Travels with Thomas


By Yuval Ben-David

Funny thing— I park myself in my seat on a flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv, and the guy next to me is also wearing a tacky Thailand t-shirt, except his has a temple on it and mine just says “Tiger Beer.” Turns out we’re both coming from Bangkok, and in the awkward, hesitant tray-tables-down phase before the drink cart arrives, I find out that his name, like mine, is Yuval, a double coincidence so unfathomable I consider it my carte blanche to a) ask him for a ride from the airport and b) wax lyrical on the superior urban planning of Vietnamese cities in comparison to Bangkok (where I spent a few days after the Vietnam trip). Yuval, a professor, asks me to define my terms. Elliptically, I stutter about how Hanoi is built around lakes; how it’s leafy; how Saigon traffic seems to actually move. And Bangkok, well? No trees, plus there’s this philosophical hernia: the city’s so caught up ingetting somewhere— with its underground MRT and overground BTS and tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis and water taxis—that nowhere’s really a destination because everywhere is so choked up with transportation systems. I imagine evening strolls aren’t really a thing there.

And the other Yuval (who ended up giving me that ride, bless him) meanwhile looks at me like I’m stupid. Because armchair urban studies isn’t really a thing. And there are better ways to spend an hour-long flight on Turkish Airlines, which serves alcohol on hour-long flights.

I’m still partial to my analysis, but I think Yuval was on to me. Here’s one statistical fault in my little apercu.  In Vietnam, I got my perspective on “urban planning,” about which I both formally and informally know nothing, from inside a hotel in the central business district. Of course I thought the city was well planned!


Thomas Friedman (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Which reminds me: Last year, during a particularly ripe academic season, I took a class where we sniffed for neoliberal conspiracies and read about how Thomas Friedman, globalizer extraordinaire, writes about the developing world from his perch at the local Hilton. There, they say, he can tell himself all the stories he wants to hear.

So, okay, maybe Anthro 245 would have pegged me as a little Friedman puppy. (Now there’s a thought…)

But I think it’s worth dissecting the presumptions here. I don’t think it’s a problem that Friedman, as a successful Western journalist, has privilege. The privilege that lets him stay at central hotels is the same one that lets him fly from Kiev to Hanoi, as he put it in a recent column; it’s privilege lets him see the global big-picture. I’m not one to quest for authenticity, and I think it’s okay for a journalist to report from an outsider’s perspective—even from the Hilton. That’s not to excuse the journalist from doing his work, which is rounding up as many on-the-ground facts as possible. (That often entails leaving the Hilton, by the way.) Maybe I made the wrong call on Vietnamese urban planning, and maybe that’s because I didn’t venture enough to the suburbs of Hanoi. But that doesn’t make it essentially wrong to stay at a Western hotel in the city center. Journalism, after all, is not travel writing. It’s not about the writer roughing it. It’s about the world roughing it.

A last note: Whereas travel writing is about my experience, journalism is about talking to other people. That’s the incredible advantage of these Globalist trips—meeting and talking to people face-to-face. Sharing differences and similarities. Maybe it was poetic irony for me to end the trip trying to explain myself to a guy called Yuval.