Why travel?

This blog will be a way to document – often through photos – my experiences traveling to Tajikistan this summer, and the world next year, supported by the still a bit mind-boggling Bonderman fellowship. More on that craziness later. For now I’m studying Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, in Tajikistan, supported by a Foreign Languages and Area Studies fellowship and a Fritz scholarship.

First things first. Why travel? Why name my blog “another world is happening”?

I first heard the phrase secondhand at the Common Spaces NW event at the University of Washington in 2011. I love it – it succinctly explains why I am so passionate about traveling and expresses just the sort of optimism I try to keep about social change.

People have asked – and I’ve had to write essays about – why I want to travel. I’ve danced around the idea with cliché phrases and sayings about “learning about other cultures” etc. It’s all true, but it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head like this phrase.

I have been fortunate to travel to the “developing world” before – first to Bolivia and then to Nicaragua. Bolivia opened my eyes to the literal reality that another world exists – one where poverty and inequality are more explicit and the legacy of colonialism and present of neoliberal capitalism are ever present. Nicaragua further challenged me to think critically about the way in which “development” is practiced. By studying NGOs – detailed in this blog – I learned that donors often have a mixture of altruistic and self-interested tendencies that conflict and often lead to a muddle on the ground.

But since I left Nicaragua I’ve been struggling with the idea of development itself – what is it? Who defines it? What does it entail? What lies behind the lovely buzzwords and utopian imagery?

I’d start with a simple premise – and I should note that Gilbert Rist’s work profoundly influenced my thinking on this. Development is broadly understood, in practice, to be about economic growth and technological progress. Its visual manifestations are clear: skyscrapers, dams, IT, malls, etc. Cities tend to be the symbol – skylines like Tokyo and New York jump to mind.

Yet is this possible on a large scale? It’s always a bit mind boggling to google open pit mines and remember that those skylines came out of minerals in the ground somewhere. Yes we can recycle and harvest clean energy. We can thus green our consumption immensely. But how much is there to go around? Who will make our shit? What will we make it out of? How long can we keep growing our economies before the earth wipes us out?

Is Kabul going to look like Shanghai in a hundred years? Who will Afghanistan outsource to?

Development implies some kind of utopian equality – everyone on the same standing. But the developed world is an abominably unequal place. And the North’s development has been fueled by the South’s exploitation – from colonialism to banana republics to neoliberal capitalism.

So – how realistic is it for us to promote the idea that everyone can “have” development? Do we just promote a false illusion to the masses to keep them at bay?

This blog is thus about understanding the alternatives to this Western brand of “development,” from those who know them best – the rest of the world. In the process I’ll have to challenge everything I think I know. And maybe find out this whole premise is wrong!

However I’m quite sure of one thing: nothing – poverty, environmental destruction, discrimination, etc – is inevitable. Another world is happening. And I have the incredible opportunity to watch it up close and learn what I can. I hope you’ll join me!

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