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At the intersection of art and ethical travelling

Posted in Style & Travel

In just over four weeks I will be taking a (extraordinarily long) flight to Cape Town to meet sofagirl. While plotting what to do over the two weeks I will be spending there – besides “elephant stalking” – she asked me whether I would be interested in visiting one of the townships on the outskirts of the city. She had asked me before, on one of my previous visits, and I demurred. I felt it would be inappropriate to walk around, with the comforts of my life on my back, essentially gawking at a slice of humanity who has been a lot less fortunate than me.

The argument in favor for such an excursion is that visits are organized by the local communities, and all the profits are poured back in the community. Still, I feel uncomfortable, maybe even plagued by guilt. I felt the same shame when, scrolling my FB feed, I saw pictures a friend posted while in India, of poor people washing themselves and their clothes in some filthy river: she wasn’t judging, commenting or making fun but I still felt that posting such pictures is not right.

I am not sure where the ethics of “authentic” travels lay anymore. Now that, thanks to the internet, nothing is a discovery anymore, experiences out of our comfort zone are being offered to anyone with a credit card.

Banksy opened a hotel in Bethlehem, The Walled Off Hotel, a few feet from the ugly wall that divides Israel and Palestine. The hotel claims to have “the worst view in the world” and prices range from $30 a night to over $900 for the Presidential suite. People from all over Palestine and Europe flock to it, to gawk at Banksy’s art on the walls and to see how the stateless live.

Again, I am not entirely sure how I feel about it. Now that information is so easily accessible, do I really need to travel to the West Bank to know that living in the West Bank is a nightmare? Or would my hard cash contribution to the local community help?

It could be argued that Banksy’s endeavor is the political arm of his art. And I have no problem with art as activism. In a way, all art is, with a more or less defined point of view. Caravaggio’s revolutionary message was to portray the common people in the street. Diego Rivera opened the curtain over the Mexican struggles. Jimmy Durham, whose retrospective I took in this weekend, put the plight of Native Americans to the forefront. He took his point of view to an extreme, by deciding to leave the United States in 1994 and choosing never to exhibit in a country he despised.

More and more, even in mundane matters of travel, I feel the need to follow the moral compass I have been refining over time. Where the North is, is not always clear. But Jimmy Durham left me with some good advice:

There are seven continents. Each has seven sacred trees [..].Find one that you like and place your own umbilical cord or its equivalency among the tree’s branches. Do not salute.

All images from Jimmy Durham – At the Center of the World on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until May 7 2017.

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12 Comments

  1. sofagirl
    sofagirl

    Rather than suggesting that we “go tourist” in any of the townships – I was wondering if you would like to come and see one or two of the schools I work in. Townships aren’t just about poverty There is exactly the same kind of culture happening in them that happens in any community: street food / art / music / sport / wine and (in some) political history. Township residents are often proud of where they live and keen to show off what they have achieved and are bringing to their neighborhoods. Val du Toit describes what I see. Plus – tourism brings income – income is needed.

    April 20, 2017
    |Reply
    • I know and I would love to – I just don’t want to end up looking like the idiotic tourist. Or maybe I shouldn’t worry about it. I think that too many people travelling today take it some side show worth pursuing now that everyhting else can be “experienced” online. Just another tack in the “experience travel” people crave these days.

      April 20, 2017
      |Reply
      • sofagirl
        sofagirl

        Let’s knock it on the head. I would like Val’s email though – there might be somewhere we can work in Llwandle/Nomzamo.

        April 21, 2017
        |Reply
        • Val du Toit
          Val du Toit

          That would be wonderful. I have a dear friend of 99 (!) who until very recently went out with a group to do just that, and she would love to meet you both and explain and, with Victoria and others, show you round. You wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb at all – there is good interaction with church groups and others all the time. My email is valdutoit@ telkomsa.net.

          April 22, 2017
          |Reply
  2. Val du Toit
    Val du Toit

    I live in Somerset West, a thirty minute drive from Central Cape Town. Believe me, tourists are most welcome in the townships. You can happily visit without being a condescending onlooker. I recently met Victoria, a highly educated black teacher, who lives in Llwanlde,a township close by.. I can organise you a friendly relaxed visit to her school, the clinic, and other public places, plus she would welcome you to her home with open arms. She has a loving adult daughter, brothers and a delightful fiancé, whom I couldn’t resist hugging. Lovely people and I’m sure she would be delighted to show you around.

    Contact me via email, if interested.

    Val

    April 19, 2017
    |Reply
    • Thank you Val. Sue has some contacts too and I think she could arrange something that is not exactly tourist driven so I am mulling about it. I will write to you this weekend though.

      April 20, 2017
      |Reply
  3. Elma Jonckheer
    Elma Jonckheer

    Whatever your decision to visit a “township”, enjoy beautiful Cape Town. It’s unique.

    April 18, 2017
    |Reply
    • I know. I have already been twice and loved it!

      April 19, 2017
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  4. I too feel that it is wrong to gawk at people less fortunate than us and know for a fact that some people who live in the townships abhore the fact that tourists come look at them.

    April 18, 2017
    |Reply
  5. winstonmoreton
    winstonmoreton

    Whatever you do or see you will enjoy the people part most coz your a people person secondo me. You are right about our planet. Tourism can be done via the laptop without the airport security bullshit and thrombotic longhaul; but not the people part . Looking forward to the posts and shots with Sofagirl.

    April 17, 2017
    |Reply
    • You are right. I love hearing people’s stories.

      April 19, 2017
      |Reply

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