Travel and Privilege

When I returned from international trips in the past I hated when people said, "I'm so jealous," or "you're so lucky." At the time I didn't think luck had much to do with it. I had spent the past five years working eighty-hour weeks at random jobs and surviving on unhealthy amounts of peanut butter sandwiches. I made sacrifices. Saving for travel was my top priority, and I had assumed people who didn't travel must value different things like new cars, cable T.V., and Starbucks.

Maybe this is the case for some, but I redefined "luck" as "privilege" after two years of working with Teach For America. I taught at a high school in an underserved community where 95% of the students came from low-income homes and graduation rates hovered below 30%. I’ll never forget the day a student stood by my desk facing the world map I hung for my personal enjoyment and asked me to point to where we were in Massachusetts.

“Here,” I said, hiding my concern. “We are closer to New Hampshire than Boston. And see, here is New York City.”

“What?” he said with wide eyes. “I thought New York was a country.”

I realized I might have had a better chance of touring North Korea than this student had of seeing New York. Countless people in the world don’t have the opportunity to leave home, including many of the people we encounter in our eager travels.

It's hard not see my privilege now. It’s in the eyes of a man in Bogota hawking cloth bandages and among the white faces looking up at Machu Picchu. My privilege stalks the Ghanaian children picking cocoa pods for Swiss chocolate and tires the Thai taxi driver speaking broken English with tourists. It reflects off of the “world’s tallest” skyline in Dubai, monopolized by Westerners, and stares straight back at me.

Now when people point out how lucky I am, I agree.


Photo by Pierre Holtz used with copyright permission

Rachel Rueckert is a Boston-based freelance writer and cultural photographer. She is passionate about education, immersive travel, and cheese. Connect with her here or read more of her work at DeliberateWanderer.com.