The cover of my passport is of a dark red colour, almost like mahogany wood – the expensive kind – and in shiny golden letters its front states ‘European Union’ and ‘Republic of Austria’. There is even a little golden eagle, the heraldic animal of Austria, wearing a crown and holding a golden hammer in one claw and a sickle in the other. This passport is filled with visa and stamps from all over the world, and luggage stickers that careless airport employees have put on its back, knowing that I would never be able to get them off without remainders. My passport is my little book of travels. It is like a 101 of my trips outside Europe, although somehow a stamp from Copenhagen snuck its way onto page 13 in 2014. It is so present in my everyday life, it has it’s own designated spot on my book shelf, and never ever goes completely out of sight. I know its number and expiration date by heart, and have a one-second-technique to get it out of its case before I use the e-gates arriving at my home airport.

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According to the Passport Index, the Austrian passport holds ‘power rank’ 7, enabling visa-free travel to 140 countries around the globe. Generally speaking, a passport from the European Union is your ‘carefree ticket’ to the world, but if you are from countries like Palestine, Iraq or Nepal, you are not so fortunate. I lead, what people call, a life of white privilege, and many of the things I do in life, I can only do because I was born in a peaceful country that would later join the EU, because my parents are who they are (well-situated middle class), and because I had tangible role models to influence me in my decisions. I know that and when I travel, I try to make myself aware of my fortunate position with every step I take. When I meet strangers in a different country, I do my best not to linger on our differences, but rather on understanding their experiences, culture and upbringing. Just sometimes, this is not so easy, and the concept of ‘us and them’ comes sneaking back into my focus.

It all started in Israel…

On my recent trip to Israel, I was completely blown away with feelings I never expected to feel, and which I don’t think I should or want to be feeling at all – a complete inability to comprehend certain elements of the Israeli identity, and, most terrible of them all, a heavy national guilt weighing down my heart and soul. I never believed in the concept of a historical national consciousness – why would I feel pride or guilt in anything that ‘my country’ or ‘my forefathers’ have done in the past? Their deeds have nothing to do with me, other than teaching me lessons about how to behave and how not to, on a general level. And yet, arriving in Israel I was directly confronted with a conflict which has basically emerged from the unfathomable monstrosities my (and too many other European) people have committed in the decades leading up to second world war and, of course, in the war. Anti-semitism was widely socially acceptable long before the National Socialsts seized power, and of course this forced many Jews to flee their homes and caused a longing for a country of their own, where they are not isolated and prosecuted because of their religion. When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, they had decades, if not centuries of oppression and worse branded onto their cultural identity. The fact, that the land they now called their home, was actually already inhabited by others made the situation only more severe.

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I don’t want to go into to great detail here, also because I am not an expert on this very complex conflict, but what I want to say is that being in Israel brought forth a national guilt in me, that I still don’t know how to handle. I thought I would understand it better with some distance, which is why I held out with this blogpost for some time, but, quite frankly, I’m still puzzled by it. In a way, I felt personally guilty for the gruesome circumstances the Israel/Palestine conflict entails – it was ‘my people’ who brought this entire situation upon this large group of people, but who is there to help find solutions? And how can you solve a problem the roots of which go so deep and spread so wide.

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I don’t believe in nationalism

A sceptic of nationalism at heart and born into a neutral country without a standing army, I was never able to fully comprehend the concept of ‘defending your homeland and identifying with your nation’. It is the epitome of ‘us and them’ and promotes a national identity of superiority rather than progress towards togetherness and equality. Somehow, we have to protect ‘our culture’ from ‘your culture’ because ‘ours is better than yours’ – culture, however, is not static, but a constant flux of influences and developments. Take Austria for example – our ‘Austrian culture’ is actually a blend of cultures across south-eastern Europe and the Middle East. Vienna is famous for coffee, which the Turks brought there hundreds of years ago; the infamous ‘Palatschinke’ (a thin pancake served with jam) is actually a Hungarian dish (like most eastern Austrian traditional food); and our language is studded with loan words from Italian, French, Slovenian and other neighbouring languages. In my eyes, there is no such thing as ‘Austrian culture’ that needs saving, because our culture has always adapted and incorporated international influences. There is nothing that needs protection.

