There is that school of world travel that poo-poos “traditional tourism.” It lampoons camera-happy tourists as “grifter anthropologists.” It insists that to truly travel, you must forgo colonial comforts and live like a local.
I’ve been a proponent of “solidarity tourism” since 2013 when I experienced Gulu, Uganda as a volunteer with a microloan organization. On my second night, I met local rappers at a food stand. They invited me to record what would later become a hit music album in the region. Five years later, I returned to shoot music videos at the prime “video chick” age of thirty-eight. It was a rich, surprising, and complicated experience no Lonely Planet guide could offer. Our music album would become the source material for my solo stage show, The Wong Street Journal. It would also economically benefit local artists. And while my interactions with local Ugandan people didn’t exactly reverse inequity, it was made in the spirit of positive exchange.
But now, I dream of being an ugly American. Solidarity tourism and wanderlust was for the old me. The me before the pandemic.
That’s right. I want to travel and spend the entire time taking selfies with ancient historical artifacts because they’ll make great Tinder pics. I want to shamelessly exploit the USD exchange rate to my neocolonial advantage, fine dine for fifteen dollars, be chauffeured across town for a buck. I want to stop second guessing and overthinking the labyrinth of capitalism and exploitation, and instead, buy some Chinese-manufactured espadrilles with Frida Kahlo’s face on them.
Now listen. I’m not advocating for Americans to rape and pillage more than we already have. I am only addressing that teeny fraction of Americans who attempt to do the right thing 150% of the time. You, the enlightened Rail readers who clench your eyes in shame when you forget to pack your reusable grocery bag. You who will forgo the plastic bag in favor of balancing your groceries in your arms on the walk home. You, who attended every anti-racism workshop on Zoom during the pandemic, if you weren’t moderating it yourself. You, who pays for carbon offsets … whatever the heck they are.
To us who have valiantly battled the all-you-can-puke buffet of hell that has been human survival these last two years of the pandemic (plus the Trump years), only to emerge into the “return to normal” that is Putin catapulting us towards World War III, I say: we don’t need anymore of the unpredictable. For once, we can let ourselves off the hook for not always doing the right thing.
Or more specifically, I’m talking to myself. Me, who accidentally started a national mutual aid collective in the pandemic. I started Auntie Sewing Squad in March 2020 to sew cloth face masks for essential workers and vulnerable communities. We were supposed to be a temporary stopgap until the government distributed masks to every American. Instead, we found ourselves pushing against the will of anti-masking politicians, sending aid to their most vulnerable constituents for seventeen agonizing months, while managing with our own personal losses from COVID. “ASS” (our unintentional acronym) grew to have over eight hundred volunteer Aunties across thirty-three states. We finally retired from our sewing machines on August 15, 2021—about three weeks after billionaires started flying penis rockets into space before thanking their exploited workers for making these ten-minute space missions possible.
After living in a true-life version of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, navigating the racial pandemic, and now helplessly watching war crimes on Ukrainian civilians play out between Appleby commercials—I long to be bored by reality.
I want a completely banal tourist experience where I follow the tour guide around like a dog with separation anxiety issues. I want to read about ancient history on a museum placard adjacent to the gift shop, then glance nonchalantly at sacred artifacts sterilely housed behind glass.
I’m not saying I want to destroy or exploit anything (more than what participating in capitalism already does). I just, for a moment, wish I could have the luxury that other ugly Americans have in not caring so goddamn much.
We’ve been living in wildness. The last few years have thrust us into the true chaos of nature, capitalism, and greed. We’re in an escape room that broke long before we agreed to play, but we play anyway. We play because it’s how we’ve come to live. Before we race headlong into the next crisis wearing our invisible superhero capes, could we just have a moment to luxuriate in not having to fix a goddamn thing?
Can we stop interrogating ourselves with the question: “Is my vacation furthering a deep history of human exploitation that enables the suffering of people who I’ve indirectly and irrevocably uprooted?” And instead, ask … “Bartender, another Mai Tai please?”