Is Sharing Travel Photos Self(ie)-Centered?

I’ve decided to start challenging myself to stop consuming so much media: specifically, I am only going to check Instagram once a day from now on. For some people this might be easy—but, I think I’ve become addicted to viewing into the seemingly perfect lives of others. I follow fashion bloggers, travelers, and people that I grew up with. No matter when I scroll through my Insta feed, I see all of the accomplishments and beautiful appearances of my acquaintances and even people I don’t know. And under the censorable imagery of social media, I only see what they choose to share—their brightest smiles and lush vacations. I joke with my friends in the comments, “So jealous of you. I wish I was there!”

When I realized that I did this a little too often, I started to think about the need of humans to document events and share them. In particular, our need to take thousands of pictures, plenty of which are selfies. So today I’m here to ask, why do we need pictures of ourselves traveling? 

One of my funkier selfies from Austria. 

One of my funkier selfies from Austria. 

A note about the selfie: I’ve been in classes before where selfies were equated with self-portraits. Honestly, I have a hard time making this jump as I see a self-portrait as planned and made with time and deep thought. One cannot make a self-portrait without reflecting on themselves: be it their appearance, character, or existence. Yet it is possible to take a selfie without reflection, although this is not always the case. Often in modern society it is without thought, other than, ‘wow, my face looks weird today.’ But there are definitely ulterior motives to selfies, and especially to a travel selfie.

Is documenting yourself in a new place simply proving that you’ve been there? This is easily refutable as my purse can attest to the fact that there are train tickets and chipped tiles and other mementos to prove where I’ve been. Yet the age of the selfie goes beyond proof—the selfie is simple to share and send, to advertise who I am. The value of a digital photo is in the ease of transfer across physical distances to a multitude of recipients. Basically, the purpose of a photo of a traveler in an exotic destination is to entreat the views of others. 

What sort of reaction is a selfie asking for? Jealousy? Admiration? 

If so, this would lead me to the conclusion that one must be selfish or bragging to take photographs of oneself traveling. Could the purpose of the traveling selfie be as innocent as to maintain the memories? While this is sometimes the case, why must we then post the photo? Why not keep it to ourselves? 

Throughout history, humans have felt the need to present an image of themselves to the world. We are born with an deeply-ingrained need to be something—cool, talented, intelligent, good—and in order to convince ourselves, we often want to convince others. This lies at the base of our need to maintain social media profiles and then post photos of our vacations or when we do cool things abroad. To compete in the game of life (whose existence can be disregarded, but not totally denied) one must show that they see beautiful places and have amazing experiences.

But there are other reasons for photos. I do sometimes take them for my own memories or to document my personal experiences in a place. These may or may not be posted on social media or my blog; such a thing depends on my mood, whether I think people will respond to a particular experience, or what I’m writing to go with an image. I do think that in blogging photos of people are important, as humans are interested in other humans. When I shared a photo of myself with elephants in Thailand it was for a variety of reasons. I wanted to show you what I was experiencing at the elephant sanctuary, how we (me and the ellies) hung out all the time. I also shared it to draw in readers, so they would be inspired to travel. Here, I use photographs of me on the road when I want people to picture themselves traveling or living in a foreign country. I love traveling and believe everyone should and can travel too, so I use photographs to illustrate the joy it brings me.

I would never travel for the photos, they are simply symptoms of my exploration. The places I go and the people I talk to are not for the photographs, but I take them to document my travels. I would hope that this is how everyone uses photography: to capture an instance, to share a point of view or experience, to hold on to a memory. Although the reasons we share such pieces of our travel and ourselves vary, I’d like to think that we share them with others so that we can show how awesome our world is and spark the desire in other people to go out and explore it.

Sharing my perspective from Chiang Mai

Sharing my perspective from Chiang Mai

Does Volunteering Abroad Hurt Developing Nations?

Lately, I was looking through old photos and I realize how much I miss the days spent in Cambodia, occupied with teaching English. I worked at a school that was an hour outside Siem Reap. There I lived among the other volunteers and the principal’s family. My memories are sweet and sweaty: full of making lesson plans, helping my students with sentence syntax, and playing games of freeze tag. Although my life there was so different from what I experience at home or in the western world, I had so many amazing, joyful days with the students and my fellow teachers. I have been carefully cautioned by a friend that this is where I stop talking about the ‘amazing impact’ volunteering abroad has had on my life, and not present other sappy, emotional anecdotes. So instead I will skip to the important part.

Despite my personal feelings, there is always the question: did I do more harm than good? Is it possible to volunteer abroad without promoting the image of the 'white savior'? If a person lives among locals and does not try to change their ways, can the implicit message of neocolonialism (using capitalism and imperialism to assert cultural dominance) be out-measured?

