Most people love travelling, but has the experience become a domain of the ‘Facebook tourist’ and #hashtag bucket list?
Not all that long ago, travel for leisure was a luxury. A far-from globalised industry, largely restricted to the rich and upper classes. Being well-travelled connoted a certain level of learning totally unattainable to most: the world was an exclusive playground for princes, future rulers, wealthy intellectuals and other elite circles. But times have changed, with an abundance of cheap flights, hostels, gap years, Erasmus exchanges, the possibilities are endless for a large number of people, especially in Europe. Though in my view, I have increasingly seen these golden opportunities being squandered, and meaninglessly plastered all over social media.
I’ll give a home-country example: I was in the British Museum a couple of years ago, at an exhibition called ‘Ice Age Art’ which was truly incredible – these very fine pieces of prehistoric art were between 40,000-10,000 years old, with stunning detail. I honestly didn’t think the 40,000 year old man and woman were capable such perspective. I was going round, really mind-blown by the collection, and trying to absorb as much as I could. I found myself hindered though, not simply because it was crowded, as it was obviously a very popular exhibition (due credit should go to the British Museum curatorial team etc.), but because of people, armed with iPads and smart phones, continuously scurrying in front of me, going right up to the case, taking photo and rapidly moving on – without even looking past the screen. It infuriated me! You paid £15 or whatever to go to a groundbreaking exhibition in a leading global museum, and you’re just building a photo collection for Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter… #britishmuseum #iceage #omg. What did you learn? Did you even care? Or just hope other people will care that you seem to care?
This frustration grew when I went backpacking for the first time. I went to Mexico and Guatemala, a dream which started from when I had first studied the Aztecs in school. I’d also been fortunate enough to study pre-hispanic civilisations as part of my degree, so I was super – and often annoyingly – enthusiastic about the trip. The friends I went with had not had same academic background, but were definitely keen to know more. I feel this added so much more to our trip: when we went to the ruins of the Mayans/ Aztecs/Olemecs/other prehispanic badass cultures, we could understand or at least try to understand what we were seeing (without paying for a tour of course, student budgets can’t afford that). If we didn’t know, we read around online or in our guidebooks. This prior knowledge increased enjoyment: rather than staring blankly at piles of stones, you see a multitude of meanings, and are even more awestruck by the capabilities of these ancient peoples.
Similar to my crowd-jostling in the British Museum, I encountered those who were there, it seemed, just for the photo-op – like a lonesome politician without a party or campaign. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely took lots and lots of photos (and they sure found their way onto Facebook), but it was a vastly secondary activity to wandering around with my mouth open.
On this same trip, my friends and I of course stayed in hostels. As most people I’m sure are aware, hostels are a fascinating hub of backpackers, travellers, hippies, inspirational people and some plain weirdos. In one hostel we bonded with the one other Brit; he was on a phenomenal trip which had started all the way south in the Patagonia, Argentina. We went out for drinks, and he talked about his trip. And talked. And talked. And talked. After a good couple of hours it dawned on me that neither me or my other two friends had actually said a word for a very long time: he had jut been talking at us. We began to ask him some more ‘in-depth’ questions, his opinion on some of the things he’d seen, the peoples and cultures he’d interacted with. He promptly stopped having so much to say. He’d done an enviable trip through 5+ countries in a totally different continent, and it seemed to me (from our albeit brief meeting) that he hadn’t really taken that much away from it. How is this possible? It was like he had just travelled for the sake of it.
So the problem really hit me: we are so lucky to have the opportunity to go abroad and move about, and as a result of this accessibility it seems to have become a commodity, a fashion statement: “look what I’ve done/seen/where I’ve been. I’ve been to Machu Pichu, I’ve been to the Taj Mahal, well I’ve been Angkor Wat…” #onlysawitthroughmycameralens
The recent case of a Dutch girl successfully faking a trip round south east Asia I think typifies this problem.
What I want to encourage here, is traveling with a willingness to understand. I was lucky in that I had prior academic knowledge on some of the cultures in the region I went to, and having it added value. Since then I’ve tried to read about the places I’ve been fortunate enough to go to. Of course getting wasted and lying on a beach is usually an inevitable and important factor too, but a ‘cultural’ approach and a ‘fun’ approach are not and should not be mutually exclusive. In fact, they compliment each other by drawing the most out an experience that does costs a fair bit of money. It’s like getting a good return for your investment.
For those traveling, or planning on traveling to Latin America for example, there are monthly research seminars ‘Latin American Studies Seminar’ on Avenue. For China, head over to the Confucius institute (58/4125) and have a chat (they will be more than happy to help). A simple google research, buying a good guidebook and chatting to people from the region your interested in, both there and before you go, will add that little bit more to what is sure to be a great experience.