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Meaningful Travel

no camera

Emily Cunningham is one of OneSeed’s amazing summer interns. This is her third guest blog.

Emily is a sophomore studying economics at Harvard University. She is interested in microfinance and social enterprise, and is currently in the process of starting a fair trade jewelry network in Gujarat, India. In her spare time, she enjoys playing guitar and saxophone, surfing, Frisbee, and being outdoors.

As a resident of Cambridge, I can safely say that, contrary to popular belief, the best thing about my city is not the Duck Tours.

Nor the overpriced-undercooked-world famous Mr. Bartley’s burgers, or even the corny tours of Harvard Square I give on weekends to make an extra buck (although I try not to let that on at the time).

Most of my friends have never done the freedom trail in its entirety, and we don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in historic graveyards. Yet, thousands of people follow this itinerary every day and go home to tell their friends that they have “experienced Boston.”

They haven’t been for a run on the Charles River, or tasted Berryline frozen yogurt. They walk past the man selling the Spare Change News Street Paper on Mass Ave in the same spot every day without so much as a “good morning” to return his greeting of “why, hello there beautiful young lady!” They are blind and deaf to the incredible folk music scene springing up in the hole-in-the-wall café bars that litter Mass Ave and emanating from the sidewalks in the form of street performing hopefuls.

In short, they miss the things you would notice only if you stayed still for more than a weekend and took a moment to breathe somewhere in the midst of ticking statues and museums off a giant mental to-do list and filling in the pieces of a pre-determined photo album.

Travel can be destructive. Rather than returning refreshed from vacation, tourists return home worn out, almost more excited to resume the monotony of the work or school day and share the stories of what they did and saw than they were to do and see those things.

In the developing world, travel can further polarize classes and solidify anti-Western sentiment. In Night, Elie Wiesel captured the iconic example of the Parisian tourist throwing coins at two native boys in Yemen to watch them fight for them to the death on the pretense of “giving to charity.” While most of us aren’t this outwardly callous, it is true that our tourism often perpetuates environmentally unsound practices and cultivates an uncomfortable relationship with local people, sometimes making the poor dependent upon the fruits of our excessive lifestyles.

The answer isn’t to sit home and stop exploring the world, but to ensure that exploration is carried out responsibly through adherence to sustainability metrics, a manifested respect for the people and places we encounter, and most importantly, a keen eye and ear for the true culture of a place.

If we all could put our cameras down for a moment and muster the courage to bypass whatever the “Duck Tours” of Nepal or South America, or wherever you plan to travel might be, we could experience the world in a new light.

When we foster real relationships in our travels, we demystify cultural barriers and break down stereotypes. Through responsible exploration, we can each do our part to bring our global family a little closer together.