The Morality of 5-Star Visits in the Developing World

I got a private email from a friend who expressed sympathy about my malaria medicine / Dalian disaster but also suggested “Some attitude adjustment may go a long way to making you realize how fortunate you are to see the world from this perspective and how enriched your life will be from doing so.”

His email and my response made me think of a larger point I wanted to raise, which is the supposed correlation between the difficulty of adventure and the resulting cultural experience.

When Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times gave a ringing endorsement ($) of gap years he said:

A student might, for example, start off teaching English and studying Latin American history in Ecuador, then learn Chinese intensively in Chengdu, then work at an AIDS clinic in Botswana while reading African literature on the side, and finish up by studying Islamic history in Istanbul. In each place, the students would live with local families.

Since the best way to learn about public health challenges is to endure them, I would also suggest offering extra credit for any student who gets malaria…

As a student backpacker myself in India two decades ago, I once lined up with the beggars and lepers of Amritsar to get free gruel from a Sikh temple — but that embarrassed even me.

In any case, all this suffering builds character…

Over a year or so, the kids would figure out how to catch rides with trucks north over the Sahara, then hitchhike through the Middle East and across Central Asia. After a temporary job in Calcutta to earn a few rupees, they could migrate through East Asia and then make enough money as tutors teaching English in China to buy cheap air tickets home.

I agree international travel builds perspective and character. Hell, that’s why I’m here in Asia. But I want to hone in on Kristof’s assertion that suffering builds character. So if I went to a really shitty 3rd world country and hung out with beggars would my character be strengthed more than if I stayed at a four star hotel in Beijing? Would bouncing my way through an African war zone provide more culture and perspective than walking through the backroads of a safe, quiet Italian village? Would riding a shitty five hour bus in Ecuador provide something “more” than a guided tour of Hawaii’s volcanoes?

It’s clear to me that these are all very different experiences, but I’m not sure you could argue that one is better than the other, or that somebody who roughs it is more moral or cultured, or is to be held in higher esteem than someone who “plays it safe.”

My attitude is: do it. Travel. Go somewhere. Explore. Grow because of it. But don’t feel bad if you can afford the loveliness of Zurich and that strikes your fancy. It’s not an AIDS clinic in India, but it’s not home, either. I feel the same about philanthropy: do it. Giving to needy causes is better than giving to the opera, but giving at all is good in itself.

Unfortunately, I think many young people hesitate when pondering an international adventure, because they feel like if they’re not sleeping with lamas they are somehow letting down Kristof and the rest of society’s adventurers.

I was born in arguably the richest region (Silicon Valley) in the richest state (California) in the richest country (US) in the world. Each day at school we were reminded how privileged we were and often presented with a picture of a starving baby in Africa. This creates an enormous sense of guilt — the intentions are pure, but the effect is often counterproductive. This guilt can mean we don’t take certain actions for fear of exacerbating our uncomfortable feelings of first-world privilege.

When I was in Florence over the summer I got hooked up through an organization with a host who lived in a dump, was dirt poor, and told me to sleep on a mosquito infested futon. The next morning I left his shack and checked into a hotel which served a warm breakfast, offered a comfy bed, and had wireless internet. Guilty as charged: I like modern accouterments. I like internet and warm showers and warm beds. I’m lucky enough to afford to check into a low cost hotel in Florence. And yet why did I not qualify as a “student backpacker” in Europe? Because I wasn’t sleeping in parks, wasn’t wearing shirts 4 days old, wasn’t sharing meals with a beggar.

Which brings us, after some rumination, back to my Dalian adventure. The food I ate there was terrible. I suppose I could have reacted, “This is the local food, learn to enjoy it, appreciate it.” I didn’t. My reaction was, “This is the most processed, vile lamb I’ve ever sunk my teeth into.” Am I selling myself short with this response?

To anyone from a first-world country pondering an international adventure into the developing world, I say, “Do it” and don’t feel bad if you’re not as courageous as the next guy to live and eat just as the middle class locals do. You’ll get a different experience, but it will still be mind expanding in many ways.

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