Ideologies of Traveling

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley (view from the lookout)

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley (view from the lookout)

My background and childhood make traveling both a requirement for my mental health and a particularly fraught experience. I can’t stay in one place, but I’m also always aware of the privilege that allows me some measure of mobility and the impact my mobility has on the places I visit (not to mention the overall environment, etc.). 

On our recent trip to Hawai’i, one day my partner and I visited Waipi’o Valley. We’d done some research ahead of time, knew the valley is privately owned and that hiking is restricted to a few trails, each, according to our reading, more grueling than the next—but all promising incredible “rewards” for those willing to take on the challenge. Gazing out from the lookout point was incredible enough—the land alive and pulsing quietly. And as we stood there, reading the placards, watching mist roll through the valley, the whir of a drone started up behind us. Someone had broken from their tour group cluster and now stood twenty feet away from the lookout ledge, watching the screen in their hands as they steered the drone farther and farther into the air over the valley. Less than a minute later the attendant from the state park kiosk at the top of the hill came running down the hill yelling “What are you DOING?! Get that drone out of there NOW!” After a few minutes of petulance (yes, I’m ascribing a state of mind to the drone-flier based on their tone of voice), the drone finally touched down and was put away. The tour group left a few minutes later. The air around us stilled, but a ripple of unease continued to wash through my system. We’d been quietly discussing not doing our planned hike, after reading the placards at the lookout, and after the drone encounter we spent a few more minutes watching the valley before paying our respects and making our way back to the car.

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley with Placard reading, in part: "If not invited, please respect this sacred valley by enjoying its beauty from this lookout here. Waipi'o Valley is not a public park, it is privately-owned land. If you must descend, do not trespass!"

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley with Placard reading, in part: "If not invited, please respect this sacred valley by enjoying its beauty from this lookout here. Waipi'o Valley is not a public park, it is privately-owned land. If you must descend, do not trespass!"


Since we landed on the Big Island I’d been having a tumultuous internal experience: we were visiting, after all, as Madam Pele made it quite clear that her work isn’t over, and I couldn’t help but feel like we were in some way parasitic for being on vacation during a natural disaster. Several people told us that seeing the volcano and fissures in action would be a “once in a lifetime experience,” which felt dismissive, in a big way, of the reality of life on a volcanic island.

That attitude felt like an invitation to say we’ve been to this idyllized paradise, during an eruption series no less, like bragging rights, and that feels icky, like colonization-lite: We’re not going to permanently ravage your land and decimate your population, but we are going to come in, trample through and over everything and demand “unique” “authentic” experiences that are thrilling enough to raise some arm hairs but still in all actuality quite safe, and also easily accessible, please, because we want to work hard enough to feel like we’ve “earned it” but not hard enough that it reminds us of work. And then we’re going to go home and tell people “We’ve been to/done Hawaii!” And people will say, “That’s great! What a once-in-a-lifetime trip. What’s next?!”

The life-long process of decolonizing mind, body, and spirit certainly does make traveling an interesting venture. I think it’s worth examining our underlying attitudes and beliefs toward traveling. What is the purpose, the desire, that drives the experience? Are we going to experience? To collect? To explore? To check off? To give, to receive, to benefit, to serve, to learn, to grow, to rest, to test? How does that purpose or desire effect the place to which we’re are traveling and the people who live in that place, who are not tourists or travelers themselves? Likewise, what is the history of that place and its people? How does our purpose and desire for travel engage with local history as well as with that place and its people in the context of global issues? 

As I continue to digest and unpack the drone experience in particular, which I’m still doing nearly three weeks later at the time of this writing, I keep coming back to this underlying assumption that I observe in others as well as myself: that because we have tools and access, we have a right to use those tools or take that access wherever we want… As I mentioned above, to explore, to experience, to observe. To view the world through our camera lens, collecting photos as proof of our adventures.

More and more I’m wondering if morally this need to collect and document is a sign or symptom of the overall corruption of a Western colonizer’s mindset, of imperialism made flesh. “I can, so I will,”—no question of should I or may I or why do I feel the need to do/have/experience. 

I suppose a lot of travel could be seen through that lens: a consumptive exploitative engagement with the unfamiliar. The purpose to conquer and tame, or at least to satisfy curiosity. The sense of ownership that comes with easy access instead of the sense of belonging that comes with cultivation.

Maybe this is a place for a paradigm shift: instead of collecting places and experiences as you travel, that spirit of accumulation and possession, maybe the spirit has to be belongingness and reverence, paying respect to. And if you really want to leave something behind, i.e. get involved in some way, make sure it’s something that’s needed and that has been asked for—ask questions, do research, build relationships first. 

I know I’ll be pondering this for a long long time, and that it will affect the way I move through the world in a very literal sense. As always, I’m open to resources, thoughts, reflections, and challenges.