This discussion is often linked with the modern term ‘voluntourism.’ This is used for when a person from the developed world volunteers for a week or two in a developing country. Voluntourism is applied to high school and college trips, as well as programs that take travelers to organizations. Those who take part in voluntourism are unskilled for the particular tasks at hand, whether that is construction or medical help. It is hard to draw the line of where voluntourism ends. Does voluntourism end after a specific period of time volunteering? With certain tasks? By using a different mindset or approach? This ambiguous definition is why I will refer to the general term of volunteering abroad, which definitively covers what I did in Cambodia.

Many people go abroad without utilizing their specific skillsets to volunteer. Why build a library in Africa if you have no background in construction? In that case, it is better to simply donate to an organization that will hire skilled locals to do the job, solving the problem effectively and stimulating the economy. I will be honest when I say that I did not have many qualifications to teach English; I had to fill out an application for the volunteer opportunity that tested my grammar and spelling, but nothing more. I taught relatively basic English reading and writing, so I believe that I had the most of the skills to do so, yet I certainly do not have any expertise in teaching. This is a problem, as it is admitting that unpaid work often justifies a lower level of qualifications and experience—which should not be the case. Look at your skills and see how you could be of use to a community. When I was teaching, a man by the name of Bryon Lippincott came to visit the school. He, a photographer, and his wife, a writer, formed a company that created press, websites, and attention to non-profit non-government organizations. They would photograph, promote, and help NGOs that were working with disabled or disadvantaged children and others. This is the perfect example of two people who looked at the skills they had available and asked themselves, ‘How can we help?’

The time period over which a traveler acquaints him or herself with the country and volunteers also makes a huge difference in the outcome. Often, acts of international aid over a short period of time create more problems than they solve. Stability and long-term improvement are simply not achievable from short-term aid, as the ability to create and implement innovative strategies for development is limited.

“It can't all be about the volunteer which is what voluntourism sadly is becoming. It is meant to be mutually beneficial for yourself and the organization, as well as a sustainable project that doesn't rely on volunteers to keep running.” -Lauren Kate of Grassroots Nomad

A major concern with volunteering abroad is that of promoting globalization or diluting the culture of a place. This is a possibility, but it is no different from the same risk that is possible with all travel and tourism. The key in any situation abroad is to go in hungry to learn about a culture and with an acceptance of different lifestyles. An experience and open-minded traveler does not think that some cultures are superior or ‘ahead’ of others, but simply that they are different and each has their own value.

Volunteering abroad should never be just another item to check off your bucket list. I often hear criticism that volunteering abroad is a ‘feel good’ activity, as in people only volunteer in other countries to feel good about themselves and look good in the eyes of others. The focus of volunteering should be on those who are receiving help; however, there is nothing wrong with being happy for having helped. Service to the community is not lessened by the fact that the volunteer receives positive feelings because of what they did. Knowing that you helped someone is part of the human response system that reinforces actions that benefit the community.

Lastly is the largest—and most commonly addressed—issue with volunteering as you travel: perpetuating imperialism. Yes, in many cases, voluntourism results in neocolonialism. Those who are more privileged may act like they know what is best for a local who does not have the same amount of material wealth. But not everyone who volunteers thinks this way. And I think that a true volunteering experience promotes the opposite of an imperialist school of thought. If I had never volunteered I would not know of the pollution that plagues the Cambodian countryside simply because there is no proper disposal service, nor of the specifics of the Khmer Rouge and of the thousands of landmines that are still buried in the country. I would not have known that there is racial tension still alive in the country, as I found out the first of multiple times when a passing woman motioned to my skin and said the Khmer word for beautiful. With that knowledge my pride grew and my heart broke as a student told me that he didn’t care that the other boys thought the color of his skin was too dark; he loved playing soccer in the sun, and was not going to stop. If I had never volunteered, I would have tasted green curry made by western hands, but I wouldn’t have been taught to make the Cambodian spring rolls that are everyone’s favorite or been taught to dance like a proper Khmer lady. Volunteering and immersing myself in the culture of a society for a formidable period of time only ever caused my understanding and appreciation for the Cambodian people to grow.

the little football player

the little football player

So if you are still interested in volunteering abroad, or will be traveling and are considering giving back to the countries you visit, take a look at this checklist:

  • Do you know where the money is going? Is it being used effectively and responsibly?
  • What skills will you bring to this project? Do you have knowledge or expertise that can be helpful? Can you complete the tasks with little training?
  • Are you planning to accept and experience the beliefs and cultural norms you encounter? Or perversely, do you hope to bring the modern world or civilized skills to a developing country?
  • Is the organization you are working with providing what the host country needs? Do the people you will be helping want your help?
  • Will the amount of time for which you are going to be volunteering amount to anything? Will it be long enough to produce a lasting benefit?
  • Is what you are about to do respectful to the host country?
  • Does the organization (or will you) patronize those you will be helping?

