Diversity in the Outdoors | Interview with Ari Watkins
Ari Watkins is a twenty-something girl from Portland, Oregon who currently resides in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Her travel blog is compiled of all the things that she finds beautiful about the world and wants to share with people. You’ll find all sorts of posts about living abroad, travel, life tips, style tips, and twenty something mishaps.
We interviewed her about inclusivity in traveling, what she loves about seeing new places, and how we can better represent diversity in this industry.
What about traveling do you love?
Oh man, there's so many things! I love the sense of adventure and exploring a new place. I love the perspective it gives me. It keeps me humble. I think it's easy to get really familiar with a certain way of life but travel changes all that because it doesn't follow the same rules that you grew up with.
I also love being uncomfortable. I think that we grow the most when we are pushed outside of our comfort zone. I might not love the experience as it happens, but I learn to grow into it.
Do you think there is inclusivity in the outdoors?
In the industry, no. In the actual outdoors, yes.
One of the biggest problems in the outdoor industry in America is the focus on white people going out to do the things. You'll find people of color few and far in between. Although this is getting better, it's almost worse in Asia. People over here, especially in Thailand, have white people on a pedestal. They want white skin so badly that they'll avoid going out into the sun. They'll put on bleaching creams to lighten their pigmentation all just to be white. Even the ads here primarily focus on white people going out and doing the things. There is this notion that if you're white, you can do whatever you want. And if I'm being honest, at least around here, that's totally the case.
Do you think there needs to be more diversity in the traveling/outdoor industry?
YES! Absolutely. People EVERYWHERE are going out and doing outdoor things. The outdoors isn't inclusive to only the white man. It includes humans of all races, sizes and shapes.
Have you hit any obstacles being Asian in your travels?
In all my years here, I've found that being an Asian American in Thailand has given me some strange advantages.
People in Asia tend to think I'm one of them, so I don't get the stares as much as some of my white friends do. However, that also means that I won't get the same nice treatment that some of them are getting either.
When I first moved to Thailand, I was riding a bus down south. I didn't have my passport because there was a snafu at my school. I thought since I was traveling within the country I would be fine. I brought ZERO ID with me because I was going to be staying with a friend and taking the bus overnight. (I was making a very big mistake here and I clearly was NOT thinking.) Anyways, little did I know that we were traveling VERY close to the Myanmar boarder and that they would be doing bus checks to make sure no one was trying to smuggle themselves to Thailand from Myanmar.
Around three in the morning, the bus stops and some guards get on. They wake up every single person on the bus except a german couple (who were clearly very white and not Burmese). This includes me. They start yelling in Thai asking everyone to get out their documents and I'm just sitting there like "Crap, I don't have those" but clearly if they knew I was American then it wouldn't be a big deal. So I tried to tell the officer that I was from America so he could move on. But he either didn't understand or didn't believe me (probably both) and kept yelling at me more. At this point every single person on the bus was refusing to look my way and I could feel everyone shrink down around me. I was about to be kicked off the bus when I found a picture of the visa I needed to get into the country. It didn't have my name or my picture, but it was a visa saying I could stay here. 30 minutes later, after my visa had been passed around to every officer checking the bus, we were allowed to leave. This was the first clue I got that things were going to be very different here.
Locals in these parts tend to be quite racist. I don't mean that in a bad way. They just haven't been exposed to the diversity of the world. A lot of the locals I've met have assumed I'm Thai or that I moved to America later in life. Some of them don't even believe I was raised in America until a WHITE person will confirm that yes, people of other skin tones besides 'white' live in the States.
"The outdoors isn't inclusive to only the white man. It includes humans of all races, sizes and shapes."
What have you discovered about your heritage while traveling?
This is a little tricky. I was adopted from China as a baby and I never really took the time to learn about where I came from. I've always felt pretty strongly that my being adopted was the best thing that ever happened to me. I feel pretty American through and through, but I've started to notice some subtle behaviors towards me and my race.
What could the traveling community be better about when it comes to diversity?
Talking about it's pitfalls and where we fall short. There are so many people out there who don't even realize that this is an issue. So if we bring it to their attention then we can get more people involved in the conversation.
Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled and why?
This is so hard to even think about answering! My immediate answer is El Nido in the Philippians. However, I've lived in Thailand long enough that I've just gotten spoiled with the surrounding beauty. But I've lived here since late 2014 and I still have no plans on leaving within the next two years. That's got to mean something right?
El Nido was just a gorgeous place that I don't think I'll ever forget. It had amazing people, food, and the scenery was the best. It's probably the best island coast I've ever been to. But it's tricky because the beach itself isn't too impressive. It's the islands and cliff faces you see on these tours.
Greece was also a favorite of mine. The food was incredible and the people were so beautiful and warm. I only ever spent a week there and I would love to go back.
What’s the hardest part about traveling?
For me it's my motion sickness. Ever since moving to Thailand, my stomach has gotten so weak. Whenever I sit in a car, I know I'm in for a wild ride. It's the worst and can turn any awesome excursion into a straight up nightmare.
The other thing that's hard is sticking to my budget. I usually try to save on flights and hotels so I can spend money on excursions and trying new food, but I have a weakness for souvenirs and pretty clothes.
What do you wish people knew about traveling?
Traveling isn't all sunshine and rainbows. It's not just what you see on Instagram. Instagram is catered to show you the highlights. It's also not going to be perfect the first time around. You're probably going to make a lot of mistake and you're probably going to get ripped off. But that's okay. In order to learn you have to make some mistakes.
BE PRESENT. Y'all. I understand it's important to take a picture, but don't forget why you're there. Enjoy the moment. Maybe snap a quick picture or two, but then be done. I'm not saying that this is how you should approach everything, but just make sure you spend some time away from Instagram and your camera every now and then.
Some of my favorite memories are those that weren't documented. I was having so much fun with the people around me that I just forgot to pick up to snap a pic.
Is there any advice you want to give to people that want to travel but are afraid?
Just do it!
But only if you can afford it. Don't waste your money on travel if you're truly in a bind that you don't know how to get out of. I see so many people spend their very last dollar on travel and then they don't have enough to live off of. Do NOT go into debt just to travel. It's not worth it. Save, and then go.
And if you're afraid, then find a buddy to help lighten the load. Travel isn't necessarily for everyone, so know what your hard limits are, but be willing to extend your comfort zone every now and then.