Seeing the world is a constant education about life and the people around us. Travel can open up so much about the world. So much history, so much pain and so many stories that we never hear about, all which co-exist as we go about our daily, lucky lives.
Many of these stories remain unknown to us. One of my first big experiences of being so moved by people and their lesser-known past was my trip to Cambodia in 2015. Excited by the incredible Angkor Wat, I had no idea about the history, the obvious trauma felt by the country still and how much of that I’d take away with me. Millions of lives affected by the Khmer Rouge and a country still recovering. Education, medical and landmines safety are all areas that still require help and assistance with today. It’s not on our news, we don’t learn it in schools and we generally don’t know much about the recent genocide. I especially knew nothing. So, I read books, watched documentaries and continued to learn about the lives beyond the skulls that we saw in the ground that day at the killing fields.
Similarly, I was completely clueless about Korea too. The war, their current situation and their history is just something that I never learnt about or really came across (minus the odd headline in the news that honestly, never really held much importance because the background was so unknown to me). Until a couple of summers ago when I read a memoir by a girl called Yeonmi Park. Yeonmi tells her brave story of a life in North Korea, of her escape, her families abuse and how she was sex-trafficked through China, living to tell the horrors. Yeonmi was one of the lucky ones, now working for the UN and sharing her stories to raise awareness and promoting assistance for the people stuck inside.
On my visit to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that lies between the two Korea’s, all I thought about was her. The only safe land between two countries who are still technically at war, is now a tourist spot for people to come, see and (apparently) learn about the history and future hopes for the unification of Korea. It’s dangerous and important stuff. Now, I was probably being a bit naive but I genuinely thought I’d learn more from this tour. Instead, I found myself in a rant about mindless travellers, companies who profit from pain and plain ignorance.
I’m disappointed because Yoenmi’s story is just one of many, but you don’t learn about the people or the humanitarian crisis on the tour; only the politics, money and photo opportunities. You visit Freedom Bridge which was made to safely bring prisoners over the landmines that still surround the land and is also a memorial, a place to leave ribbons for missing loved ones. It’s a beautiful place with deep meaning and sadness and a tonne of people taking photos with their thumbs up in front of the ribbon wall who seem to have no idea why or what the point of it is because we were never really told properly. And it’s not completely their fault when the rest of the tour takes you to a new train station built for joining South Korea through the North and to the rest of the world, photos of Trump’s recent visit (what a doofus) and the ongoing excitement about the abundance of wildlife that grows in the DMZ next to the fake propaganda village that you can see from the Dorasan Observatory. Which makes an interesting story for sure, but what about the real people and their stories?
I thought about Yeonmi and the millions of stories still untold, the people living in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, whilst our tour guide (who was genuinely very lovely) was telling us funny stories about a flag competition between the countries…
And I guess that brings me back to travel. We’re constantly in someone else’s home, neighbourhoods, lands, eating their food and making friends with the locals. We should never forget that. When we visit these places, do further research, read books, talk to the people and learn their lives. It’s up to us to ask questions, think ethically and consider those whose countries we’re guests in. Seeing the world should expand our understanding when given the right knowledge and tools to see through the people’s eyes. When we know their stories, we form deeper connections with the world and life. We grow in empathy.
Travelling isn’t always easy and it’s so much more than taking quirky Instagram pictures and island hopping. It’s important to move through the world with thought, understanding and responsibility, never forgetting how lucky we are because our lives are filled with connections, stories, a constant learning, feelings and people like Yeonmi who help us to understand it all.
Peace, love and happy conscious travelling people!
Below is a list of books, documentaries and links to learn more, get involved and raise awareness about stories that matter from people in crisis’s that have stuck with me;
Europe and the Middle East’s Refugee Crisis