Travelling to Poorer Countries is not “Going Back in Time”

The West doesn’t have the exclusivity of the 21st century.

Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash

The Delhi Metro is a “time machine,” I read in my guidebook, which zips between Old Delhi, where residents supposedly are stuck in the 1800s, and the “modern” parts of the city, ie. where big corporations and tech companies have their offices, shining skyscrapers climbing away from the city below. Its exact words are:

Delhi is a city where time travel is feasible. Step aboard your time machine (the sleek and efficient metro) and you can go from Old Delhi, where labourers haul sacks of spices and jewellers weigh gold on dusty scales, to modern New Delhi, with its colonial-era parliament buildings and penchant for high tea. Then on to the future: Gurgaon, a satellite city of skyscraping offices and glitzy malls.

In the lingo of guidebooks and travellers, “modern” means westernised and “stepping into the past” is synonymous with poor, or with traditions otherwise called “exotic.” You “step into the past” when you visit Cuba, with its quaint communist values that everyone should get healthcare and education. You “step into the past” when you visit Buddhist temples in Myanmar or see Hindus performing their funeral rites on the banks of the Ganges. But were you to stumble across mass in a cathedral, that would be very much in the present, even if the priest were to be condemning abortion and same-sex marriage.

The 21st century does not belong to the West nor to the rich — other cultures exist, and other ways of life. The “travelling back in time” rhetoric is wrong on so many levels — whether it is implying that any culture other than that of the West is pretty much anachronistic, or that the poverty of others is a site to be enjoyed by nostalgic westerners.

It is a special kind of exoticization, to suggest that entire countries and nations are stuck in the wrong time period. As though they shouldn’t exist at all anymore, and simply serve as a historical theme park to feed the imagination of White travellers. The course of history is not for all countries to become westernised. This sort of thinking is what creates feelings of exclusion leading to the radicalisation of young people, who feel like the world has no space for them.

Nor are poor countries a time capsule. This image feeds the narrative that this kind of poverty is going to disappear of its own accord — again, as though that was the course of history. The reason we don’t have vast slum populations in Europe anymore is not that capitalism naturally pulls people out of poverty — it is because we have delocalised our low wages to countries like India and Bangladesh. We never erased that poverty, we shifted it. That change is geographic, not historical.

Too often, suggesting we are “going back in time” is a way of comforting ourselves that poverty will change, rather than facing the fact that this, too, is the face of modernity.

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