This is part of a series of profiles of RBGs who explore the deeper issues and lessons of travel. In this, our first installment of Featured Rollerbag Goddesses, we chat with Alissa Murray, a New York-based blogger and activist who writes about travel through a social justice, sustainability and human rights lens.
I hope you will enjoy Alissa’s unique, thought-provoking perspective and valuable insights on travel.
RBG: Alissa Murray, tell us about yourself.
I am a writer, dancer, and activist from New York City. I work full-time in the sustainability field in a job I love, and I’m pretty stationary, settled, and happy living in New York City. Unsurprisingly, I love to write and travel. I started my travel blog, In Locamotion, in early 2016, where I write about the intersection of travel with social justice, sustainability, human rights, dance, and more. I also love dancing salsa and bachata, learning languages, hot weather, tea, reading, and conversing with people from all walks of life.
RBG: What makes your blog different from other travel blogs?
In Locamotion is a travel blog, but what makes it unique is the way that I talk about travel throughout my website. My site’s aim is not to convince you to travel, or to tell you that travel is necessary for a fulfilling life. Instead, In Locamotion has two main aims: for those who already travel, I provide resources for how to travel better–touching upon environmental, economic, and social impact issues in travel. And for those who don’t travel for whatever reason, I hope that my writing provides a way to experience the world and its cultures from home.
Fundamentally, my blog is meant to be an educational platform, where I provide resources on a wide range of topics. Sometimes I write about issues specific to travel: responsible travel guides, information on overtourism, eco-friendly travel tips—that sort of thing. But I also use travel writing as an accessible medium to talk about issues beyond travel itself. For example, I analyze my travel experiences from a social justice lens, which can serve as a concrete example of how a particular facet of oppression manifests itself in real life. I also like to use my platform to educate my readers about different cultures from a place of curiosity and openness, especially cultures that are viewed negatively in western media. Additionally, throughout my site I share raw, vulnerable, personal travel stories, speaking openly about difficult issues such as mental health, loneliness, or heartbreak. I believe that embracing softness and vulnerability is an important part of building a kinder world. Essentially, throughout my site I try, in large and small ways, to subvert typical narratives. I aim for my writing to be an act of resistance, and it reflects the changes that I want to see in the world.
RBG: Many people see travel as just an escape from their everyday lives. But for some of us, it goes a lot deeper than that. Why do you think travel is important?
The go-to answer to this question is that travel broadens minds. By traveling, we are exposed to cultures and ideologies that can be largely different to our own. Gaining firsthand knowledge of how others live their lives can contribute to greater open-mindedness, kindness, and compassion in the world. All of this, I think, is how travel can be important, and this represents the ideal of travel.
However, I believe that we can’t define travel as important, because if we only talk about the ideal scenario, then we ignore two important points: 1) that there are also a lot of other issues within travel that shouldn’t be glossed over, just because of its potential to do good, and 2) that travel doesn’t necessarily make us better people, even though in theory it should.
Regarding the first point, travel is a huge industry with many sweeping impacts. There are a lot of environmental issues in travel: the appropriation of land and important ecological features for the construction of tourist infrastructure, irresponsible tourist behaviors contributing to environmental degradation, the disproportionate consumption of natural resources by tourists (who typically consume at the same rates as if they were home, without regard to issues of resource scarcity in the places that they visit), and more. Moreover, there are many intersecting human rights issues at play within the travel sphere. Uncontrolled tourism can easily be exploitative to local people, such as through unfair wages for workers in the tourist industry, or sex tourism. Mass tourism can result in cultural degradation and erasure of local and/or Indigenous cultures around the world, especially as places shift away from catering to the needs of locals and move towards catering to the needs of tourists and short-term visitors. And while tourism can benefit the local economy, did you know that it’s estimated that less than half of every dollar spent while traveling stays within the local economy? Altogether, there are a number of sweeping social, environmental, and economic implications to tourism that cannot be ignored.
