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.

16 comments on “The Morality of 5-Star Visits in the Developing World
  • Ben, I don’t think your require any “attitude adjustment”. You know suckage when you encounter it, and you’re fully aware of how fortunate you are to be able – in many cases – to walk away from it. There is a lot of suckage in life which we can’t escape as easily as checking into a hotel, and nobody gets bonus points for making life as difficult as possible on themselves. (The latter idea is one I wish I could impress upon my friends who are young mothers.)

    No one living in a developing nation gains a single thing if you suffer. Unless you’re an idiot – and you’re not – you don’t have to join the beggars to realise that their existence sucks. More to the point, there is an inherent difference in someone of your background and meta-context doing something like (to take examples from my trip to Egypt) demanding baksheesh from someone when you do a favour for them, eating meat that’s been sitting out with flies all over it, drinking the water, driving down the highway at night with no lights on, or throwing trash in the Nile. For many people there, that’s just how life is, and they’re used to it, and there’s nothing strange about it. You’re no closer to them for joining in than you would be if you didn’t.

  • The romantic, care free approach of the first world travellers in the third world is generally puzzling even to the third world people.
    I remember when I was in high school (in Turkey) asking myself, why on earth these people would hitch hike? didn’they know it wasn’t “safe”?
    I also remember a recent conversation with an Indian friend, where he expressed his shock to see westerners eat food from street vendors where most Indians (who have a better immune system) wouldn’t touch it with a stick.
    To be sure, “Roughing it up” is somewhat romantisized, and no one should feel “guilty” for not doing it.
    However, there is some truth in Kristof’s assertion that suffering builds character. In my subjective experience, people who have benefited most from having travelled the world have been people who actually spend time with the locals. I’ve been met many peacecorps volunteers, and have often been impressed with them. It was not hard to see the positive influence of living in a different part of the world in different conditions.
    I’ve also met many Americans who have taken spent the summer or the year after college travelling different parts of the world and my impressions have been to the contrary. I’m not sure it’s possible to gain true insight to another world travelling like a “tourist” staying in nice hotels. The experience is “different”
    Echoing your statement above, I’d say, do travel. If you don’t have the money, don’t let that stop you, there are ways as mentioned by Kristof (not all of them so “rough”). If you do have the money, great, take advantage of it. If you goal is to gain insight to other worlds, find a way to live in those worlds, don’t be a passer by.

  • Travel isn’t what happens while you are there, it is what you take away from the experience.

    It is about being down on the same level as everyone else. Often you come across people who have nothing but still are willing to give everything they can to help a stranger.

    That is what travel teachers you, especially when you are in SE Asia.

    Consumerism hasn’t completely invaded there yet which is why it is so refreshing to visit.

    And in my opinion you are only a backpacker if you *live* out of a backpack. That is, you could be put in the middle of a strange town and if need be you could feasibly live for at least two days comfortably.

    That’s my opinion anyway.

    Also, suffering doesn’t build character – it is what you are doing while you are suffering that does it. If you were to hang out with the beggars you would learn about who they are as people and come to respect them. Whereas if you were chilling in your 4 star hotel room what is the point in even being there at all? It is just like home with the Internet and all.

    Overall, Travel is different to Tourism.

    Travellers see, tourists look.

  • “Consumerism hasn’t completely invaded there yet which is why it is so refreshing to visit.” Yep, that’s the kind of astonishingly us-and-them sentiment I’d expect from someone who lives in the western world. I don’t think people who don’t have the capital to live comfortably would be overjoyed to know they’re supplying a “refreshing” tourism experience for you.

    You know, I just returned from Cairo. I stayed in a 5-star hotel, yet still managed to see eye-opening things, meet lots of locals, and learn a lot about life there. If Edumumm’s post is to be believed, such an experience is impossible. (Nope, my home doesn’t include mind-bogglingly dangerous traffic, decomposing dogs in the street, or baksheesh, so I didn’t have much trouble telling the difference between London and Cairo.)

    Honestly, who cares about whether they can wear the label ‘backpacker’ with pride? This is just plain snobbery and resentment of people who have the means – and choose to use them – to travel more comfortably. It doesn’t make a lick of difference to me if people travel to my hometown (in Appalachia) first-class, stay in the nicest hotel possible, and don’t hang out in shacks with toothless hillbillies. If you can’t learn and grow from travel without making life difficult on yourself, that’s your problem – don’t assume everyone else suffers the same inability.

  • Your experiences are valid, but I figure that Jerry Brown gained more from working with Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta than he would have by going to India as a tourist. I recently told the ESL class I teach that we call people who expect everyone to speak English and cater to U.S. sensibilities “americanos feos (ugly Americans)” They loved it.

