Wednesday, 13 July 2016

On Travel

Why do people travel? I was reading Karl Pilkington's two books titled 'An idiot Abroad', detailing his travels to the modern seven wonders of the world, and a few other 'must see before you die' places, and his reluctance to be impressed by what he sees. As is often the case with being presented with a contrarian perspective, it made me rethink my own views about travel.

I actually like Karl Pilkington immensely. I think he's your everyday regular happy guy (even if he doesn't look it) and leads a happy existence without any wants. He's happy with what he has, and therefore doesn't feel a yearning for something he doesn't want, like travelling the world to see the Great Wall of China or gorillas or whales or swim with sharks or to skydive. He's just happy to wake up in his own bed everyday, go to work, go to the pub for a pint and then go to bed.

To a Western observer, this would be perceived as narrow or small-mindedness. In the enlightened West, you can't appear to turn down an opportunity at international travel, the chance to expand your horizons, broaden your mind and learn from other cultures. You're supposed to put aside your city comforts and challenge your perceptions of life and society by immersing yourself in different cultures and experiences as this might give you a different perspective on your own life and make you a better more rounded human being [insert mandatory joke about Pilkington's head]. 

While I empathise with the open-mindedness of this narrative, I also see the danger of it turning into an overbearing patronising one, that turns the world-weary traveller into a self-entitled preacher who looks down at anyone not as well-travelled as himself/herself. "You haven't seen the Northern lights? You haven't spent a night in a treehouse in an Amazonian village? You haven't accidentally slept with a ladyboy in Bangkok? You're missing out on so much. You can't be as happy as I am. You're not as complete as I am."

I wonder if this narrative is something we need to recognise. This narrative that tells us that we aren't happy unless we do x,y,z. I don't buy into it. Sure, you can learn a lot from international travel, but how healthy is this action when it comes from a personal yearning brought about by comparing yourself to other people and their lives? At what point can you truly travel the world as an individual, and not because society tells you that you can't be a fulfilled individual until you do it. If backpacking the world is the same as following a trend, then how different is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro from buying a new smartphone?

What then are more righteous reasons to travel? Curiosity? Boredom? Excess time or money? I actually find these better reasons to travel, though some people today would frown upon anything that doesn't involve an immersive experience for purposes of enlightenment. You know who I mean. People who classify themselves as travellers rather than tourists.


It's interesting to look at these two forms of travel. The tourist route is more of a work hard, play hard phenomenon. We lead these stressful rat races that we tell ourselves is normal, and then go on vacation to 'de-clutter' or 'de-stress'. Is travel then our means to escaping stress, like pressure being released from a valve? Is it a by produt of living a certain type of existence? Well, not necessarily. You can live a relatively stress-free life w.r.t work and still want to travel occasionally. What would make you want to travel? Maybe it's still peer pressure, curiosity, a desire for more excitement in your life. Whatever the reason, it's an expectation that needs to be fulfilled, just like long term/immersive travel/backpacking, but with a different or missing snob factor. The difference between these two forms of travel has been presented in documentaries like 'A Map for Saturday'. 

Personally, I'm against being judgemental about any particular kind of phenomena. I find it more interesting to observe why a phenomena exists and how it came to be. Looking at the process, the mechanism, the underlying factors can tell us how society functions.

One aspect is money. I think anyone would travel if they had an excess of money. I think that people of means are merely doing what any one would with a shortage of time, given work constraints and an excess of money, i.e make the most of your vacation time. I understand why people do this. I don't completely understand why people backpack. If we are truly satisfied with our lives, we wouldn't want to change them. People who backpack i.e green travellers as opposed to grey travellers, could be curious about the world, afraid they're missing out, or maybe they're looking to find themselves, or a feeling of belonging. Which again comes down to expectations.

I suppose people are different in terms of what they want from life. Some people like Karl Pilkington are happy with what they have. Others just want more. Maybe our expectations are linked to our upbringing, circumstances and personality.


Looking at the exact opposite of this viewpoint, I am reminded of certain characters from the Alexander McCall Smith series I've been reading - 'The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency'. Set in Botswana, the lead character and her friends have no desire to leave home. That is where their happiness lies. They have a connection their their land and the lives connected to it, and even though they have problems, they are generally happy where they are.

You tend to see this a lot in certain societies. Again, I'm not saying that village or small town life is better than a life spent learning and travelling. It's not like village life in India is ideal, even accounting for only rich villages. Being tied to a place culturally can give you a strong sense of identity, but it can also lead to narrow-mindedness, suspicion, and in-group out-group mentality. I'm certainly not a fan of that. But to assume that the opposite of small town insularity is travel is ridiculous. You can spend your life under house arrest and still be a wise person. You probably won't have experienced as much as the international nomad, but you won't necessarily be the most insular person around, just as the nomad won't be the most broad-minded person around.

Maybe the best way forward is to not define yourself and your happiness in terms of other people's expectations. Easier said than done I imagine. You will always be influenced  by the decisions of others. Cultural evolution theories tell us that this makes our lives easier.


Interesting also is the media depiction of travel. Western society tends to depict travel from a highly individualistic point of view, in keeping with the self-actualisation narrative that they love. "You are special, if you are unhappy in your current situation, it's because you are misaligned with your place in the universe, and you need to find yourself and your place in the universe in order to be happy". 

You can see this in films like 'The Art of travel' where a high school grad decides to embark on a jungle adventure after his carefully laid plans go astray, helping him find himself in the process (or rather a new self he didn't know he had). Or in road trip films like 'Paper Towns',  where the protagonist realises that life is more than plans and chasing dreams and should be more 'live in the moment', or 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where the protagonist experiences something he missed out on in his youth that now 'completes him' and 'makes him whole again'. I wasn't impressed by the Walter Mitty film. It was beautifully shot, and I get the appeal that a certain section of society have for it, and that some people who feel like they missed out on travel in their youth might identify with the main character. A lot of these films are films that I might have identified with 10 years ago, but not now. 

I'm not negatively criticising this narrative. In fact I don't have much to compare it to since I'm not aware of how other cultures represent travel in their media.


1 comment:

Melvin said...

Interesting observations as always Danny Boy. Luckily travellers don't sit on the fence...they go one way or the other be it for peer pressure or surplus time and greenbacks. Whether spurred on by the Joneses to click that selfie under the Eiffel Tower or wannabe urges to look like that solitary backpacker coloured by the setting sun as he glances across expanses of nowhere.

I plan my trips for others, if I know someone wants to go some where, I'll take them time and money permitting. And I love watching them enjoy that trip. For my self I prefer to travel alone.

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