An Anthropologist's Alternative to 'Alternative' Spring Break: Stay Home

Courtesy of Robert Gordon

Robert Gordon, a U. of Vermont anthropologist, opposes the "feel-good bonding" variety of travel. Students who insist on going abroad, he says, should pack humility and condoms, but not for the reasons you might think.
February 27, 2011

Robert Gordon has some advice for people who plan to volunteer in an exotic locale over spring break: Don't.

Instead, says the University of Vermont anthropology professor, "you can 'go abroad' in your hometown by just walking around and engaging local people and by having a sense of enchantment."

Sage advice, and ironic, too, coming from a man who has traveled off the beaten path for nearly half a century, circling the globe three times, and witnessing tribal and conventional wars in New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa. (Through all that, he has had three laptops "redistributed," but he is proud to say that he has never been mugged or contracted malaria.)

Hypocritical? Not at all. Mr. Gordon believes that travel can be enormously beneficial when it is undertaken with an open mind and plenty of planning. To encourage such deliberate travel, last year he wrote Going Abroad: Traveling Like an Anthropologist (Paradigm Publishers, 2010), a curmudgeonly, entertaining guide with such tips as the best use for a condom (not for sex) and the most effective way to thwart an attacker (box both ears).

Mr. Gordon recently doffed his pith helmet long enough to respond to our questions.

Q. Why would anyone want to travel like an anthropologist? You're in some of the most beautiful, least expensive places in the world, and you spend the whole time working, asking nosy questions, drinking yak's milk, and eating bugs.

A. For the experience. It does something to you. There is personal enrichment. ... There's also a real interesting new book [by the social scientist Jack Goody, Renaissances: The One or the Many? (Cambridge University Press, 2010)] that makes the point that all renaissances have occurred where you've had a dynamic interaction between different cultures and people have been creative about it. ... If you look at all the renaissance cities, what do they have in common? Massive cultural diversity. Travel gives you the seeds for being tremendously creative.

Q. But international travel is terribly dangerous. Doesn't it make more sense to stay home and experience the world on a big-screen TV?

A. Absolutely not. The problem right now is that it's very difficult to go abroad. By that I mean that with modern technology—with cellphones, GPS systems—you're not really going abroad. You're just expanding your safety or your comfort zone into new territory. You can't really have an adventure. ... The best way to go abroad is to buy a good pair of shoes and go walking in your neighborhood. You can see a lot of things if you walk instead of driving by car.

Q. Might you get run over?

A. That's one of the risks you have to take. Of course risk-taking nowadays is minimal because you've got insurance to cover you. There's no calculated risk. If you go abroad and something bad happens, you know you'll be airfreighted out. You won't have to solve the problem. ... Going abroad is essentially that element of risk-taking.

Q. What risks have you taken?

A. You don't want to know. ... One of the important things when going abroad is precisely to display your vulnerability. You've got to be able to show that you're not a threat. The other thing that is very important whenever you are in a potentially dangerous situation is to humanize the whole situation. One of the best tools for going abroad is the ability to have a good conversation with strangers. ... [The British novelist] G.K. Chesterton wrote that it's easier to talk to a stranger than to your next-door neighbor. If you really want to do good things, you should do it in your own community. But that's much more difficult. So going abroad for spring break is essentially a way to take the easy route out.

Q. Have any of your students gone on service-learning trips, and if so, how did that work out?

A. Spring break, students go off and do good things. But if you look at all the costs involved of going down to Haiti or wherever, where you've got lots of unemployment, you could probably hire local people there [instead of bringing in volunteers]. Spring break is a feel-good bonding experience. In solid economic terms, it doesn't make good sense. ... I've seen students really benefit from it, but at the same time I've seen students who go off and get drunk and have a good time. And then they put it on their résumé. If you want to go abroad, go to a place that is challenging intellectually and emotionally. ... My big thing is, I want to see your journal. I want a reflective journal, and I want you to keep it up.

Q. What do your students write about?

A. People are always talking about the strange food they've eaten and the problems with defecation. ... I can tell you stories of having to go, and they point you to the cattle corral, and all the kids are watching you, and you're sitting there with your stomach churning. You've got to learn humility and just accept it. Shame is only on the skin. I have provided so much laughter in my travels. You've got to just accept that you're going to be the buffoon.

Q. What else do you tell your students?

A. I tell them that they should learn the local languages because that humanizes you, and not only that, you provide tremendous entertainment by screwing up on the words. Just by trying to learn a language, it shows that you respect these other people.

Q. What advice do you have about sex with the locals? It's required, right?

A. I was teaching this class, and we discussed sex in the field. ... I took a straw poll at the end, and there were 32 kids in the class. Thirty-one said it was OK to sleep with the natives. It was only later that I realized that the comeback should have been, "Then is it OK for professors to sleep with students?" And the answer would be "Absolutely not, because it's an abuse of power." What these students didn't realize was that the reason they were sexy wasn't because they were physically attractive. It was because they were in a position of power. You know Kissinger's line about power being the best aphrodisiac? It's true. These students were unaware of the position of power which they were perceived to have by other people.

Q. What practical tips do you have for travelers?

A. Take plenty of dental floss. You can use it for so many things because it's so strong. The other thing that I take is condoms. The thing about condoms is to use them for their nonstated purpose. I've put my camera in one, I've put my cellphone in one, I've used it as an emergency water container. ... It's just an all-purpose item.

Q. What should a traveler do if she can't find a place to plug in her hair dryer?

A. Wear a scarf.