December 2, 2020

DOV EPSTEIN | Travel Vicariously

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Although COVID-19 has affected our lives in a lot of ways, one of the most restrictive effects has been the access to movement. Cornellians won’t travel as much as they did last break, and they won’t be signing up for study-abroad as readily. But despite the restrictions, there is still a way to learn from and about different countries for those who are interested.

While nothing can substitute for the real thing, traveling vicariously is an easy way to learn more about cultures and the histories of other countries in an entertaining way. Because traveling has, historically, been inaccessible to those who can’t afford to travel extensively, are limited due to language barriers or suffer from physical disabilities, interacting with online or print sources in an effort to capture the value of real travel has led to incredible innovation and creativity in terms of documenting visits to places around the world, which has only grown during the pandemic. 

There are a number of people who make it their lives’ work to travel and educate, through writing or videography, providing some real gems in terms of supplying intimate ways to learn about countries around the world that are worth seeing for those who have the time. This is especially true on Youtube, which has made traveling vicariously increasingly possible by allowing videographers to monetize their travels by the traffic they receive on their videos.

One of the most educational travel Youtube channels is bald and bankrupt, in which a Russian-speaking Brit with a camera (who refers to himself simply as “bald”) travels around Eastern Europe, mainly Russia and former Soviet-Union States, giving the history of regions and cultures that aren’t shown often in Western media nor receive many visitors. His videos feature trips to regions such as the Republic of Dagestan, the birthplace of UFC Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov situated in the Caucasus Mountains, the Republic of Kalmykia, home to the exceedingly culturally-unique Kalmyk tribe with a language unlike any other (to which George Lucas based the Ewok language in Star Wars), and Moldova, one of Europe’s least visited countries. He provides historical background to all the places he visits while hanging out with locals, often asking them about their culture, their opinions on their country’s history, or simply about their daily way of life.

Another Youtuber that is worth watching is Drew Binsky, an American from Arizona attempting to chronicle traveling to every country in the world, often making it his mission to clear up common Western misconceptions about certain countries, their cultures and the attitudes of the people living in those countries towards the West. Whether it be Pakistan, Cyprus, Georgia, Yemen or the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, Binksy makes an effort to show the character, culture and history of the places he visits through his own thorough, unbiased research and from interacting with locals (usually through local translators) in a refreshingly apolitical way. His latest series of videos are focused on his most recent journey of travelling across six provinces in Afghanistan, visiting historical sites such as the ancient city of Herat and stopping people on the street to talk to them about their country.

A third channel that’s both interesting and entertaining is blondie in china, which is run by a young Australian woman who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and travels by herself across China. She tries to visit locations unfamiliar to Westerners such as Harbin, a city that was heavily developed by Russian immigrants to China in the 18th century which can be reflected in the local architecture and culture. In general, her videos make certain regions of China that would otherwise be inaccessible to non-Mandarin speakers graspable through her detailing of certain aspects of local history, food, and culture in English.

These are just a few examples of the vast amount of ways to travel vicariously online, and for nearly every place on Earth there’s a way to engage with and learn from it at all times. Even during the pandemic, traveling vicariously can provide immense value, and may even inspire future trips in a post-pandemic world. So, while nothing beats seeing a place with your own eyes, if COVID-19 has affected your travel plans or if you just want to hear some interesting stories and learn about the world, consider traveling vicariously if you have the time.

Joshua Dov Epstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, and can be reached at jde74@cornell.edu. His column, Heterodox, appears every other Tuesday this semester.