The crazy, frustrating world of ours


I’ve been back in Sydney for some time now. With all the trips back and forth over the years, it is no longer strange to be jump between these worlds, which are so different from each other.

I keep thinking of Vanuatu. In particular I’ve been thinking of the big question of development there, the tourism development or whatever development for that matter. As I had mentioned in past posts I photographed some people and places in order to help promote a couple of the lesser known regions to tourists, in a sense to develop tourism there.

Before I left Vanuatu I managed to get a photo story into Air Vanuatu’s inflight magazine “Island Spirit”. Besides being on the airplanes the publication can be found at every single hotel and guesthouse around the bigger towns of the country. That will be a good little push for George and South West Bay, hopefully. But I keep thinking about where the potential development, where all that interaction with tourists and all the building of new guesthouses, new facilities will lead. Will it really be positive, as I perhaps naively hope? To be totally honest, the country for most part is perfect, or rather it would be perfect, if there weren’t these conflicting views that the modern, developed, “white-man” world is bringing.

Prior to leaving the island of Santo I met an interesting young anthropologist. He had a very cynical view of where things might head. History, he said showed that development had never been good for societies similar to that of Vanuatu. Urban drift, alcohol consumption, increased crime rates – these were all byproducts of the so called modernization. I could only imagine in horror how the wonderful places I’d been to might be affected if things don’t go quite as planned.

In some ways I agree with the anthropologist, but another part of me feels that at times the thinking and reasoning of academics is quite unrealistic. He suggested that it would be better to keep things as they are, the locals don’t need all this crap that we have, they’ve been living for hundreds of years without it. Agreed. But then I had been in Vanuatu long enough and had spoken to enough locals who lived in between these two worlds – the modern and the ancient and they were desperate to see more of our world, to do those things that the “white-men” get to do. Young, a good friend I made on the very remote Rah Island had worked in Port Vila – the capital of Vanuatu for a few years, he acquired a taste for TV and he desperately wanted to see different parts of the world. When I told him that what they have is special, that they don’t need to seek happiness elsewhere or to change things at home, he replied “Yes, but I want to see why it’s so special here. I want to see other countries and to be able to decide for myself.” Fair enough, I think.

He also said something that was very simple and ultimately really insightful. “The white people used to come here and say – you must all change, become modern, wear clothes, stop your rituals, worship Jesus. Now they come and say – go back to the ways of the past, become more traditional, we want to see more of your culture. What are we to do? We are very confused now! What is it exactly that you want from us?” What Young said reflects the way many young Ni Vanutu people from the islands must feel. He’s confused and somewhat frustrated, and; who’s to say that development will answer his questions? Who’s to say that Port Villa isn’t going to become the next Port Moresby (considered by many one of the least livable cities in the world)? If Port Vila is indeed heading that way, tourism will be a pretty small concern in comparison the multitude of serious problems that will arise.

And so I keep asking myself. On the one hand; what is the point of development in a place like Vanuatu? On the other hand; what is the point of preserving things, if all the young locals want to do is watch “Rambo” and “Lost”? Can they really be blamed? Are they lesser people than us that we should decide what’s good for them and what’s not? And then ultimately I ask myself; what is the point of doing what I started? Meaning helping the locals attract more tourists to their areas and in effect “develop” them.

I guess I find comfort in one story that was told to me by an American NGO worker who I met along my journey. He had the same dilemma as me at the beginning of what has now been a four year commitment to developing medical centers around the country. He once asked a more experienced NGO worker: “What is the point of what we’re doing? These people survived for so long without us. Are we just f–cking up their world, by pushing them forward and changing their ideology with what we are doing?” To this he got the following reply. “Development is inevitable, you aren’t going to be able to stop things or go back to the stone age, but things can move forward in different ways. Development can put everything on its head and basically destroy an entire society or it can be brought on more gently, more gradually and that will lead to a much smoother transition and a less disastrous result. You’re one of the people who’s trying to achieve the latter and that is a good thing.”

I hope that my involvement would put me in the latter category too. I should also mention that in Vanuatu development has so far only been “passed down” to the locals from the foreigners that have invested in the country (or before colonized it). The foreigners are in power, while the locals are mostly picking up the crumbs of the benefits of this “development” and they are often having to do this away from home, because development is centered only around the capital and the island of Espiritu Santo.

Tourism outside of the main islands, would actually put a lot of people in an entirely different position. They would not have to go outside to earn their money, they would become business owners (some already are), they would be empowered to make their decisions and whether that would be to go back to the ways of the past or to watch DVDs well, that’s a decision which I believe they deserve to make.

