What else we can talk about when we talk about travel

My post earlier today about Nick Kristof’s column on travel was mostly critique, and because it bugs me when people critique stuff without offering solutions, I thought I’d offer a few.

One, I’d like to see people (not just Kristof) acknowledge other, less sexy ways of promoting global citizens and multiculturalism, especially alongside their writing about the virtues of travel. Perhaps I’m jaded from all the study abroad program marketing I was subjected to as a student, but I think you can do a lot in the U.S. to foster some of the same goals on a community, not an individual, level.

He’s right that learning Spanish is a hugely important thing, so let’s get more elementary school students in Spanish immersion programs (or Chinese, or Arabic, or really any other language) and stop treating foreign language courses as optional electives to be started in middle school or later (or not at all). Let’s have conversations about sustaining diverse neighborhoods in major American cities and creating community events and spaces where people from different racial, ethnic and religious background will interact regularly.

I’m willing to concede that travel brings a certain perspective and immediateness to a lot of things that aren’t possible in another context, but I think we can all agree that not everyone is going to study abroad or take a gap year. If we’re serious about an aware and engaged citizenry, I don’t think individual choices to see the world aren’t enough to get us there. I also don’t think people unable to travel for whatever reason should be left out of those benefits when they’re attainable in other ways.

And for those who do want to travel but don’t feel they’re quite able to? A lot of the issues I brought up, like the racism, sexual harassment or fear of violence some people might face while traveling isn’t really a problem one individual (even someone as big as Nick Kristof) can solve, especially not overnight. But I do think people who feel strongly that everyone should travel can help their case by trying to break down some of those barriers. (I also want to see people talking about these issues when they talk about travel, not as a follow-up or afterthought.) Kristof suggests colleges offering a semester of credit for a gap year, which is a cool idea (though one some of my professors might take some issue with). A lot of other people are going to have better ideas than these ones (and I’d love to hear them), but here are a few of mine:

  • Get creative with ideas to pay for the “little costs” of travel: things like visas and medication that add up. Maybe colleges could collect frequent flier miles from school-sponsored travel and use it to fund tickets for students in need. Maybe campus health centers could bulk-buy malaria meds and hand them out at free or reduced cost for students studying abroad.
  • Wherever possible, highlight no-cost opportunities for travel, not just stuff with free room and board. I’d also love to see people advocating for the creation of more all-inclusive opportunities like that, especially ones that aren’t tied to heavily to U.S. foreign policy objectives and/or long periods of commitment (the Peace Corps is awesome, but not for everyone).
  • Colleges often charge equal tuition to students studying abroad even when their programs cost less than regular tuition would. That seems unfair, but consider that at least some (including my alma mater) do this because they lose money paying out financial aid packages in cash to study abroad programs. There’s no magic bullet for this, but a serious conversation about getting more students to study abroad needs to talk about financial aid and college affordability in general.
  • Don’t pretend everyone can travel in the same ways. Be aware of which countries are especially risky for LGBT people or inaccessible for people with disabilities and highlight resources to help people who want to do so navigate those challenges instead of just telling them to go elsewhere. (This is motivating me to start a resource list, so if you have a suggestion, let me know.)



It’s easier to travel if you’re Nick Kristof

Nick Kristof has a new column, one in which he proclaims everyone should study abroad or take a gap year and travel the world:

All young Americans should learn Spanish — el idioma extranjero de mayor importancia en los Estados Unidos — partly because growing numbers of seniors will finance retirement by moving to cheaper countries like Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Yet it makes no sense to study Spanish on a college campus when it is so much cheaper and more exhilarating to move to Bolivia, study or get a job and fall in love with a Bolivian.

To be clear, I think seeing other parts of the world is a great way to broaden horizons, and I’d love to live in a world where everyone who wanted to do so was able to travel freely. Coming from privileged circumstances, I’ve certainly been guilty of viewing travel as a panacea that everyone should embrace. But Kristof is so tone-deaf throughout this column that I have to wonder if he’s stepped beyond his own individual experience to think about what’s truly required to make major international travel possible.

He cites his own experience bumming around the world as an example of the type of eye-opening revelation travel brings, and it definitely sounds like fun. It’s great if you can hitchhike, sleep in strangers’ barns, stay in group hostel rooms and never worry about anything besides petty theft, but let’s not forget that feeling safe in foreign circumstances isn’t a universal luxury. Queer people risk harassment, assault and arrest in many countries, and some might rather stay home than hide who they are so they can feel safe abroad. Many (probably most or all) countries have complex and completely different social systems of race and racism which people of color have to figure out how to navigate.

It’s not as if these issues are absent in the U.S., but I’ve found that knowing how to be female and queer in the U.S. doesn’t mean I know how to be either in another country. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is one that requires extra energy to adapt to. I’ve been sexually harassed, followed and occasionally groped by strange men dozens of times while abroad. When I went to Ecuador, we were warned that especially in coastal cities, men would pose as taxi drivers and take single women who got into their cabs to a house where they would be held and gang-raped.