  • I think there are two separate issues here:

    The first is whether one should feel guilty for growing up in a wealthy nation or preferring a more convenient, industrialised lifestyle. To me, this preference seems natural – isn’t it normal to want things a little easier? I don’t think we should feel guilty for preferring or being able to afford the fruits of our hard work. But we also have to remember that guilt, while it can be a terrible weapon, is also a natural, human reaction to injustice. If we are travelling in a world where 1.1 billion people live on less than $1 a day, then can we really hope to feel totally guilt-free when we drop several hundred dollars on a night at a hotel? A little self-consciousness, I think, is warranted. When the playing field is this lopsided (and hence, where our privilege is not entirely and purely a result of our hard work), luxury has both a financial and emotional price – I think there is a strong argument that we should either accept the price or forgo the luxury. (Or, I guess, work to make the playing field fairer.)

    The second issue is whether one type of travel (in which one face’s adversity and hardship) is more worthwhile or rewarding than another (that of wealth and convenience). As a young person who has done a gap year myself, I think it might be useful to remember why many people take a gap year: to broaden one’s horizons and see things from a different perspective. Certainly you can get this by travelling overseas and staying in four-star hotels and watching CNN – but it would seem to me that a far better utilisation of one’s time overseas would be to have as an authentic experience as one can bear. After all, why travel overseas at all unless one is eager to experience difference? This difference can include lots of fun things, like trying new foods or exploring new cities and architecture – but it can also mean hardship, like taking long bus rides or even witnessing armed conflict first-hand. You don’t have to like it (the locals probably don’t like it very much either), but if you’re going to travel, then that’s what you should be prepared for – and in the end (especially if one is from a rich, industrialised nation) I think experiencing these difficulties is much more apt to result in a trip that more fully pushes your boundaries and widens your perspectives, and hence one that is ultimately more rewarding.

  • There is no reason to feel guilty because you have more wealth than another person, unless you subscribe to the fallacy that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world, and that your wealth is a result of the deprivation of another person.

  • Ben,
    One small thing – that futon could not be ‘mosquito infested’. Mosquitos larvae breed in stagnant water. They hatch and fly in through the window. You should know this.

  • I think Alan Wu has it here. Jackie, you’ve repeatedly said that you can have a worthy experience by not ‘roughing’ it. There is no denying that such an experience is enlightening and that, compared to reading about a place or watching a travel show, it is a superior choice. However, it is the subtleties of life on the ground in third-world countries that is missed easily by catering to one’s natural desire for comfort. The very point of travelling for the sake of education is to gain an unusual perspective. Thus, if one were trying to maximize this objective, then taking the few extra steps to forsake *some* of the luxuries to which one is accustomed is necessary.

    I agree with Alan that some guilt is useful, just like any other emotion. Guilt is a motivator. Excessive guilt is not. Is it expected to feel a little guilty for lavishing oneself in luxury in the face of misery? Yes. If you don’t feel any empathy towards the plight of the poor in the region you are visiting, then you will not feel guilty. But a person without empathy for these people is not one who will gain perspective from travel.

    Ben, suffering can build character. Particularly suffering voluntarily imposed, and with a certain goal in mind. This rules out random misfortune, which can be psychologically crippling. It’s a discipline of the mind and body, which is crucial to understanding your self and your strengths and weaknesses. Of course, your ambition should be tempered by your ability, so there is no need to seek bragging rights by going overboard with the suffering aspect. You mention an incident in Dalian where the food was terrible. Perhaps, since you disgusted by it, accepting your reaction and asking yourself whether the locals dig this food, or whether it is just the local equivalent of gruel, will help frame your next choice. If the former, maybe it’s worth trying to appreciate what they do by giving the food another shot. Otherwise, accept that you’ve tried Dalian gruel.

  • I just realized how snotty Jackie reaction to the poverty of people is. I don’t think these people look upon themselves with as much disdain as you do, so maybe if you try to be amongst them and experience their existence for a little while, you will understand why.

  • Why is my reaction ‘snotty’, exactly? Because I accept the fact that the reason for their poverty is not my wealth?

    I have plenty of empathy for such people, especially as I come from a poor background myself – nothing compared to third world poverty, but poor nonetheless. I simply do not feel the need to prove it to anyone by professing to feel guilt for poverty that was not caused by my actions or choices. I am extremely active in campaigning for increased globalisation and more open and free markets, and am involved in developing a micro-finance start-up to benefit third world entrepreneurs. I have given money directly to these people in various ways – yes, including pressing it into their palms. So why on earth would I feel any guilt whatsoever that I have the means to stay in a comfortable hotel? It simply makes no sense.

  • (Let me preface this by saying that I know that Ben and Jackie work to alleviate poverty in numerous ways, so this isn’t meant as a personal criticism of either of them or their actions, but a debate about the broader, abstracted principles that have arisen throughout the conversation.)

    I can understand the idea that, as long as one does not harm others (and this is a question hardly as simple as many would think), one should be able to amass and spend wealth as one likes. In this perspective, one has only a negative obligation not to actively harm others.

    But this perspective is not universal, and there are many (myself included) who would argue that we have broader responsibilities; positive obligations to redress disadvantage and gross inequality. By this reasoning, electing to spend wealth so indulgently on bubble bathes and heated towels, is – at best – unseemly, and – at worst – a gross dereliction of our human responsibility to help build a fairer, sustainable society. I think the fact that the $7 billion needed annually over the next decade to provide 2.6 billion people with access to clean water is less than Europeans spend on perfume is offensive to our most fundamental sensibilities. The idea is that by indulging in excess, we redirect resources to frivolity that could be more meaningfully employed elsewhere.

