When Answers Are Hard to Find: Opening My Eyes to Ethics in Travel

by Delia Harrington

We’re pleased to debut the fresh voices of the second cohort of the Go Girl Blogging Program! Stay tuned for new articles from new contributors. Don’t forget to tell them what you think in the comments!

At 19 I went on my first big trip away from home in Cairo, Egypt.

Every day when I left my hotel, I saw children and old women begging for money, water, and food.

When I went to the grocery store, I had to pass a variety of underfed animals in tiny cages at the local pet store.

The Egyptian friends I made were not allowed to come up to my hotel room to relax or watch a movie.

Walking down the street was its own challenge, made up of whistles, catcalls, and men exposing themselves to masturbate.

Back home, I had been learning about international development and human rights at my university. I was getting more involved in feminism and activism in my free time. I was preparing for a justice-oriented career and hoping for a life filled with meaningful travel.

And yet here I was dumbfounded by all of these issues when confronted with them in reality.

I was excited about this new country, but I was also completely exhausted and overwhelmed. I wanted to do what I could to be a good person and make a positive contribution to the world. I wanted to stay safe while still making the most of my six weeks abroad. I didn’t want to live in fear or judgment, or to make my world small to avoid these difficult topics.

ethicsHow do you stand for something when you’re somewhere else? Image from Pixabay.

But I didn’t have any answers.

In recent years there has been a surge of ethically conscious travelers, from the huge increase in eco-friendly travel options to assessment of whether voluntourism opportunities are actually benefiting the community. It’s amazing that so many travelers are going out of their way to consider the ramifications of their actions. With our dollars and our feet, we can support respect for the human and environmental resources of the places we visit.

Unfortunately, there is so much to keep track of in the worlds of travel, sustainability, and social justice that even well-meaning Go Girls can be unsure of which path is best for them and their beliefs. It can also be emotionally draining to watch powerful inequalities play out in front of us in real time.

As someone who loves travel and activism and has worked in non-profits and international development, I love talking to thoughtful travelers. I think if we share what we’ve learned about along the way, we can help each other figure out how to do the right thing.

What should we do when we encounter street children?

How do we photograph people and places with respect and honesty?

How can we visit animals or wildlife without harming them?

How can we have (productive) conversations in foreign countries about hot-button issues like religion, politics, and gender dynamics?

How can we be environmentally conscious in countries that don’t seem to be?

What do we do when there’s no right answer?

I think it’s important to keep asking the questions.

I still don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important to keep asking the questions. The more I travel, the more I come to question my own assumptions and biases at home and abroad.

Join me as I engage with practical issues as well as the existential quandaries that we face when trying to travel sustainably.

Have you ever witnessed injustice abroad? What did you do?

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