It’s true that reports of violence often get overblown in travel advisories, that I risk many of the same things by staying home, and, I suspect, that I’m far less likely to be a victim of rape and assault traveling to Ecuador than a woman born there. Still, even if the material risks I face don’t change abroad, my sense of security does, because being in another country means you often won’t have the language or cultural skills required to navigate the medical or legal systems, should you need to. Nick Kristof, I suspect, has never done the math of abortion being illegal and rape rates being higher in his intended destination and decided to stock his first aid kit with a dose or two of emergency contraception, just in case. I’m just privileged enough that these sorts of realizations are more likely to be instructive for me than truly prohibitive–two years later and I still pay attention to Ecuador’s LGBT rights movement and a few local organizations working to legalize abortion. But let’s at least acknowledge that a lot of people have valid reasons to feel unsafe in many corners of the globe and shouldn’t be faulted for choosing to spend their time doing something else. (Let’s also not forget that issues of access to medical and legal services are a serious issue for many immigrants to the U.S.)

Even for those who do want to travel, there are often other barriers, and I’m not just talking the financial ones (something he glosses over, but seriously, even if you get free room and board via volunteering, a plane ticket/passport/visa/vaccine course isn’t cheap, especially if being abroad means losing income from a work-study job.) If you’re HIV positive or don’t have a clean criminal record, it’s impossible to get a visa to many countries. If you’re undocumented, leaving the U.S. at all means, in all liklihood, never being able to come home. If you have chronic health issues—mental or physical—and depend on regular access to reliable medical care or support networks to get through school (something I certainly did during my last semester), uprooting your life to go somewhere you can barely speak the language may be a challenge too many.

And his thesis, which is essentially, that travel leads to global awareness, multiculturalism and multilingualism? That’s true on some level, and moreso for kids who grew up in privileged circumstances or without a lot of exposure to the world, but it’s not a requirement to be multicultural. What about the child of immigrant parents who grew up speaking Spanish, Vietnamese or Tagalog at home, who grew up more bilingual than a semester in Bolivia could ever make me?* What about the student from such a vastly different America (whether it’s rural Appalachia or inner-city Los Angeles) that the campus of Harvard or Whitman or the University of Michigan might as well be a different world?

It’s easy to say these people aren’t who he’s talking about, but the group excluded by the rhetoric of travel-as-universal-good is so large that Kristof comes off seeming like he views his own particular set of life circumstances as universal. I want a world where everyone’s able to move freely and visit other countries if they choose, but I think we’d get there with more people on board by having a realistic conversation about access and borders.

*Edit: A reader pointed out to me that Nick Kristof himself is the child of a Yugoslavian immigrant and suggested I was making assumptions about his background. That’s entirely fair, and I’ve changed the wording of this paragraph a bit in response. It’s far beyond my ability (and the point) to deduce how his experiences at the child of immigrants influenced his views on travel, but I stand by my point that its proponents should be thinking about ways to improve accessibility, not just touting its benefits.

A chronicle of my attempt to create a spreadsheet of every attempted recall of an elected official in Oregon State

Or, how I spent my week starting at Ballotpedia and the Oregon Secretary of State’s website and losing all faith in humanity.

Rachel’s note: I started writing this blog post in October, when I was working on this article about Weston, Ore.’s seventh recall election in 15 years.

Trying to understand why a town of 700 people had so much political turmoil, I ended up finding that Oregon’s laws make recall elections really easy, so I decided to try to make a map showing every recall election in Oregon I could find.

The resulting map took me most of a week (with a good chunk of overtime) and is here. I never published the blog post because I never finished it (or the map, really—I still want to clean up my data table and post it). But I think the humorous things I found while researching are worth sharing, so here you go.

Day 1

3:36 p.m.

Decide to revitalize my efforts to chronicle Oregon recalls. Consider how long this will take and wonder whether I’ll end up having enough hours to get paid for it. Forge on anyway.

3:45 p.m.

Discover that my method of looking on county elections websites for recall attempts is going rather slowly. Also, several smaller counties don’t appear to have working websites or websites with a comprehensive list of election results.

4:12 p.m.

Begin investigating recall committee information via the public search tool on the Oregon Secretary of State’s website.

4:13 p.m. After discovering the existence of 79 recall-related committees, take a break to Facebook.

4:35 p.m. Back to work. Ballotopedia has helpfully guided me to their list of Oregon recall attempts.

5:02 p.m. Discover one election where “charges leveled against the councilors ranged from ‘nitpicking’ at council meetings to an incident where the mayor brought a gun to a council meeting in a suitcase.”

5:11 p.m. “The recall petition said that voters mistakenly voted for Stephen Clark because they thought he was the mayor’s son.”

5:35 p.m. Realize I’ve just finished 2012. We’re going to be here a while.

5:52 p.m. Call it a day after getting halfway through the 2011 recalls.

Day 2

11:03 a.m. Resume combing Ballotpedia data. Come across my first recall which seems serious–a 2011 attempted recall of four city council members in the city of Oakridge was prompted after a $420,000 hole was discovered in the city’s budget. The story apparently made national headlines and led to a significant investigation by the Register-Guard, though surprisingly, all four held on to their seats.

Day 3

8:19 a.m. Discover a recall attempt for the Yoncalla School District where, among other things, petitioners complained that the school board “fail[ed] to respond when [Superintendent] Thielman danced in an Elvis costume at a school assembly.”

8:22 a.m. From a news story about the recall: “Superintendent Thielman did perform at an assembly and did admit his costume was too tight and has apologized.”

8:51 a.m. Another town, Lakeside, had two separate recall petitions filed in the same month: one for five city council members, the other for the remaining councilor and the mayor. The article notes that, had all attempts been successful, the city would have been left with no council or mayor.