Traveling Abroad Without Falling Into Guilt Trips

Helping hands while traveling. Illustration By George Wylesol (AFAR Magazine)

Illustration By George Wylesol (AFAR Magazine)

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What’s the most uncomfortable you’ve ever been on a trip? Anu Taranath is a social justice facilitator teacher, and author of the book "Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World." She's used to having difficult conversations about race, identity and privilege — issues that come up all the time when Americans travel abroad.

Speaking to AFAR Magazine, Taranath helped unpack several ethical dilemmas that travelers face depending on where they go and why they go there.

For instance, if you're looking to volunteer abroad, how can you make sure you're doing more good than harm by being there?

Anu Taranath: How many stories have I heard about Western volunteers knowing so little about the communities that they’re entering? Or of local people feeling they can’t speak up because of the dollars coming in? It’s important to remember that the global privileges we travel with don’t get erased just because we pick up a shovel.

Another thing to consider — once you're there, should you donate food or money to the locals you encounter?

AT: Wanting to spontaneously donate suggests noticing that things look different than they do at home, or that you are in a position of privilege. This happens in the U.S., too. But we are culturally encouraged to not see inequality at home, so when we go abroad and see it, it can be shocking.

If you have more than others, my sense is that you need to be sharing what you have, whether that means giving to an organization in Kenya or researching places at home that you can align with.

But it’s important to reflect on the hard questions ahead of time: What does it mean for me to lead an intentional life, knowing that I have more? How do I want to use what I have? Then giving or not giving in the moment isn’t a quick, transactional thing, but part of a larger ethos of how we live.

Our actions will not erase inequality, but intentional giving—whether it’s a portion of your salary or the gift of your time—matters immensely.

To hear from Taranath and the other experts weighing in on the ethical dilemmas faced by travelers, read the full piece in AFAR Magazine.

This piece is part of an hour-long episode of "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" on how to be an ethical traveler, produced in partnership with AFAR Magazine.