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Reimagine by Emily Cowley Lyrics and Song Notes [Rethink Travel Challenge]

Reimagne by Emily Cowley is an original song written for Operation Groundswell’s Rethink Travel Challenge 2022.


Listen deep deep deep as the water flows
In which you swim and with which you sow
Take hold take control of where the money goes
Is it giving life or is it digging holes?

Verse 1
Hands and your feet in the soil beneath
Invited to feel the grit and their grief
Learning their stories before you leave
Here in the listening we find how to breathe

How do you see yourself? How do you see them?
How do you see this place? Could you reimagine?
Is it transactional, a one way road?
Just an escape for you from your home?
How ‘bout relational, in which you learn
Where you’re a guest in someone else’s home
It’s up to you, to choose; it’s your ticket to use

Verse 2
Breaking down barriers and hierarchies
Decentering whiteness and all that it means
Space for the margins to live and to lead
Disrupt the settler complex in me

Verse 3
The rivers don’t rush, so neither shall we
In tune with the earth, walking lightly
Not yours to own, but to steward you see
Doing what’s right, not cheap and easy

Notes on the Meaning of the Song


‘Reimagine’ – the title of the song builds on the prompt “rethink”. Rather than simply rethinking what currently exists, to ‘reimagine’ invites us to dream beyond what we know and to imagine new realities into being – which I believe to be necessary for ethical travel.


‘Listen to the water’: wherever we go, we are connected to and relient on a watershed. They sustain all life, yet the majority of us are unaware of the watersheds upon which we depend and with which we coexist. If this isn’t the case at home, it is even more so in our travels as we are often only temporarily inhabiting land. Yet, despite the brevity of our trip, we as travellers (and residents of this planet) need to be more aware of the water we use, enjoy, and rely on.

The water in which we swim and with which we sow’: water occupies a central role in tourism communication – from crystal clear waters for swimming or thrilling waves perfect for surfing, the water is presented for our indulgence. While these aspects are certainly to be enjoyed, the problem is that such narratives ignore the important truth about these waters: they nourish the food we eat on our travels and sustain the communities we visit. Water is not simply for our recreation; it is a powerful life-force that must also be honoured, cared for, and protected, and we as travellers – however temporary – carry a responsibility. Deepening our awareness of watersheds, the natural world as a whole, and the environmental footprint of tourism is foundational to ensuring that the seeds we plant during our travels are good: seeds that allow others to prosper, not those which pollute and destroy.

‘Listen deep to the water’: these words are also a call to listen to the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have tended to the land we play on and eat from. Listen deeply until it resonates and learn about the issues of the land you’re visiting, and how your travel activities can contribute to a solution.

‘Control the money’: the tourism industry plays a large role in the economy, meaning we as travellers hold a lot of power with our wallets. We need to increasingly ask: who is benefitting from my money and who is bearing the costs? Is my spending contributing to environmental destruction, shifting the burden to those who are already disenfranchised, and creating holes that people have to dig themselves out of? Or is it giving life and lifting people up? If we wish to use travel as a force for good and create systemic change, we need to commit the time and effort to research the companies we are travelling with, hotels we are staying at, activites we are participating in and choose accordingly. We owe it to our fellow human-beings and earth.


The chorus challenges us as travellers to rethink our perception of travel, our travel destinations, and the communities we visit. Unfortunately, the media promotes a form of travel centred on self-serving experiences in which the locations and communities are positioned as simply a means to our ends, whether that be: a break from your job; a self-discovery journey; a bucket-list check-mark; an Instagram highlight; or even a feel-good, help the world, volunteer trip. None of these are inherently wrong, but travel can and should be so much more than this. Travel should be built on intentional, two-way relationships rooted in respect and equality – between locals, land and visitors. Relationships that are guided by listening, where we posture ourselves as humble guests, not entitled consumers. We must learn to appreciate cultures without appropriating them, recognizing these are people’s homes and ways of life.

The choice is in our travelling hands.

Verse 1

I believe that learning the stories of the communities and land through personal conversations is a core part of ethical travel. The stories that encompass not just celebration, but also struggle (political, economical, social, physical, spiritual, etc.), and go beyond the broad-sweeping, happy and flashy, Westernized stories tourism companies may paint to entice us to visit. The practice of active listening and learning is necessary for meaningful travel as it is only by doing so that we are able to fully know and experience a place (“the soil beneath”). However, it should be by invitation and permission from the individuals sharing their home with us – not an expectation.

It is by intentionally listening for and to these stories that both parties – guests and locals – come alive (“find how to breathe”). Holding space for others’ stories is life-giving in any circumstance as it not only honours the speaker, but also draws the listener’s gaze outwards, beyond themselves, cultivating empathy and interpersonal change. In the literal sense, listening especially to Indigenous voices is necessary for the continuation of human life on earth as a whole.

Verse 2

Rethinking travel also means removing barriers to travel opportunities. Travel continues to be dominated by and created for those with privilege. Those of us who are white-cis-hetero especially need to first and foremost create space at the table for those on the margins. Reimagining travel without the voices of everyone will only continue to perpetuate a problematic and inaccessible tourism industry. Instead, we need to listen, collaborate, and shift the heirarchical leadership structures of travel companies to create more opportunities for those of minority group identities to shape the future of travel.

‘Space for the margins to live and to lead’: not only do we need to remove barriers for other travellers, but we need to ensure that marginalized people in the places we visit are also being empowered. For example, travelling with companies that employ local individuals including those living on the fringes. Employment which not just
provides them with a livable income, but also with opportunities for leadership. ‘Space to live’ also pertains to how companies affect the environment, because more often than not it is those who are already disenfranchised who bear the life-threatening environmental burdens.

Most importantly, creating more just and equitable travel begins with ourselves. Before we can attempt to change the industry, we must acknowledge our own privilege and address the systems of oppression we have internalized (e.g., “settler complex”, white saviour complex, colonial gaze, etc.), especially as it pertains to trips involving service initiatives which largely continue to be steeped in colonialism.

Verse 3

Ethical travel isn’t cheap or easy. It takes conscious effort. It is slow, it is considerate, it isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, and it spends the extra dollars to ensure quality of life for others. It takes time to unlearn and relearn, and
commitment to see it into fruition at the industry level. However, it is worth it as it is the best kind of travel! The kind of travel that enables us to see things, the earth, others and even ourselves more clearly – like the leaf in the graphic on the very first page of my submission. The kind of travel that uplifts all of us.

what are you waiting for?