural splendor. The question remains if these joyful experiences require participation in the exploitative global travel industry, even if I attempt to minimize my complicity. Perhaps I can achieve all of the same benefits without resorting to long-range voyages, and it simply reflects a personal failure of imagination that I remain enraptured by travel.

Section 80 of the Tao Te Ching describes an ideal society operating under Taoist principles:

Let there be a small state with few people,
It has various kinds of instruments,
But let none of them be used.
Let the people not risk their lives, and not migrate far away.
Although they have boats and carriages,
Let there be no occasion to ride in them…
Although the neighboring states are within sight of one another,
And the crowing of cocks and the barking of dogs
On both sides can be heard,
Their peoples may die of old age without even meeting each other.

The repudiation of travel could not be clearer, and so too are author Laozi’s reasons: travel is an attempt to escape suffering, and peaceful existence simply renders it unnecessary. In many ways I agree with this analysis, for I would certainly be less inclined to embark on costly, time consuming, and varyingly dangerous adventures if I felt totally peaceful and unalienated in my daily life. The brutal reality is that I am not at peace. I travel in a nihilistic attempt to overcome alienation and gain new imagery, stimuli, stories, and conceptual material to inform my approach to life.

In this way, my experience of traveling tracks closely with Voltaire’s use of large-scale motion in Candide. The titular character is thrown about a chaotic world by the cruel hand of fate, witnessing one calamity after another. Voltaire uses travel as a narrative weapon to increase the diversity of Candide’s experiences, a cheap way of expanding the scope of plot and imagery offered to the reader. Though markedly different in the quality of experience, my travels represent a narratively similar embrace of chaos in search of more raw data, more imagery, more experience. Traveling is a shortcut to a maximalist life, a way to be constantly served newness, a quest for education and epiphany without the attendant philosophical reflection demanded by, say, Taoism. It is a machine which generates content, and in some ways is only amplified by a lack of aim or direction, unlike more deliberate approaches to achieving enlightenment.

Another availing work is the renowned Ulysses. More so than the incredible language of the text, I am interested in its overarching structure. The epic voyage of the Odyssey, one of the greatest travel narratives of all time, is rendered into the narrative thematics used to describe one day of a mundane Dublin life. The magnificent, beautiful depth and complexity of our daily lives blossoms (blooms, one might say?) in the text, Joyce finding quotidian routines no less epic and worthy of verbose descriptors than Odyssyus’s immortal voyage. And so the open-road dynamism of travel is in fact lurking around us constantly, travel itself serving as a crutch to access this storytelling model without having to exert the aesthetic labor needed to conjure it out of my existing patterns. Traveling is thus conceding to existing cultural narrative norms delineating the natural habitat of the epic. We travel to be handed great stories, rather than simply telling better stories about our own lives.

So we arrive at the end of this analysis with many questions and few answers. Am I gaining unique, meaningful insight from traveling, or am I just on a desperate quest for raw stimuli to use as aesthetic material? Does voyaging offer any hope of cohering a path through the labyrinth, or does it merely provide illusory moments of imagined connection with those from whom I am irreconcilably alienated? Is travel no worse than the ethically infeasible prospect of living a life of consumption within the imperial core, or does it make me more deeply and directly complicit in the global neocolonial regime?

If I had the answers to these questions, I would not have needed to write this essay. All of my art production arises from confusion. Here, too, I remain hopelessly lost. Travel is, for the moment, among the most appealing routes available to me to combat the nihilistic inefficacy of watching the apocalypse unfold around me. Perhaps, I tell myself, if I can live every life, if I can see through every subjective lens, if I can understand every irreducible human component of this vast machine, I can devise some escape, some way out of the madness. But I will never live every life, I will never understand every perspective. I will always be trapped amidst the chains of my singular plotline, my personal subjectivity, with no true hope of reincarnation despite my best efforts at destruction and reinvention.

And yet I am compelled to wander through the wastes, grasping greedily onto every glimpse of joy and liberation I encounter along my narrativized open road. Glib and glad and sacrilegious, I make my way through the ethereal randomness embracing the diverse lifestyles available, hoping I finally stumble upon a combination of paths, tricks, maneuvers, and schemes which will let me feel free. It is a doomed quest, but alas I return to it: a postmodern Sisyphus, sifting however I can through the graveyard of images to find within our variegated lives the seeds of difference which offer visions of freedom.