This brings me to the second point, that travel doesn’t necessarily make us better people. I believe that travel can be very beneficial in making us kinder, more compassionate, and more open-minded, but only once we’ve opened ourselves up wholly to having our worldviews challenged. I once met a traveler who had lived abroad for many years, and in particular had spent a lot of time in a certain country, which I will call Country A. He then proceeded to tell me that I shouldn’t travel to Country A, because it “had no culture”. Not only was this statement fundamentally inaccurate, but came from a place of prejudice and close-mindedness, simply because he deemed this other culture inferior to his own. But this traveler was a case in point example that racism travels with us. You can travel or even live abroad and still harbor prejudices; while exposure is helpful, it isn’t enough if we as travelers aren’t willing to do the hard work of unpacking our prejudices and pre-conceived notions before we even leave home.
“I believe that travel can be very beneficial in making us kinder, more compassionate, and more open-minded, but only once we’ve opened ourselves up wholly to having our worldviews challenged.”
– Alissa Murray, In Locamotion
All of this is to say that travel is too complex to be defined as “good”, “bad”, or “important”. I believe that travel has the potential to do so much good, but it is irresponsible to tout only the pros of travel, understanding all of its intersecting issues. What I believe is most important is intentionality in travel. We must be mindful of our social, economic, and environmental impacts on the places we tread, and we must move with humility and a willingness to challenge previously held assumptions about the people, cultures, and places that we encounter; only then do we approach the ideal of what travel should be.
RBG: For you, how do issues related to social justice, ethics and feminism intersect with travel?
This question connects quite wholly with the previous discussion about the many complexities to travel. Issues of social justice and feminism are inherently related to travel, because travel is merely one microcosm of the fundamentally unequal world that we live in. Traveling doesn’t mean that issues of race, gender, class, ability and more are no longer present; in fact, these issues are often central to travel, because travel involves the movement of people and the intersection of cultures, which often occurs along vastly different axes of privilege and oppression. Basically, there is no such thing as travel in a vacuum where these inequalities are irrelevant, so the question is not “do they intersect?” but rather, “knowing that they intersect, what are we doing about it?” And that’s where the question of ethics comes in. In an unequal world, we are presented with choices. While traveling and not, I strive for my choices to align with my social justice framework because I believe that framework is imperative for building a more just, egalitarian society.
RBG: What travel experience has most transformed you as a person?
I have had many important and transformative travel experiences, so it’s hard to pinpoint something singular! So instead, I will point to a whole trip, as I feel that my first trip to the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region was a critical experience for me. I went because of a job I had at the time, and I’m very thankful for that opportunity because I hadn’t even considered traveling to the Middle East before that, let alone sola. I was sent to Bahrain for two weeks for work, and I was able to extend my trip by one week, which I spent in Jordan. I was also able to spend a little less than a day in Dubai, which was short but very eventful and educational. All in all, it was an incredibly eye-opening and wholly positive trip.
Looking back, I’m not sure what my expectations were before going, but I remember being completely surprised by the experience that I had. We are exposed to a very singular, inherently negative narrative about the MENA region here in the United States. But actually visiting the MENA region and having the opportunity to talk with so many different people, to hear their opinions and listen to their breadth of experiences—it was honestly the antithesis of everything that I had heard back in the U.S. I especially noted this in Jordan, where I not only met Jordanians but folks from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and more, and got to listen to their stories, thoughts, and dreams… I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity. Plus, I got to go sightseeing in some incredible places, I tried knafeh—the greatest dessert ever—for the first time, and this trip also inspired my love of the Arabic language, which I have been studying since.
While the trip was personally satisfying in many ways, I think what was perhaps most important about it was the knowledge I brought home. It amplified my critical thinking skills with respect to the region and the news and other media produced about it. Plus, my time there provided me with a broader perspective on the region, which I share with people back home, particularly those who have only been exposed to that singular, negative narrative about the MENA region. Especially in this time of rampant Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the west, I believe that these conversations, in which we break down stereotypes and debunk some of the myths about the region, are particularly important.
RBG: If you could change one thing about travel, what would it be?
There are a lot of ways that I think people can be better tourists, but I think the most important thing is to travel with humility. We often feel entitled during travel: to comfort, to things going our way, to people speaking our language, and more. But honestly, if we really want to feel comfortable, for things to go our way, and for people to speak our language… then we should probably just stay home. While traveling, we are knowingly putting ourselves into unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations. That means accepting and embracing the fact that another culture’s rules and traditions are the norm, and should be respected. I believe that if all tourists took the time to withhold judgement, and to travel with curiosity and open-mindedness, travel would be a more universally positive experience, for both the traveler and the host community.
