When you travel to a new destination, what do you want to see? Nature at its finest, incredible cityscapes, traditional ways of living, maybe some local art? Travel makes me happy and experiencing the unknown is always where I’d rather be, but what about experiencing the cold hard truth about the history of the country you’re in? To be a well-behaved tourist and an ethical global citizen, I believe it is my responsibility to know the background of where I am, even if it makes for an uncomfortable visit.
The thing is, not everywhere you go will be OK with sharing their history with you. It’s often still raw and could put them in a bad light, so they skirt around the edges. China, of course, is not entirely forthcoming with their recent history, but will very much talk about Anglo-French invasions in the early 1900s, or the ancient dynasties that built some of their most famous monuments.
One of my ‘must-see’ places on my Cape Town to-do list was Robben Island, most well-known for the incarceration of Nelson Mandela for 18 years. It sees scores of tourist take the boat over from the mainland to see his cell and the quarry he did his hard labour in, but in all honesty, it was disappointing. We met a previous prisoner who had clearly been briefed on what he couldn’t say, and we were herded from place to place with very little information given.
There was nothing to read on Robben Island, the only history I found out was what had been rehearsed and repeated to me by guides. Compare this to the heartbreaking Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg which was so perfectly laid out (you are given a black or white ticket and have to go through that designated entrance, inevitably then being split from the person or people you’re visiting with), and which told such brutal truths in shattering honesty that I had to walk away because I was sobbing huge great I-can’t-catch-my-breath tears.
I don’t want to be upset, but why sugar coat something awful? As it proclaims on a wall inside Auschwitz, ‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.’ After visiting the infamous Polish concentration camp in 2006, I was adamant that it should be a compulsory trip for all schools. To see cases of human hair and piles of wedding rings torn from their owners made me feel physically sick and so much more interested in politics and my own country’s history.
Turning history into something beautiful is how Japan chooses to remember the horrific events that hit Hiroshima in 1945. The area the bomb devastated is now a Peace Park with tasteful memorials and artwork throughout where you can learn more about the exact area you’re stood. The Hall of Remembrance provides a place for quiet contemplation and the remains of the A-Bomb Dome are a brutal reminder of the impact such weapons have on a community.
We must remember these events. We must make an effort to learn and understand so that we can be empathetic humans who always choose good over evil. You don’t have to take a huge amount of time out of a trip to do these things, but it will open your eyes to new cultures even more by showing you literally what has shaped and created them.