Movement as Human Right

Travel as a Human Right

Whether most of us realize it or not, we’re part of a privileged global demographic. We possess enough freedom, enough opportunity, and most importantly, enough money, to travel recreationally; we travel because we can, and because we enjoy it. Those of us who read and write and document the experience of travel are most likely educated, relatively affluent, and are almost certainly from a country with few restrictions on movement or political affiliation. For millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world, movement and travel is not a happy concatenation of exploratory pleasures and mild inconveniences. For the vast majority of human beings travel is frequently an act of desperation, a last resort in the face of war, natural disaster, economic hardship, oppression, resource depletion, gentrification, on up to things as horrifying as genocide. It is also not easy for most people, who are typically confronted with a variety of structural and social obstacles rendering attempts at relocation a dangerous and exploitative experience. Think Palestinian refugees, migrant Chinese laborers, American farm workers, or one of the tens of millions of garment workers in India or Bangladesh who have joined the rural to urban migration.

Its likely that few among the mobile class even think much about freedom of movement issues beyond the airport security queue. We get visas (and are therefore legal residents or visitors), we spend money, or we’re expatriate workers. We are walking, talking, money-spending resources and therefore we are mostly spared the hassles of travel and movement. It isn’t always a story of laissez faire journeying;  at times politically open, industrialized nations and regions have leaned on governmental authority and the administrative reach of the state to restrict the ability of individuals to move freely both inter- and intra-nationally. In 1950 the United States government, under the Subversive Activities Control Act, made it illegal for members of the communist party to seek or obtain a passport. The Jim Crow south incorporated a brutal system of vagrancy laws, debt entrapment, and prison labor to proscribe the movement of blacks. An argument could be made that the documentation costs associated with international travel are themselves itself a kind of de facto barrier to exit or entry for people below a certain economic threshold.

Despite these and other examples there is, in fact, a long history of positive affirmation of the right to travel, or the ‘right to movement,’ in the western legal tradition, reaching back at least as far as the Magna Carta, Article 42 of which states:

“It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.”

Now, there are certainly caveats, but, BUT the freedom of movement, to leave ones country, indeed to set out by land or sea (no Cheap-O Air or yet), was granted and affirmed. And the Subversive Activities Control Act? Fourteen years after it was passed, in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, the United States Supreme Court ruled Section 6 of the act, the section limiting travel, unconstitutional, finding that it violated fundamental liberties guaranteed by the fifth amendment. Other documents have since categorized movement as a fundamental right. From Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

And from Article 4 of the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility reads:

“Every African intellectual shall enjoy the freedom of movement within his o her country and freedom to travel outside and re-enter the country without let hindrance or harassment. No administrative or any other action shall directly or indirectly restrict this freedom on account of a person’s intellectual opinions beliefs or activity.”

The European Union, and this is true, declared in April of 2010 that travel and tourism are fundamental human rights. Unwilling to stop at declaring such activities basic rights, the EU then introduced a plan whereby program-eligible recipients would be granted a 30% subsidy for travel costs allowing people to visit places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. A pilot will run until 2013 after which it will become official. Typical Euros.

While the rights to movement and travel both within and without a home country have been written into the canon of various international organizations they certainly aren’t static. Restriction regimes are always changing, and, in a post 9/11 world with the specter of transnational terrorism driving the increasing militarization of borders, its going to get more difficult (at least in the foreseeable future) for everyone, for us, the mobile class, and especially for those who lack even modest resources. This is an important debate especially suited to those of us who travel frequently. The rise of the security state, the seemingly absurd truth that capital can migrate freely (and indeed is pulled as often as pushed) while people are often trapped by emigration or immigration policies, the causes and consequences of human migration, our own responsibilities related to these issues – all of these are things we should can and should talk about, more often than we do.