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Military intervention and protection, of course, is yet another topic, and I realised how present this topic becomes in your mind when you are born in a country, that is actually under military threat at all times. Israel is such a place and whether they admit it or not, call it by its name or not, they are constantly at war.The same people who I hung out with in cool hipster bars, have served in the military for several years, have been to areas of political crisis and have lost friends in war. And yet, they are convinced of the necessity of their service and advocate their country’s military because, other than me, they have grown up with that constant threat from outside; the constant necessity to defend their space and their lives. I doubt that I will ever be able to look at a soldier and not think it’s wrong, but in Israel I learnt how your perception changes in different circumstances, and how impossible it sometimes is to fully understand another culture.

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Ethical issues of traveling

As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m fully aware of how fortunate I am with my nationality and openminded upbringing. This became even clearer to me, when I recently traveled to Zambia and Tanzania with my dad and India with my best friend* – all former British colonies for which I needed to pay for a visa (even with my Austrian passport). These trips were my first journeys to Africa and Asia (hopefully not the last), and made me realise once again, that we don’t live in a world of equality. I knew that before these trips of course, but this time I had direct contact with children, men and women, who actually live a life completely removed from my own daily routine. I feel silly to even say this, but I had never before met a person who lives without electricity and it was not their own choosing. It was not like this came unexpected, but I was still surprised by how it actually made me feel to talk to people whose lives are so different than mine.

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A few weeks ago, a follower sent me her own thoughts about ethical dilemmas of traveling and I think she raises some valid points. She talks about giving money to (child) beggars, paying for portrait photographs, staying at foreign-owned accommodation, traveling to ‘controversial’ countries, doing slum tours and animal treatment.

‘If you help me, you help the Gods’ – that’s what an Indian boy on the streets of Pushkar said to me, asking for money to buy food. How can I look a boy into his eyes and not give him money, you might ask? But how can I give him some and thereby encourage him to keep doing this as a grownup, is an equally valid question.

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My key to negotiating these issues, is talking to locals, asking them about their opinion about these issues and giving them a voice in these matters. Even if this only means to hear them out and share some of their opinions here on this blog. This way I found out, that many Tanzanians are actually quite happy about foreign investors in the tourism industry, because they themselves wouldn’t have known how to tailor their services to the European market, or they wouldn’t have been able to raise the funds themselves. Tourism also created job opportunities and is often related to social projects and education. I learnt that Zambians are happy to have English as an official language, because there are over 70 local languages and English is their common ground for communication. And in India I learnt that I am as exotic to ‘them’ as ‘they’ are to me – letting people on the streets take a photo of you, works wonders for your own portrait photography. A photo brings even more joy, if you know a little bit about the person you took a photo of.

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I think finding a satisfying conclusion for the ethical issues of traveling which applies to everyone is basically impossible. Everybody tackles ethical decisions differently, we have our own individual perspectives and strategies to handle them. The important thing to keep in mind is to be aware of the issues at hand, not to brush them aside as too heavy-handed, but talk about them and ask questions. At the same time, don’t let their seriousness drag you down during your travels all the time, but immerse yourself in a new culture and have fun with it. When I asked Yael from Alternative Tel Aviv how she deals with the constant risk of war, she said: ‘For me it means that sometimes we need to close our eyes to the horrors so that we can laugh, dance and enjoy the great beauty of life, but it also means that just because we carry on, it doesn’t mean that we forget’.

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One final thing: I believe cultural exchange is essential to the positive development of our society and even if you might not be able to travel everywhere yourself, you can still meet people from all over the world to exchange ideas and stories – that’s why I want to start hosting couch surfers as soon as I move to a big enough flat. Then I can meet people from some of the places, where I can’t go myself.

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*I feel obliged to state, that the reason why I can afford to travel to all these places, is that I work very hard for it, and hardly ever travel for leisure only, but always connect these trips with work.

All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.  All graffitis can be found in Tel Aviv.