Well, that’s about it for this post. I needed to get those thoughts out of the system. I invite anyone who has read this post in full to share their opinions; whether cynical or not I am very interested to read what other people are thinking. What have some of you learned from your journeys or perhaps from living in countries which have seen rapid development recently?

You might not hear all that much from me in the coming weeks (though I’ll try). I’ve been busy archiving my collection with the aim of putting up on Photoshelter. I’ll also be slightly redesigning the website and the blog. Good changes are on their way. Stay tuned.

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16 Responses to “The crazy, frustrating world of ours”

  1. Mark Olwick Says:

    Outstanding post, Mitchell. I’ve had those same thoughts many times. Angkor, for example, was a valued heritage site. Then the package tours came and now there are laser light shows in front of the temples

    I think the gradual approach is the right one, but it also is entirely dependent on the will of the leadership. Strong protections can be put in place to preserve the culture and heritage while still allowing some of the benefits of modern life. The laws in some tropical countries to limit building height to no taller than a palm tree is one small example.

    Excellent post and I look forward to the new site and work.

    Mark Olwick

  2. Mitchell Says:

    Thanks for the comment Mark. Yes, gradual transition is certainly more ideal than a sudden one. Laser shows at Angkor? Wow! I didn’t know about that one.

    About those laws for buildings, yeh, Bali has a great one, there aren’t any building taller than three stories in most places there.

    With Vanuatu things are a little different though. In some ways they still have one foot not far from the stone age and then they’re talking on mobile phones everywhere and watching DVDs using generators for electricity. It’s a very unusual situation and anything that seems trivial to the already “developed” world may have unpredictable consequences there.

    The mobile phones for example created a big baby boom. Prior to them in the villages of Vanuatu there were no secrets, everyone knew each other and sooner or later someone would know if a girl and a boy liked each other. It would not be possible to just go off in secret. These days they can, thanks to the power of text messaging. Nine months later – you have a result.

  3. claude etienne Says:

    Hi Mitchell,

    I’ve been following your blog for quite some time, and I’m a big fan. Your recent posts on Vanatu have been fascinating, and I hope to also see some of the video you’ve shot. In regards to this post, I do agree that people have a right to experience new things, while at the same time wanting to preserve their heritage.

    I’m from Haiti, and tourism has been on many people’s minds here as a way to bring in much needed revenue and jobs in the future.

    The already almost non-existent infrastructure in Haiti was further eroded by the recent catastrophic earthquake. Most of the few hotels that existed were destroyed by the quake. The quake did not hit the whole country and some parts are even devoid of any human presence, meaning that they are untouched and pristine.

    In the future though, if money starts pouring in to build hotels, resorts, roads, casinos, golf courses, would that be considered a good thing if thousands get jobs, the tourism industry generates millions, even if the areas that are still pristine are destroyed to build those resorts and golf courses? That’s not an easy question to answer, especially in countries like Haiti where the level of poverty is so high and so many live in horrible conditions. In Haiti now more than one million people are homeless and live in tent cities in the capital. Some might see, the hell with the environment, people come first. But, ignoring the environment leads to more human tragedy.

    Thank you for opening up this discussion. Looking forward to your future projects and your updated site and blog.

  4. claude etienne Says:

    Made a small mistake, I meant to say: “some might say, the hell with the environment” not “some might see”

  5. Jeffrey Chapman Says:


    I battle with this issue constantly. I think that the fundamental question is whether we want for them what they want for themselves without inserting our own agendas – a form of intellectual colonialism, or do we want for them what we want, assuming that we know best – despite our incomplete knowledge?

    I think that the important thing for a traveler is to ask oneself these questions. There are no easy answers. Mark brought up Angkor, which is probably a really good example. It has gone from lost to the jungle to laser light shows. Which is worse? I’m not sure. I have my own preference, but isn’t that subjective? I like the romanticism of an Angkor lost to the jungle. But I’m not the one in the position of needing tourists to arrive in order to feed my family.

    We need to be extremely careful. We shouldn’t assume that we know best. That’s presumptuous. What we really know is what we think is best – from our point of view – based on our backgrounds, cultures and experience. Saving them from themselves is just another form of missionary zealotry.

    This doesn’t mean that we should be hands off. We have knowledge and experience to share, but once shared we have to leave the choices to them. They have every right to covet everything that you and I covet. Likewise, we have every right to covet what they have that we’ve lost. Grass is always greener!


  6. Diego Says:

    Great post Mitchell. Props to you for getting it out there. I somehow feel the same way. It’s also happening here in the Philippines. People tale great photographs and share them online, then hoards of people start going to that place and pretty much ruin it.

