From England to Ecuador and beyond

From England to Ecuador and beyond

Monday, 22 December 2014

Angry response to the most short-sighted article of 2014: Has travel become another exercise in narcissism?

Okay Wismayer, first things first - let's talk about that title. The fact is, travel is and always has been narcissistic: it's about YOU escaping the daily grind and the monotony of life back home so that YOU can experience new ways of life, new cultures and new people, with a view to broadening YOUR mind and doing things YOU might never have had the opportunity to try in your own country. 

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The narcissistic aspect of travel is not a new concept, which is why the title piqued my curiosity in the first place - what was the author going to add to it? I knew from the outset that I wasn't going to enjoy the content, and indeed my curiosity had boiled over into full-blown rage by the time I'd finished reading. Why? His negative and generalised perception of the average traveller and his disillusioned view on travelling the world pissed me right off.

1) Travellers are narcissistic people

I want to make a request of Wismayer: to get his definitions right before forming a judgement based on something entirely incorrect. He defines a traveller as someone who has "been away for two months, spent most of it dancing on the beach addled on diet pills [...] - perhaps punctuated by a week of hungover volunteering building a retaining wall that is destined to collapse within a year". This is simply not true. While, of course, there will always be some people who spend two months getting drunk on a beach and claim it's 'travelling', tarring every traveller with this same brush is incredibly shortsighted. Building his argument on this perception, he claims that travellers are narcissistic "culprits" who "witter" on about their experiences:

"Whether you like it or not, you are hearing his story, each twist in the narrative prefaced by the dread-refrain: "when I was in..."". 

I'm not going to pretend that travellers don't do this; I myself am 'guilty' of starting stories with this phrase. But what's the issue? People we relate these tales to back at home are similarly 'guilty' of beginning stories with "when I was at work the other day...". We're just sharing what's been happening in our lives recently. If/when we return home we too will start sentences with "when I was in the office earlier" or "when I was down the local at the weekend...". Plus, the six months of someone's life spent on the road may well be the best and most interesting six months they've experienced to date, so why not bring them into conversation? It might even inspire others to travel, which can be a positive, fulfilling and life-changing experience.

Of course, Wismayer broadcasts an opposing view, complaining that travellers are "dullards" who "bore everyone to the brink of violence with anecdotes we've heard before - of kebabs and camel rides, and the hilarious severity of [their] diarrhoea". While chowing down on a kebab in the Middle East and going horseback riding in the Wild West are fun and cultural 'must-dos' (just because thousands of other people have done the same thing, why should you feel badly about doing it too?), everyone's experience - even if two people are staying in the same hostel for the same amount of time in the same city - will be completely different. How can you possibly claim that you've heard all their anecdotes before? Every traveller has a unique story to tell. 

Wismayer declares that such travellers "must write a blog, post endless photos on social media. Everyone must benefit from his remarkable new wisdom!". He continues in an irritatingly sarcastic tone, saying that travellers possess a "solipsistic delusion implied by [their] belief that [their] story is worth relating - the automatic assumption that [THEIR] experiences hold some inherent value to EVERYONE ELSE". Okay, some people do saturate our Facebook news feeds with snaps from their latest destination. But maybe those people are also uploading photos as back-up in case their camera gets lost or stolen? (Just before you think Dropbox, I've found it's a much lengthier process than uploading to Facebook, especially when you're using a dodgy or impossibly slow connection.) Obviously the main bone of contention for me here is the blog-related dig; his assumption that travel bloggers are an arrogant species who believe others will benefit from hearing about their experiences. Firstly, not everyone who keeps a blog does so because they hold the assumption that their knowledge of a place is superior to that of anyone else. Some post updates for the sole purpose of keeping family and friends up to date; others to maintain a record of their experiences to look back on in the future. Some do write with the intention of advising or inspiring others, but what's wrong with that? I've found a number of travel blogs incredibly valuable when planning routes, deciding where I want to go next, keeping my spirits up during a rough period and much more besides. However, to Wismayer a travel writer is a "work shy dilettante with an overinflated respect for the unique value of [their] own experience". This is interesting considering he is a travel is the following quote:

"Travel has become another exercise in narcissistic presentation, one more way of desperately extracting some semblance of uniqueness out of your otherwise soul-crushingly mediocre existence." 

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Wow. Someone sounds disillusioned with their career and supposed field of interest, something he appears to confirm when he admits that he "may never recapture the "first pill" magic of [his] earliest independent trips abroad". Time for a career change perhaps?

