04 Feb Travel As A Form of Witness (the Consequences of Travel in Troubled Areas)
Over the years I have been to some countries whose record on human rights is well below what should be considered a bare minimum, ranging from oppressive regimes to nations where there is a total lack of freedom of speech even though they often go hand in hand. Now it looks as though finally “The Times They Are a-Changin'” for many of them including Egypt, an unthinkable turn of events in just a few weeks.
The list of countries that do not have a passing grade in terms of being “good” to its citizens probably includes three quarters of nations that are recognized by the UN. Let’s face it, even in the US there is considerable pressure on the press to remain in line with the government for “the good of the people”, whatever that means. Even worse, in Italy the press is in the hands of a 74 year old guy who allegedly has links to the Mafia, likes very young girls and who changes the constitution to meet his own personal goals. And yes, I have been to both these two countries and survived.
But I have also been to others such as Myanmar, Tunisia, Egypt, Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba to name a few. While there are varying degrees of lack of freedom among these nations, they all exhibit low income per capita levels. It is also worth pointing out that the case of Venezuela resembles that of Italy in terms of both control over the media and a tailor made constitution that permits the leader in command to stay in power as long as he wishes. Also, the socialist/communist countries do not favor the rich or at least that is what they sell to the press (Fidel Castro has denied in many occasions being a millionaire).
But when travelling to poorer nations one always is faced with the dilemma of thinking that the money spent will go into the hands of the corrupt leaders, the rich families who control the economy and the army generals. In that sense every tourist is supporting tyranny and the status quo of making the rich even richer and leaving the poor to live on a few grains of rice. Should we, or at least I, not travel to these which will inevitably benefit the military junta?
At the same time 99% of the population in these countries is amazing, each unique and vibrant under extreme political and economic conditions. My going there does provide some income to the local economy, some hope that things might get better and when I return home I can talk about the repression first hand, from seeing and touching. Perhaps the most amazing of all was Myanmar, a land forgotten in lower East Asia where the traveller gets a glimpse of the past of the human race. Even though almost nobody spoke any foreign language, walking through the cities and its countryside was an experience I will never forget. All were hospitable, open and friendly with the exception of the military personnel or the “fat people” as they are called locally referring to the fact that they are the only ones with enough food to actually put on some of those unwanted extra pounds. I really hope that this cycle of overturning corruption that recently started in Tunisia will become a domino effect reaching to the Far East, thus liberating opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who will hopefully be able to bring a peaceful end to years of fear and repression.
And the last reason has to do with what I said at the beginning of this post. If three quarters of all countries have bad scores I will be left with a score of Nordic countries such as Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Not that I wouldn’t love to visit them one day, but let´s face it, they eat much like us and dress almost the same even though you will never catch a Spaniard wearing the combination of socks and sandals.
My personal feeling is that it is not my job to force out the corruption from a country. Why shouldn’t we visit the pyramids in Egypt and have a tea in a local tea shop which will help the owner feed his family? It is our governments and the UN who should follow a consistent policy of boycotting the leaders of these regimes, tracking down their wealth and making it impossible for them, their families and circle of friends to find a home outside their kingdoms.
In the end I am left with mixed feelings, but life is full of gray areas. I will therefore focus on the good that occurs when people exchange experiences. For example when we were driving to Inle Lake we stopped along the way to look at a small town where people of Nepalese origin lived. The legend has it that they were brought into the country centuries ago to fight as their courage was unequalled in the region. Today they are “tame” farmers living on almost nothing like the rest of the population, swords and spears long forgotten. So we got out of the car and started walking around the town and were almost immediately invited into one of their houses.
The interior was stark in its lack of furnishings: a few straw beds, a few pots and nothing else. We took some pictures of the place and the people. Before leaving they asked us if they could have a picture that they had seen on the screen. I am not sure if they thought we could get one on the spot, but in any case we were more than happy to send one to them. Since they did not have an official address we agreed that we would send the pictures to the guide and that he would in turn hand them over to the family. When we got back to NYC we printed out the pictures, got them sealed in plastic so that they would last as long as possible and sent them to Myanmar. If the pictures did actually make it to their destination I know that they will be their most precious possession, something for the family to remember who and what they are.
Click here to see the Press Freedom Index ranking by country where the US is 20th behind Malta and Estonia, Italy is 49th behind Burkina Faso and Cuba 166 out of 178. But perhaps the most surprising for me has been to see Singapore, another country which I have also visited and considered a developed nation much like any city in the west, is ranked 136, three spots behind Venezuela.
You can find out more about the situation of Myanmar (ex-Burma) at Reporters Without Borders.
We have also uploaded some of our pictures of faces from the trip to Myanmar. Click here to see them.