RBG: What issues do you feel don’t get enough “ink” in travel blogging?
I would say the white supremacist and colonial legacy of travel writing is a very big issue that is rarely discussed. We could say that Christopher Columbus was one of the first famous travel writers. He traveled to faraway lands, encountered foreign people, and wrote about his “discoveries” and “explorations”. Now we acknowledge that Columbus didn’t actually discover anything—people had actually been living in the places his ships landed long before he arrived. Yet we still eerily echo this language throughout modern travel writing. We write about “discovering the best beaches in Mexico” or “exploring Africa” (this one comes up a lot), yet I think people are fairly unaware of the colonial legacy of this language, and the entitlement behind it—we, like Columbus, have discovered nothing in the places that we visit, and as travelers we are merely guests in the homes of others.
This colonial legacy is particularly important to note because travel writing, and the travel industry as a whole, is dominated by upper-middle class, white westerners, who are treated as the authority on the places they visit. Essentially, outsiders to cultures are the ones who are entrusted to define those cultures. When travel writing fails to move beyond simplistic, othering, and oftentimes racist tropes, all we do is perpetuate inequalities in the world. Travel writing will never be ethical if we fail to examine our words, actions, and privileges, especially understanding the power we wield in a very unequal world.
RBG: What’s your favorite destination?
I’m going to pick two, if that’s alright! If you hadn’t guessed, I love traveling in the MENA region. So far, my favorite MENA destination has been Palestine, where I spent one week traveling sola. My trip there was complex, a mix of moments emotional, joyful, heartbreaking, and eye-opening. You can’t help but witness a lot of suffering in Palestine, due to the decades-long occupation by Israel and the strain that puts on all aspects of Palestinian life. However, in Palestine I also encountered a great resilience within the people, and a depth of kindness and hospitality that absolutely floored me. I believe that traveling in Palestine is one of the most important trips that I have taken, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to go.
I also love traveling in Latin America. Definitely my favorite destination in Latin America so far has been to Mexico, where I spent almost three months backpacking sola. It’s an amazing country with so much to offer: food, music, dance, art, history, rich traditions, beautiful landscapes, and so much more. I also found Mexicans to be very open; after brief conversations I would get invited to a meal, or some even invited me to stay in their homes. I never had trouble making friends, and it meant that I was able to really dive into the culture. I think many people in the U.S. have very singular views of Mexico; folks tend to lump it all into Cancun (though Cancun can actually surprise you!) and don’t realize how much the country has to offer.
RBG: What are some of your favorite blog posts you’ve written, and why?
Here are two that I’m particularly proud of:
Unwriting Rape Culture From Pop Culture: Conversations In San Miguel De Allende, Mexico. This essay details an interaction that I had while traveling in Mexico. It’s a good example of how I use a travel story to explain a broader social issue; in this case, I analyzed the relationship between pop culture and violence against women, based on a conversation that I had during my trip. It was a challenging piece to write, but I believe it’s one of my most important posts and I’m very proud of it.
Searching For Home In San Francisco. This piece is one of my travel narratives, and I love it because it’s very vulnerable. It took place during a challenging moment in my life, and I tried to tackle that head-on in the post. It touches on the feeling of not knowing where home is, and what we do to try and find it.
RBG: What’s on your travel bucket list, and why?
The country at the top of my travel bucket list at the moment is Lebanon! I’ve heard such great things about it. Food, sites, culture… Plus, I hear Beirut has a decent salsa scene, so that’s a major plus! Otherwise I would love to go to Chile, El Salvador, Egypt, Mozambique, Slovakia… and the list goes on.
RBG: Where can people find and follow you?
Do you know a woman who is exploring the issues that intersect with travel in a way that’s meaningful, thought-provoking or inspirational? Recommend RBGs you would like to see featured, in the comments below.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
Posts on the Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World travel blog are never sponsored and have no affiliate links, so you know you will get an honest review, every time.
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.