My feelings about volunteering abroad have deepened and changed over time, as I learned of the many negative effects that can result, and as I also saw how people can and will help each other. Elizabeth Sellers of Awesome Wave and Rosalilium put it perfectly: 

“It’s not really about how ‘we’ feel as the volunteer. We are already privileged to be traveling and learning about the world and other cultures.”

I was lucky enough to experience an authentic piece of Cambodian life. Now, I can see more clearly the issues in an area, as well as the strength of the human spirit. There are people all around the world that need a hand, the help of someone who is willing to listen to their history and learn their culture. In the correct set of circumstances, volunteers are citizens of a global community investing in the future of our world.

"Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future." -Nelson Mandela

"Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future." -Nelson Mandela

If you have a differing view or experience volunteering in other countries, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

So You've Never Stayed at a Hostel

The idea of staying at a hostel may make you nervous. You've seen the horror movie and heard some weird stories about what happens to travelers who stay at hostels. Sleeping in the same room as a bunch of strangers may seem daunting, but it can also be tons of fun. I consider hostels to be one of the best aspects of travel, especially when I'm traveling alone. They are where I make friends and find useful tips and information about where I am. Still, trying something new, like staying at a hostel, can be difficult, so here's my guide for making the best of it.

Rome was where I stayed at my first hostel!

Rome was where I stayed at my first hostel!

  1. Hostels are for everyone! A few hostels have age limits, usually between 18 and 30. However, there are plenty open to everyone. Some hostels are even known to be good for traveling with a family or younger children. So just run a few Google searches and see what you can find. Treehouse hostels, eco-hostels, hostels in former jails--there's a hostel for every traveler.
  2. If your parents/friends/loved ones are worried, let them know that you are capable and there are safety measures. Most hostels are very safe, but be sure to choose one that has security cameras, locks on the dorm doors, and a 24 hour desk. Use your common sense and be aware of any possible danger.
  3. Choosing which hostel to stay at is simple and only requires one thing: research. Check out hostelworld.com, lonelyplanet.com, and hostelbookers.com. You should find out the cost of an average night wherever you want to go. For example, $8 a night for a hostel in northern Thailand is normal versus $25 a night for a dorm in western Europe. Also look at what neighborhoods are most central and safe. Use the search filters on the above sites to cross-examine the highest rated hostels and the cheaper hostels. When you've found a few make your decision off of the reviews. Because even if a hostel offers a lot of great amenities, it may be hard to meet people. Or if you don't want to stay at a party hostel, you will want to check out the vibe before you book. What I look for in a hostel: a competitive price, a common area to hang out and meet people, freebies (like breakfast or a pool), a good location near public transportation, safety measures, and cleanliness.
  4. Be social. When you arrive and move your stuff in, strike up conversation with people in the dorm, in the hallway, or even in line for the bathroom. I like to take my iPad or a book to the common area and sit for an hour or two, to meet new people. This is the best way to find someone to go to dinner with or get tips on what is worth visiting in the area.
  5. Take advantage of the everything the hostel has to offer. Some hostels have guides, free maps, snacks, etc. Most of the time they will hold your bags the day of arrival and departure, so you can explore or do activities without lugging around your worldly possessions. One hostel I visited in Siem Reap, Cambodia organized group outings on whiteboards to lower the cost of transportation and help travelers find friends. Another hostel I visited in Rome had free pasta nights and a complimentary nighttime tour of the city!
  6. If you don't like the hostel or are uncomfortable staying there, leave. Check to see the policy on leaving before the end of your booked stay, sometimes they will give you a full refund. This is also a reason to only book the first few nights if you are staying for a while. That way you can move if you don't like it or book a longer stay after a few days. But a traveler should never feel obligated to stay in a place they feel is unsafe. And if there is something wrong with your room or the people in it, speak to the management. A good hostel with take care of any problems for you.

So if you've never stayed in a hostel, give it a go. I find that some of the coolest people I meet are from hostels. Not to mention, it is one of the cheapest ways to have a secure and (usually) comfy bed while traveling.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand I stayed at a hostel right next to the moat. I met some cool people and we went to check out the Sunday walking market, seen below.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand I stayed at a hostel right next to the moat. I met some cool people and we went to check out the Sunday walking market, seen below.