The Real “Know Before You Go”
There’s nothing better than taking the path less travelled. Our intrepid hearts strive for niche experiences that stray from the cliché, and yank us right out of our cosy comfort zones. We push boundaries and cross borders – both literal and metaphorical.
But what about when those borders are dangerous?
A high school friend of mine recently competed in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. A small group of my mates went to support him, brave the sub-zero temps, and live it up in the athletes’ village after his inevitable podium finish (Shout out to Matt Graham, the most successful thing to come out of Narara). I’d been banking on going too, but my bank account said otherwise. I wanted to go to the Games, check out Seoul, and hang out in a region of Asia I’ve never visited before. Maybe head up to North Korea, too. When I floated the idea with the group, it went over like a lead balloon.
“Yeah, why not? It’s just over the border.”
“Nah, I’m right. All yours.”
I couldn’t wrap my head around why they didn’t want to go. We’d be so close – you may as well, right? What were they seriously worried about?
In 2015, 22 year-old American tourist, Otto Warmbier, was detained in North Korea, for allegedly attempting to steal an item that featured North Korean propaganda. After 17 months, Warmbier was released on humanitarian grounds after US diplomatic intervention. He died just days later.
Warmbier’s travel companion, whose name has not been released, said in an interview with the Guardian that you’d “have to be a lunatic” to travel there. I’d heard tragic stories like this involving foreigners. Wrongful detention, strict laws and naive tourists. But I wasn’t yet put off. I still wanted to visit North Korea.
Similarly, I’ve always wanted to visit Egypt and the Middle East. How magical to see the Pyramids of Giza and float in the Dead Sea. But, it always seemed so far away, and so, the idea was shelved. That was until I finished a semester of study in London. Tel Aviv was five hours away, and flights were cheap enough. I’d had the idea in my head all semester long, telling people with certainty, “yeah, then I’ll head to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel” – which always made them think I was a lot cooler than I really am. If you looked up smug in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of me.
Then, whether it was the law of attraction, or that I just started paying more attention, I saw a lot more of Israel in the news. I’d been aware of ongoing conflict in the region, and liked to think that I was not ignorant to social and political issues. But, I really was. I didn’t know that since 2000, a recorded 10,000 Israelis and Palestinians have died at the hands of their opponent. I don’t know the intricacies of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, nor why exactly the Gaza Strip has been subject to blockade for 11 years. I knew a lot of states supported a two-state solution for the conflict, but I didn’t really get why others didn’t.
Current US President, whatever his name is, made waves in December 2017 when he called for the international community to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The UN put forward a resolution calling for the US to drop its claim. The resolution was backed by 128 states. Only nine UN member states supported the US. Trump then took matters into his own hands, and made steps to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and out of Tel Aviv. His actions were not met with great reception. Trump is fighting fire with fire, and has since threatened to cut all foreign aid to the region.
In late 2017, Kiwi sensation Lorde cancelled her scheduled gigs in Tel Aviv, citing human rights violations. A full-page advertisement was taken out in the Washington Post to berate her decision, and label her an anti-Semitic bigot.
These were the things that made me reconsider.
Which sounds shallow, Western, and mostly just dumb, but only because it is. I didn’t – and don’t – know enough about the history and the future of Israel and Palestine. And the more I learn, the more I realise how much there is to learn about it. The same goes for North Korea. I’m not sure I could travel to a country in the throes of unrest, and be a tourist, taking happy-snaps and flaunting my naïve privilege. I don’t want to inadvertently support a system that in reality, I probably morally don’t.
But where do you draw the line? St. Petersburg is definitely a place I want to travel to. The FIFA World Cup is in Russia this year, too. But what about Putin and his involvement in nuclear warfare? Surely I can’t support that. I have friends in the United States that I want to go visit, and I’m a sucker for trashy Times Square and super-sized snacks. So, the US is on my list too. But the US is currently lead by a misogynist, who doesn’t support universal healthcare, free immigration, or women’s’ reproductive rights. His recent solution to gun-violence is nothing short of sickening. I fundamentally disagree with Trump’s stance on all of these things. So how can I go and spend my tourist dollars supporting his economy?
But what about at home? Australia is breaching international law with the mistreatment and detention of refugees and asylum seekers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths are 25 times more likely to be incarcerated than their counterparts. Australians that menstruate still pay a luxury tax on tampons and pads. And we still choose to celebrate January 26 as our national holiday. But I still call Australia home. I’ve not renounced my citizenship – and have no plans to, and I’ve not moved to Iceland (yet).
When people express their concern about someone they love visiting a certain place, it’s because they are worried about their physical safety. For nihilistic reasons, I don’t worry much about that. Where and when I travel is increasingly becoming more and more about understanding the country’s history, politics, and social and economic issues.
When you travel, make sure you pack your awareness, and keep your eyes and mind open. Do your research – and not just about how to get to your hostel from the bus station. Don’t be fooled by tourism commercials and Lonely Planet. I’m not claiming to know it all. The opposite, in fact. But I think it’s important we strive to know a lot more, and have an educated opinion on issues in places we choose to travel to – as well as at home. It can’t just be about curating an excellent Instagram feed and adding that country to your “done” list. It can’t even be about voyeuristically exploring a place that none of your other mates have been. Pull the wool off your eyes, and get over yourself.
Cover by Ozan Safak