How to Not Travel like a Know-It-All
Story & Photo by Sera Lindsey
Just before my last semester of college, I experienced my first true heartbreak. My boyfriend didn’t exactly break up with me, but he stopped participating in our relationship entirely. There was no chance of growth, unless we simply let what was “us” die as things sometimes must, and begin our own new realities as individuals apart.
Once the reality set in that I was alone, I felt numb. Abandonment issues hit like a warm wave, and my world shrunk to the size of each step I took. So often when we experience any kind of trauma, it becomes impossible to perceive life past ourselves. Or at least it’s really fucking hard to.
I remembered watching Road Rules: Semester at Sea when I was an MTV-obsessed teenager, and how I had told myself that I was someday going to do it. So I did, thanks to student loans which I’m still paying off. In the wake of a broken heart, I made a rash decision to Get Away.
I was a young know-it-all, ready to see the world like a “real” traveler. It’s not an overstatement to say that I’ve been traveling since I was born, and had seen a lot of things that most people my age openly feared exposure to. I was adopted from Morocco into an American family. I had seen more than the tourists I shared this floating university with, and was convinced that I knew better.
I spent the next four months working on class assignments, and admired the view of endless sea from the deck while floating above an ocean—struggling to withstand the carbon emissions I innocently benefitted from. I was vegan because I didn’t want to cause harm. But there I was, gliding above the sea to get a good view of the world. It’s said that one single day of cruise ship travel is comparable to 1 million cars, making it a beautiful and very terrible way to travel.
Know-it-all Sera grimaced at the students on the ship comparing their gifts to the children they’d hand out in Ghana, mainly plastic toys and bouncy balls. I recall stating that rubber was one of Ghana’s top exports, and it seemed insane and insulting to return it in this manufactured form, angry at the shameless voyeurism that travel so often promotes. Meanwhile, my mind was on chocolate. Cacao is roughly a 2.5-billion-dollar industry in Ghana and I was ready to get the freshest, most sustainable, locally harvested chocolate in the country. I likened it in my mind to bananas in Hawai’i or pasta in Italy.
I looked at first casually, then desperately. I didn’t find any chocolate anywhere. It seemed so strange that in a country full of the raw material, the final product simply didn’t seem to exist. I finally came across a tin of Milo, a cheap powdered chocolate-flavoring product by Nestle with a photograph depicting smiling black children playing soccer. I then found a German Ritter chocolate bar, standing out from a sparsely-stocked market. It was 50 cedis which is about 9 U.S. dollars. I didn’t understand—where was the local chocolate? I spoke to a girl I had been walking with that day. “There should be chocolate everywhere,” I said. Then a Ghanaian woman behind me spoke. “If you are looking for chocolate from Ghana, you can go back to the U.S. and find it there.”
I’m 32 now, and can look back at many moments and phases that I now see as ignorant. There’s a normalized selfishness that comes with living in America. The commercialized culture of self-care is a catchy jingle promoting rampant consumption, and successfully removing us from a whole that is there all along—whether we see it or not. Overhearing people talk about their spirit animals while drinking coffee after yoga is a kind of appropriative amalgam that can only be found in wealthy countries. Here, we are culturally dissuaded to respect or understand the origin of things, or how new questionable ownerships effect those they rightfully belong to.
My friend Rodi Bragg, who is Chumash, spoke to this topic while discussing the rights to white sage, a plant that is now threatened due to over-harvesting: what you often see described as “wild harvested” on those little plastic-wrapped bundles you buy at Whole Foods.
“To think of an herb as separate from its cultural heritage denies the power of the herb. Many people argue that all herbs belong to all people. Is this really true? When natives are still denied access to clean water, the right to vote, or rights to their own land on this continent, is it really fair to say that all people can have access to their traditional medicines that other people are profiting from?”
I make a point to question myself, because it’s important to ask: Where did this come from? Why do I do this? Is this even necessary? It grows increasingly imperative while quiet colonization is still very much alive and well. I’m North African, but that does not mean that I do not participate in the misinformation that goes unchecked and encouraged by the majority. We must all help each other escape the warm glow of ignorance.
Experience leads to learning, yet much of that experience is damaging even if we don’t intend it to be. So what can we do? First, I suggest starting with self, then apply that self to place, as well as origin. I’ll use myself as an example. How does my presence in America matter? I’m a first generation Moroccan American. I was adopted into a family from the Deep South. I now live in Oregon. I am a person of color occupying space in America, privileged by association with a traditionally white family. Like most people, there are no straight lines in life. There are tangled ropes to loosen and unknot. I can do this responsibly by educating myself on my ancestral heritage, as well as my current environment. The second I grasp awareness of myself as part of something greater, empathy begins to bloom.
I do not feel good when I see aspects of my cultural heritage used in profane ways. I do not enjoy hearing my heritage spoken about with ignorance. In learning about my own heritage, I suddenly begin existing in a new way—which, also, is who I was born to be. I have an opportunity to educate others as I educate myself, while learning from others who are doing the same for themselves, too. As the many-layered curtain is pushed aside, that opportunity becomes an honored obligation. This is what it means to engage in community.
To be part of a whole means your actions are lasting and consciously impactful. This story began with a young woman who felt alone in the world, and now is about a woman who is learning to be a more responsible component of a whole. This story has not ended, and in fact never will.