    It happened to this beautiful, remote and unknown beach a few hours drive away. It almost feels mystical there. A group of photographers go there and take some fantastic shots. Shared online and now it’s dirty there and ruined. Sad.


  7. Mitchell Says:

    Jeffrey: Great point about us having the right to covet what we’ve lost too. I’m pretty much of the same opinion as you on this one.

    Diego: Yeah, I know what you mean, though when you talk about people and culture things become much more complicated, since you couldn’t exactly shield people away from the rest of the world as you could with a beach or any beautiful place.

    Thanks for the comments.

  8. Luc N. Says:

    “the locals don’t need all this crap that we have”.

    It may be not about what they need, but about what they want. Which is quite different.

  9. Fabian | The Friendly Anarchist Says:

    Hey Mitchell, thanks for this interesting article. Certainly a question that’s on the mind of many travelers.

    In relation to your story, I have two examples from Latin America: One was a group of natives that was photographed from a plane maybe two years ago somewhere in the Amazon area of Brazil. The pictures where published all over the place, and yellow press wrote about “crazy stone age people”. This was reflecting the worst of our own society and world view…
    The Brazilian government, though, was up for a tough decision, and the main debate at the time focused on two points: On the one hand, these people have a certain way of life and should be allowed to live as they please. In order to avoid damage to their lifestyle, it would be better to leave them alone. On the other hand, though, wouldn’t they benefit from knowing about the other world out there? What if they needed assistance from the state? What if their tribe was dying because of some illness that could easily be treated with modern medicine? The government eventually took the decision to not disclose their location and leave them alone. I feel this was a good decision (though I don’t know if they really kept this position), but there are certainly arguments for a different behavior.

    The second example happened in Colombia. An indigenous tribe was displaced from their lands (I don’t remember why; it could either have been due to paramilitary violence or due to a natural disaster), and the government transported them to Bogotá. While this tribe had been in contact with the government and the larger Colombian society for some time, this was basically moving from the jungle to a city of 8 million. The result? Most of the adults felt horrible and couldn’t wait to go back. The children and youth, though, immediately started to love Coke and MP3 players and didn’t want to go return anymore.

    What do we make of this? I generally agree with Jeffrey: “Saving them from themselves is just another form of missionary zealotry.” Also, Luc has quite a point: Anybody should have the right to decide upon their own “wants”. If contact is already a reality, probably the best thing we can do is to tell them what we know about “our” world and reality, and leave it to them to decide what to make of it. If, as in your story, people see an opportunity in tourism, helping them to advance in this area is certainly taking positive action. As always, we have to accept that we aren’t able to control the outcome of it.

  10. Mitchell Says:

    Fabian: Thanks very much for that very insightful input.

  11. Bob Anderson Says:

    What a delightful and mature discussion on what is a controversial issue from both you, Mitchell and those who commented.

    Contributing would only echo what is already said and said well. One can only hope the “natives” win in the long run!



  12. Neelima Says:

    Hey great article Mitchell!
    I know it quite a bit of a paradox. On one hand, I enjoy places with little or non-existent advent of tourism and on the other hand, I come back and write about the same to share the details with fellow travelers.

    Often I do wonder, is development through more tourism going to do any good or worse to these little known places. And also as you’ve said, who am I to decide what is good or bad for them. The dilemma continues..

  13. Matthew Says:

    Thanks for sharing those thoughts. With my limited world view, my first response is to stay away from modernization. I suppose that comes from my personal philosophy to keep life simple. The more stuff that is introduced to us the more out of touch we get with our soul. The “stuff” ends up being too distracting and we loose focus on what would otherwise be an innate knowledge of how to live a prosperous happy life.

    That said, its also important to have balance, especially when the need for money has entered a society. Finding that balance becomes a personal life journey. Money, in most ways, has ruined us, It has ruined the soul of humanity. So know, one has to find balance to find there soul, and its not easy. I get the feeling that most people will never find that balance, and even more will never realize they need to find it.

  14. Mitchell « coolblogblog Says:

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  15. judithk1 Says:

    I very much enjoyed your post. It is a real dilemma that we haven’t yet solved. I suppose we could also follow the “first do no harm” approach. Cultural exchange is inevitable, but perhaps we could try letting the indigenous people take the lead. Allow people to choose what they want from us rather than our rushing in correct what we think they need. I appreciate your sensitivity to this problem.

  16. Food for Thought – Travel and Conscience! – PORTAL BERITA ISLAMI TERKINI DAN AMANAH Says:

    […] Oktober 2010   HOTNEWS   No comments Often I wonder, but today after reading this post by Mitchell on tourism, I felt like voicing few of my thoughts on this matter.  One of my very first […]

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