On a final note in this section, anyone who reads my blog will know that I'm big on photos and memes in my posts; I like to break chunks of text up with big, visually appealing snaps that I feel complement the content. In Wismayer's article, a caption under an accompanying photo taken in either Ta Prohm or Ta Som reads "my photo of this tree will definitely be superior to the 10,000 I could find online" as if he is suggesting there is no point taking your own photos when we have the internet at our fingertips. Err, what? People take photos to record their PERSONAL travel experiences, and if they enjoy photography as a pastime, are trying to better their skills or build up a portfolio then what's wrong with that?

2) Travel is no longer an enriching experience

Fifty years ago, says Wismayer, a traveller had "genuine unusual knowledge", whereas these days technology has "stifled our capacity for independent discovery, catering to an appetite for foreknowledge that inevitably demystifies foreign places". In this sense, travel is "losing its capacity to make us wonder". 

Is it? I would be lying if I said I didn't have my concerns about going to Machu Picchu after seeing hundreds of photos from various sources - family and friends who've made the journey, magazines, the internet - but I was still blown away by the beauty that lay hidden beneath the thick blanket of clouds that cleared in seconds about two hours after I'd arrived at the ancient site. And Africa: everyone has seen photos and heard about the living conditions, but it's only once you see it for yourself that it really hits home and you feel a genuine appreciation for the privileged life you lead.

The author is resentful that travel is still perceived as "enriching and transformative", using a Tanzanian safari trip as an example to back up his argument: 

"Going on an overland truck tour through Tanzania, travelling with people from your own country, from your own demographic, on the same prescribed routes, stopping only to point at animals and get leathered in westernised hostels does not make you an authority on all that ails post-independence Africa."

No, it probably doesn't, but I'd imagine most people don't claim to be experts on this topic after a wildlife expedition. I'm going to have to bring in a personal experience here (or is that being narcissistic?) re: my time in Kenya and Tanzania. I booked an overland truck tour with G Adventures and yes, it followed a set route that is very similar to, if not the same as, the routes taken by competing agencies such as Intrepid. It's the other points I want to argue against: first off, I shared this particular trip with people from Australia, France, the Netherlands, Egypt, Spain, Ireland and - out of our 22-strong group - just three fellow Brits (and only one of those was from England). When I've travelled solo rather than going on an organised tour, I've hung out with people from all over: Germans, Americans, Australians, Brazilians, South Africans, Canadians, and a few Brits here and there too. As for getting leathered in westernised hostels on my overland safari, this didn't happen once - mainly because we were camping in the middle of game reserves every night, showering in freezing cold water in pitch back cubicles, using squat toilets, dining round camp fires, watching small herds of zebra forage for food in bushes just metres away, falling asleep to the sound of hyenas scrabbling round the camp for leftovers & elephants trumpeting in the distance and waking up to terrifying tales of a giraffe and a lion in the campsite during the middle of the night. Plus, it'd be pretty stupid to get obliterated when you have to be awake at 5am for early morning game drives.

Technology plays a leading role in Wismayer's argument that travel is no longer enriching. According to him, half the patrons of a hostel will be ensconced in their digital worlds: 

"Expressionless faces illuminated by the deadening LCD flare of tablet screens, they sit around plugged into the home they had intended to leave behind, able to research every flight, hotel and restaurant in advance based on countless peer reviews." 

I understand the idea behind this, that people should be outside experiencing new places rather than firing off non-stop tweets about them. On the other hand, of course travelling styles are going to evolve as technology becomes increasingly advanced. Wismayer seems to think that technology is the root of all evil when it comes to travel, when in fact technology has made it far easier to travel in every possible way. Why fight it? Technology makes it easier to find the cheapest flights and hostels that will eke out your budget and enhance your experience, and is invaluable for blogging about your experiences - not that Wismayer would approve of that. Personal safety is another area where technology can prove immensely useful: to use a recent example, I was in Sydney during the Lindt cafe siege last week and only found out about it through a friend back in England, who WhatsApped to check I was okay. Thanks to her, I was able to ensure I avoided the area for the rest of the day and message my family before the inevitable panic to let them know I was safe during this terrifying incident. 

My anger ebbed slightly when the author finally recognised near the end of the article that not all types of travel are "without value". And, to give him some credit, he has addressed the most common grievances highlighted by other disgruntled readers here: However, on the whole I remain rather unimpressed. 

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