BY LISA MARIE BASILE
About a week ago, I was one of a handful of people on a ferry heading to a 16th-century palace on an island on Lake Maggiore in the Italian Alps. The next day I headed to Switzerland on a panoramic train-ride through the Alps. From there, I headed to The Gore, an opulent, infamous hotel in London right off Kensington Gardens. Life was dizzying, dream-like, and...on budget.
If you would have told me years ago that I would see Spain, Italy, England France, Brazil, Switzerland and Mexico — sans anyone's help — I would have wept and told you that you were a liar. That you were expecting too much from little old me.
For one, poverty raised me and poverty haunts me. It sticks, heavy and hard. It is palpable; it has a heartbeat and a texture, and it lingers like too much nighttime cigarette smoke in the morning. I came from food stamps and mattresses on the floor. I came from foster care, too-poor-for-yearbook-photos and taking "dollar cabs" with strangers to get to school on winter mornings. College wasn't any easier. I may have gotten in, sure, but I paid for it myself — same with graduate school — by going into immense, irrevocable debt. I am not alone in that decision. In any hard decision. And still, there are people like me, people who travel, being judged for their privilege. I can't count the number of times people have said, "Wow, you must be making great money." It's a passive dig. It's a commentary.
The truth is that we, the well traveled, are privileged. It is a privilege and an honor to travel. Having extra money to travel — or to do anything — with is a privilege. Oneika, a travel blogger, wrote, "The truth is, those of us who travel extensively are blessed by life circumstances, not just a can-do attitude or 'positive mindset.' So when some of us proclaim how easy it is to traverse the world (and then go on to admonish those who don’t do the same because they 'aren’t trying hard enough'), we neglect to realize that our wandering is more due to luck than hard work and desire." And she's right. There are plenty of circumstances that get in the way.
Still, the recipients of the privilege witch hunt are not always deserving. There's existential privilege (I am so lucky to have this opportunity) and there's plain-as-day Privilege (Everyone goes to Paris for the summer, right?) There's probably a lot of in-between there, too. But a line needs to be drawn between the person who saves up all their money to travel and the adult woman who flies to Europe on her parents' dime time and again.
There is a hugely disregarded grey area. An in-between that happens to be where most people I know exist. Most people I know work hard to travel. They save and they travel when they have enough. They use budget airlines. They have to take a hit. Sometimes it's not easy to bounce back from.
It's no secret that I've had a "mindset" issue. A poverty mindset. Because poverty can be institutional as well as internal. Humans are burdened with self-doubt, crippling fear and self-sabotage — whether that results in never finishing college or over-compensating with clothes you can't afford or not asking for a raise. And those are all real issues — especially with regards to women and marginalized communities. And whether you started off poor or you're just slow to catch up as an adult, thoughts like I don't deserve this or I need to keep saving for the apocalypse are real. And they can be limiting.
A friend of mine who never travels recently said, "I've just got to take the plunge and spend the money instead of assuming I will have enough one day." Because most people won't really have enough.
In no way is a meditating over one's mindset magically going to score you a passport or a ticket to Laos, but for ordinary people, knowing that you deserve it and reframing the grandiosity of it goes a long way.
As travel blogger Nomadic Matt says, "Years on the road have shown me that for many of us, our inability to travel is part a mindset issue (since we believe travel is expensive, we don’t look for ways to make it cheaper) and part a spending issue (we spend money on things we don’t need)."
The idea of travel is also completely warped. It's not unlike most expenses — but for some reason, it's seen as extra cosmetic or frivolous. If you're comparing modern medicine to travel, sure; travel isn't nearly as important. But many other people consider travel a personal priority, just like others consider fitness upkeep or education — free or paid-for — a priority. There is, at times, misdirected blame when it comes to thinking about privilege. What we need to remember is that people aren't This or That. There is an individual story. We don't know what got them on that plane.
In my mid-20s, I worked full-time through grad school while dealing with a chronic illness. I was downright poor, selling books for near-minimum wage at McNally Jackson by day while I studied at night. I also wrote really weird eHow.com articles for rent (hello "how to decorate a garden with wrought iron"). I didn't believe I could get a 'real job.' I didn't have a fall-back plan, nor did I have family to come to my rescue. I had no one but me. I was an actual trope.
I worked very hard and climbed the ladder. I did this when I couldn't make ends meet, when I kept failing to pay my rent. I didn't want the struggle. But this isn't a pity party. This is just fact.
But not everyone has the opportunity to find a job — any job, really — and I recognize that. Mental illness, racism, chronic illness, disability and having kids can and do build a bridge between people and their potential. It's systemic, it's oppressive and it's a sickness that needs a solution. That is not lost on me.
And a lot of people don't get to just work hard and have what they want. Some people work hard and can barely afford lunch. I know this because this is my family, and this is how I grew up. But I was fortunate enough to see my hard work pay off in some ways. I had to choose the ways. I couldn't have — and can't have — all the ways. Travel is one of my ways.
I have struggled with privilege guilt. I have walked into my apartment and felt that dark, disassociative wave. This is not mine. It may be that I feel I don't deserve my successes. It may also be that it looks like abundance but actually isn't. It's a building in fancy dress, a building I don't really think I keep my things inside. It's a life that came with great sacrifice.
And when you ask me how I afford to travel, I won't usually tell you that I don't have great savings, that I don't have a "plan," that I am my only keeper. I won't tell you that I don't prioritize saving for a home or buying the best health insurance. I do not prioritize clothing or concerts. I do not prioritize literary conferences or applying to prizes or residencies.
When you see a photo of me lounging in a bed of flowers in Spain or drinking honey cachaca in Brazil, know that there are sacrifices. And when you see others on their travels, know that they have a backstory, too.
But I won't be made to feel bad or apologize. These are my wins and I am proud of myself for rising above and working hard and overcoming self-doubt.
I am proud I put the beauty I envision first — not only because it feeds my creative work but because it is what my mother has always wanted for me. To be a part of the world she could never have been a part of. When I show pictures to her, when I promise to take her (and I will), that means something to me. She is my mother. I am her child. She wants all the beauty in the world for me.
It's a disservice to the many stories of sacrifice, hard-work, self-care and history to quickly assume everyone's travel experience is one of ignorant privilege or extreme abundance.
To anyone who worked hard to see the sky or the stars abroad — and to anyone who is still working to make that happen, know that you deserve it.
And for anyone who takes for granted their abundance and lucky circumstance, give back. You can't change your plentitude, but you can control how you behave because of it.
Lisa Marie Basile is a NYC-based poet, editor, and writer. She’s the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine, and her work has appeared in The Establishment, Bust, Bustle, Hello Giggles, The Gloss, Marie Claire, xoJane, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and The Huffington Post, among other sites. She is the author of Apocryphal (Noctuary Press, Uni of Buffalo) and a few chapbooks. Her work as a poet and editor have been featured in Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New York Daily News, Best American Poetry, and The Rumpus, and PANK, among others. Follow her on Twitter@lisamariebasile.