Build a Bike, See a City

china, chengdu, travel, photography, bicycle

I bought a bike in Chengdu, China in October and it got me thinking about modes of city-seeing. And here’s my pitch:

A perennial topic of discussion among the books, blogs, and conversations of travelers is the best way to see a city, or the best way to experience both familiar and unfamiliar urban environments. Although ‘walk cities,’ seems to be an article of faith, taken as gospel, and despite the fact that per-ambulatory strolls are high on my list of enjoyable activities, I’d like to put forward an argument that the bicycle represents the method par excellence for taking in a city, whether new or familiar.

As the argument goes, walking permits the traveler to really soak in the nuances of a city, to discover by virtue of meandering pace the dives and shops, tiny eateries and curios from which ‘real’ character emerges. Walking paints a detailed portrait while other, faster, forms of transportation render abstract blurs punctuated by random detail. This argument is true to a certain extent: walking does offer the most intimate way to understand small parts of cities, to take in individual neighborhoods, but the methodology breaks down if you want to understand larger swaths of a city, its environs, and how larger structures interact with each other.

Bicycles provide an optimal mix of speed, control, access, and most importantly, independence. Put simply, bicycles provide a great deal of freedom and the ability to traverse long distances while simultaneously observing surroundings. On a bicycle one can understand far better the rhythms of a city, how major avenues interact with discrete neighborhoods, the spatial and temporal relationships between exurban, suburban, and interurban regions. To bike around and outside of a city is to develop an understanding of its almost organismic nature. Armed with a bicycle, the range of potential activities for any given period of time is also increased without serious loss of interaction between yourself and the surrounding city. Proximity is a function of time, not of space.

So, have I settled the debate? Nope, both forms have obvious merits, as buses, camels, rickshaws, elephants, running, and hot-air ballooning most likely do as well, but I do hope I’ve at minimum made a believable case for the bike.

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A Brief Trip to the Edge of Tibet

Some things you can find out about Kangding County, China from the internet. It is home to Kangding, a ‘quaint’ Chinese town of 100,00 people and the capital of communistically named Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The internet will tell you that Kangding was for centuries an important trading town to which underpaid coolie laborers lugged massive loads of brick tea up and up and up from Chengdu, 200 kilometers to the north-northeast, to trade for Tibetan wool. A search for Kangding County will lead to Zhilam Hostel (which is probably the best hostel in Kangding, and highly recommended by this author), and to lists of mountains, elevations, regional ethnic histories, and available activities.

What the internet can’t communicate effectively  is the sheer mindblowing geographical vastness of the place. I can tell you (right here, via the internet) that  transportation is often contingent upon weather and road conditions, but its impossible to know if you’ll end up snagging a ride with any local drivers so brave/foolish/spiritually assured they’re willing to simultaneously pass multiple vehicles uphill around curves in unlit, unpaved tunnels. One of my drivers possessed enough ambition to barrel past a line of trucks in the outside lane on a curve above a 200 meter precipice – in whiteout fog conditions. The internet can tell you that Kangding County is at the extreme eastern edge of what is customarily considered Tibet, at the foot of the Himalayas and the true Tibetan Plateau. But it would hard for me to fully explain what its like to stare out at an ocean of grass and rivers and young peaks that tower over their middle-aged American counterparts and feel pleasantly, justifiably unimportant. It is positively Stegnerian in its unbroken emptiness, if you’ll permit my application of an Amero-centric adjective to an ethnic and geographical area entirely different from the Western United States.

I encourage you to seize upon any opportunity you might have to visit the Tibet regions of Southwest China. I barely touched the edge, escaping just a few bus rides from the megacity provincial capitol of Chengdu and it was spectacular. An 8-12 hour bus ride from Chengdu (depending on traffic delays) gets you to Kangding and from there the opportunities for backcountry, off-the-grid, yak derived foodstuffs, giant mountain adventuring multiply to seemingly infinite dimensions. TaGong, DanBa, Litang – theres a long list of places you can head to from Kangding, all worthwhile, all small, tucked into the phenomenal landscapes beside rivers. Homestays with nomadic herders are popular, as is hiking, and for the truly hardcore there are plenty of peaks available for bagging. Just go and wander around for a few weeks if you get the chance, and remember, from Kangding west it only gets better.