    I’m not suggesting that we all take vows of poverty and never be comfortable again – but surely we can do better than demanding luxury and then hoping not to feel guilty in enjoying it while surrounded by a sea of poverty (talk about having one’s cake and eating it too!).

    One may not be the cause of another’s poverty, but one may become an accomplice when one ignores the opportunity to be a part of a solution.

  • Alan, I think you’re spot-on with this one. Some of the stats you reference sound very familiar. Any chance they’re from Jeffrey Sachs’ “The End of Poverty?” I ask because I’m taking a class from him right now and a lot of what you’ve said correlates with what we’ve discussed in class and what I’ve read of his book (thus far).

    I’ll add my own 2 cents to this discussion in a little bit.

  • Thank you all for the thoughtful comments, and apologies that I haven’t been able to join in the discussion yet — I’ve been busy “roughing it” in a town a little north of Shanghai. 🙂

    I think if we parse all the points we won’t find as much disagreement as agreement.

    Jackie’s main point, it seems, is that excessive guilt is unnecessary. I agree — I shouldn’t kill myself over someone else’s misfortune. This is something I mentioned in the original post that sometimes excessive guilt is hoisted upon people in the first world. Not effective.

    Not effective for the reasons that Alan and others lay out, which is that sense of social justice that makes us human — this is enough to inspire action. Anyone who doesn’t feel some emotion (maybe guilt, maybe sadness) when he looks at a malnourished baby living in a shack with mosquitoes buzzing around should be locked up in an asylum.

    The challenge with luxury travel in the developing world is that too much luxury may obstruct those heart-tugging sights. Of course, if someone doesn’t want to see heart-tugging sights I wouldn’t call them immoral, but I would certainly call someone who did more courageous, and probably someone who received a more mind expanding travel experience. It’s up to you how many of those sights you want to see, and you can still take in plenty if you stay in a 5 star hotel and are led by a guide.

    Finally, we must respect each person’s choices to live their own life and instead advocate for a preferred way (that’s why I think it’s unfair for Jackie’s POV to be called snotty). Many people don’t travel outside their own country at all. I think our first priority should be to get people to travel. For those who do travel, and choose to “rough it,” I would hope they do it out of genuine curiosity and anticipation for the kinds of wonderful experiences that many commenters have noted. If they don’t have that genuine interest and are strong enough not to make choices out of guilt, I respect the path they do choose to take, and know that, in the end, only we are responsible for expanding our perspective and nobody or no place can do this for us. It may be harder to do this in a five star hotel, but it’s ultimately up to the person to make that choice.

  • Hi Dario,
    The statistics were taken from some of the research done around achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, a set of internationally-agreed, timebound goals. Professor Sachs heads up the UN Millennium Project, an independent advisory body that reports to the UN Secretary-General on achieving the goals.

    The UN also runs the Millennium Campaign, which supports citizen action to hold their governments to account to achieving the MDGs. The most visible of these actions was / is the campaign called, in many countries, Make Poverty History (it’s called the ONE Campaign in the USA), which uses the white (wrist)band as their symbol.

    Yes, it’s a little confusing. 🙂

    When I was volunteering with the UN Environment Programme the competition to get Professor Sachs to attend one of our events was fierce (and most times we were unsuccessful). It must be great being able to take one of his classes! I’m jealous.

  • I dislike absolute definitions of what is and is not moral. Things never are black and white like that. Further, such definitions are more often than not overly simplistic tools to judge people.

    I prefer to think in terms of whether a larger good is being served. However, without the implication that you must always do what is best for everyone, and that not doing so is not a bad thing.

    Otherwise, every action, everything you do comes down to that argument. Those new shoes you bought? You could have gotten something $30 cheaper and used that money to feed an African orphan for a month. That salad sandwich you had for lunch? You could have saved that extra 50cents for water purification tablets for two days of water for that same orphan. Dont work weekends or like to play tennis for a couple of hours? You could those extra hours to work more and use that money for the two previously stated items.

    I believe people should have the choice as to where they set this mark. You can’t be a cowboy forcing democracy… oops ‘morality’ on everyone. It just pisses people off because you are judging and telling them your way is better than theirs. Even if that is actually true. People just dont like it, and should have the right to make their own choices. (am I even talking about morality anymore? :P)

    In terms of building character. I think what is important is a balanced perspective. Living a life of comfort, not having to worry about money – you can never understand what it is like to be poor. And you end up with something like the often misunderstood quote from Marie Antoinette(an extreme example). However, you can improve your understanding of that situation by living life a little rough for a while. The opposite can be said also; or about number of different perspectives.

    Also, something that has not been raised in the argument so far is the economic stimulation spending cash in a foreign country has. Is it better to ‘cheap out'(I use that loosly) and burden a poor family, or spend money in a hotel that employs a person who can support a family? If you weren’t going to spend that money on something else -like local goods of some kind-, then burdening a family probably isn’t the best ‘net’ outcome.

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