Tourists and Travelers; Voyeurs and Witnesses

I spent the first two weeks of my fellowship in Athens, Greece getting a feel for the country and the palliative care landscape. I interviewed at a funerary, was kindly given a tour of a palliative care unit, attended a healing circle, and have made a few friends who have gracious enough to show me the city through their eyes.  

During my interview for the Watson fellowship I was asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. The interviewer leaned back in her chair, then coyly posited, “Don’t you think your project is just a little voyeuristic?”

I remember feeling my face grow red as I thought, ‘Voyeuristic? Well, I am proposing a project that seeks to explore one of life’s most intimate moments… Is that voyeuristic? Oh god…’

She must have seen the panic wash over me, quickly offering that perhaps all of anthropology is just a little voyeuristic. I laughed, agreeing that anthropology may be a little voyeuristic, but clarified that I thought the attitude with which the work is an important indicator of its intrusiveness.

In the months following the interview, I thought often of that question, pondering the ways that I could ensure my actions were not voyeuristic. I posed this question to many people—academics, clinicians, peers—eventually concluding that it is both attitude and intention that decide whether someone is bearing witness or being voyeuristic. The former characterized by authentic, present participation, while the latter by selfish motives and/or being removed from the moment as it occurs. 

This question has been on my mind again as I’ve started to develop a feel for Athens. It’s a place that shouts at you. The graffiti found at every corner is an omnipotent reminder of the city’s pride, pain, and temperamentality. The blazing sun and nearly constant blue skies make no room for subtlety. Though I don’t always understand the graffiti, nor the chatter going on around me, I can often sense the passion with which it is delivered. 

The view from a street in the Plaka neighborhood

If you can’t understand a shout, does that make it a whisper?  An invitation to lean closer and open yourself to what may not be easily comprehended? 

I think it does, so I’ve been trying my best to listen carefully.

There are some messages that need not be deciphered—they shout with the intention of being understood. One such message confronted me from the moment that I went to check into my Airbnb: 

Later that evening I asked some local friends about the message, hoping to better understand the impact that Airbnb has had on their city. They explained to me that in the past few years units in neighborhoods close to the city center have been turned into ‘Airbnb Apartments,’ spaces where no Athenians live, but are instead only rented out to tourists. This, coupled with an increase in tourism to the city, has led to a rapid increase in the price of rentals. An increase so great that citizens are leaving the neighborhood where they may have longed resided or are being forced find new ways of making ends meet. 

After hearing this explanation, I was overtaken by guilt. Just two weeks into the year, I have realized that much of my project will be made possible by the willingness of strangers and places to open themselves to me. Athens and its people have been exceptionally willing, so it feels important to return the favor; important to leave a positive (or at the very least net neutral) mark on the city. Important to not be a voyeur. 

I confessed that I had unknowingly booked an ‘Airbnb apartment’ for my time in Athens. They reassured that it was okay since I was acting as a ‘traveler, not a tourist.’ Though their consolations were appreciated, I ended up switched my accommodation to clear my conscience of the negative contribution.

The distinction made between a traveler and a tourist reminded me of that between a voyeur and a witness. The traveler distinction had been bestowed upon me because, as it was explained, I was making an effort to venture outside of the area immediately surrounding the Acropolis, to engage with the city rather than merely visit the tourist attractions and was attempting to be self-aware in my actions. Crucially, I was making an effort to be here rather than just see all that is here. 

The traveler/tourist distinction also brings to mind something I often heard from the family members of the hospice patients I worked with. They spoke of how they were comforted by the ‘home-like feel’ of the place. Though the hospice certainly had many ‘home-like features,’ at its core it was still a place where care was to be provided to individuals—a purpose more typically attributed to a hospital than a home in contemporary US culture. The palpable difference in energy, in my opinion, was a result of the meticulous attention that was given to ensuring that each individual felt welcomed and care for (beyond just medically) during their stay. Individuals were travelers at the hospice house, not merely tourists in the medical world.  

When I asked a doctor last week what would be considered a ‘good death’ in Greece, she surprised me by answering that every death used to be a good death. She explained that individuals used to die at their homes, surrounding by those important in their life. If they needed to be cared for, it would have also been at their home and again would have involved the people most important to them. No tourism whatsoever. 

This has changed in the last ten years, however, with the decline in village/neighborhood life and flight of young people from the country in search of suitable work. More people are now dying in hospitals or away from their loved ones. Just as I am toeing the line between being a traveler and a tourist or a voyeur and a witness, a similar navigation is being performed by the medical community in defining the emerging field of palliative care.  

When given the choice (in literal or metaphorical journeys), I believe that most people would prefer to be a traveler rather than a tourist. So, I wonder, why is it the case that there so many tourists and so few travelers? 

I think perhaps it is because feeling a place requires an opening, and eventual breaking, of portion of your heart. To be a traveler in a place, to get to know it intimately and allow it to know you, demands that you make yourself susceptible to being changed by it. In my attempts to not be voyeuristic, I’ve been changed by experiences I’ve had shadowing clinicians in the States just as I have in the two short weeks I’ve spent in Greece. Bearing witness, whether it be to an individual suffering in an intensive care unit or to the hum of daily life in the Athens, is often when I feel the strength of our shared humanity most strongly and pain of life’s indiscriminate misfortunes most acutely. 

To borrow (and slightly alter) a quote by Maya Angelou, the price of being a traveler is high, but the reward is great. I’m paying the price in teary, indefinite street corner goodbyes and bouts of existential distress over realizations regarding just how much privilege the eagle on the front of my passport holds. Yet, the reward of being able to fully experience the beauty of this place and its people is immense. 

In the ephemeral spirit of the Watson fellowship, my travel plans have changed slightly. I’ve spent a few days enjoying the natural beauty of Meteora and was supposed to make my way towards the islands for some research. However, an opportunity opened on the mainland to further bolster my understanding of how the country’s palliative care field. Island life can wait a bit longer.  

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