Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
–Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”
After graduating high school and embarking on my second trip across the Atlantic, questioning whether I should be travelling were limited to my worries about the carbon emissions of flight travel and were drowned out by all the excitement and nerves about being away from home for the first time. During my European travels, the words and ideas of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Questions of Travel,” never occurred to me.
In Indonesia, on the Climate Change Science and Policy Dialogue however, I felt some of those phrases were stuck in my head, their themes playing over and over in my head like a broken record. In our normal, day-to-day lives, it is somewhat clear how to be sustainable in our practices, whether we follow them or not. Going to a farmer’s market to purchase produce will generally lead to better outcomes for all than getting a burger at McDonald’s, and that is apparent. But when we go on vacations, not only do we get a respite from the mundane, but I would also argue we leave behind principles of sustainability and critical thinking. Getting on a flight to Indonesia could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so you excuse the 2.40 tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. That traditionally prepared beef dish may be the best you will ever have, so you order it anyway. The bright pink sarong was probably made under poor conditions and low wages, but the price is so low, you haggle down the price and buy it. For tourists, these really could be once in a lifetime. But when a small island like Bali receives just under 5 million foreign tourists in one calendar year and even more domestic tourists, what is once in a lifetime for a singular tourist is multiplied by the millions for the Balinese.
I think one of the aspects of Bishop’s poem that I really empathize with is the general feeling of uncertainty. Seeing things like “green” labels in the hotel bathrooms or taking a tour that is supposed to be eco-friendly seem like small consolations in a hugely impactful stay, but at least you know it might be a little better. It is too simple and problematic to condemn traveling or even the occasional hamburger, but what is not simple at all is to even begin to grasp how being in another country directly and indirectly impacts its native people. Currently, I have no answers to the poem or those questions that rest in my heart, but I am grateful for the sense of wonderment and the raising of questions that will stay with me much longer than any souvenir.