The Idea of Travel

The Idea of Travel


Benny Callaghan

I have recently had the privilege to travel to a beautiful and far off country. During this trip I have done many enjoyable things; the type of which I would not usually have the chance to do and which could well be described as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I have seen marvellous sights, eaten good food and met at least one or two interesting characters. All in all a fairly positive thing to have done, wouldn’t you think? But why then do I feel as if this adventure has been at times a long drawn out progression of one generic holiday-activity after another, punctuated by brief stops amongst beautiful scenery and cosy restaurants?

This feeling of monotony has followed me everywhere. It has haunted me like a guilty conscience and has only ever been alleviated in moments of extreme exhilaration (such as my first bungee jump; which I admit is an experience I will never forget) or through the sweet oblivion of an alcoholic stupor.

Otherwise it has been a constant nuisance. I am reminded of it each time I gaze into the face of another dull-headed backpacker spinning off the same yarn concerning drink-fuelled debauchery in some exotic land. The story is always the same; it is only the details which change.

I am reminded of it each time I see a camper-van from one of the major rental companies. These can be seen everywhere and they are all identical to one another. For me they have become an image and physical reminder of the dull conformity which the tourism industry imposes on those who submit to it. Many times we have passed by a procession of these sterile wagons on the way from one destination to the next and it never fails to detract from the exclusive sense of excitement that one should have when making such a journey.

I am reminded of it every time I book into a new hostel and peruse the gallery of brochures and travel tips that inevitably awaits me at the check-in desk. A plethora of carefully itemised activities. A gallery of potential fun where the photo-shopped images of beautiful young backpackers of indeterminate ethnicity are enjoying whatever activity is on offer. The hidden message in these brochures is that if I too threw myself down some white-water rapids on a body-board then perhaps I might attain a similar joie de vivre as the adrenaline-junky mannequins who ordain their covers.

I see it in the contrived and self-conscious gestures of my fellow travellers; trying to live up to these images and competing with one another through mutual tales of exploration; scared to death that they might fail to have the life-changing experience which they have prefabricated in their minds and memories.

As I said it followed me everywhere and after a while I began to understand why. Why this tangible tedium instead of genuine enjoyment?

It is down to the travel industry. Travel has become a commodity. It is no longer (in as much as it ever was) seen as a private venture set out upon in order to either see the world differently or (that age-old cliché) to broaden the mind. It has been ripped of its private, exploratory appeal. It has been homogenised and assimilated by the culture industry and it seems to me as if business is booming.

In my more pessimistic moments I am partial to perceive this world of travel as a veritable merry-go-round of duncery. The same herd of individuals trekking the globe, accumulating completely identical experiences which will be rehashed and retold at a later date in the same self-satisfied manner; infected with a certain phoney energy and retrospective gold dust.

I still believe that travel is good. But it has been defiled and defaced. Appropriated by contemptible youth and homogenised into nothingness for generations to come. The only privilege it denotes today is an economic one. In the words of Oscar Wilde; they know the price of everything but the value of nothing. At times, to me, it seems like nothing more than a contaminated carousel of contrary capitalist comfort.

Place names and locations which should ring with mystery and wonder are reduced to one more check point in the spiralling soporific tour of the dull-headed traveller. You have to wonder exactly what these people feel, or what they convince themselves that they have felt, when they pursue the course of their vapid adventure? I would love to know more concerning the nature of these elevated emotions. I assume they are spurred on by some compulsion to acquire such experiences before entering the substantially duller world of work. But if so then they are misguided. The world they traverse while travelling is just as mundane and standardised as the inoculated sanctity of the work place. They are simply exchanging a passive triviality for an active one. And those who work to travel or work while travelling are living out these confused ideas of reality on a grander scale but with a sorry-misguided dedication.

Travel—in the old-fashioned sense of the word, the type of which Conrad and Melville used to write—is dead. It is not just that there are no more unknown lands; but that everywhere, I repeat, EVERYWHERE, has been subsumed by these travel vultures. They have spread to the four corners of the globe; there is nowhere they have not penetrated into.

The travel-market is saturated with starry-eyed travellers eager to live out their dreams of adventure. But this is only made possible through the travel industry which accommodates them; and which exists in order to hold their hand at every step of the way.

Whilst travelling in this manner we are locked in by the tourist industry. This industry caters to the needs of the traveller and alleviates them from any effort or responsibility. Most significantly this industry distracts them from what should be the main objective of personal travel; that is the objective of actively pursuing their own path.

The great American novelist Henry James chose to live his life in Britain due to what he saw as the “hotel culture” of American public life. By this he meant the ignorance, privilege and tedium which naturally stems from a life of comfort. In my opinion this hotel culture has expanded and engulfed the entire globe. Its function is to sanitise our experiences and subsequently relieve them of all their significance and spontaneity; neutering them into a state of apoplexy.

We are everywhere offered the promise of life-changing experiences. This is the selling point of almost every activity you will come across while on your trip. But it is the very act of this promising which betrays the terminally-mundane nature of the thing being offered. It is this same promise which is offered indiscriminately to everyone who has been duped by the gaudy PR tactics of the industry and who has the money to pay for such an experience. You will be confronted by this type of marketing technique every step of the way.

We are not the free and fleet-footed travellers we think we are.

In a world where it is impossible to escape this omniscient travel industry the only place left to discover is the self. Alan Moore (writer of The Watchmen, V for Vendetta etc.) achieved this with a compelling history of his home town Northampton. It is ironic that this man managed to mine and extract more significance and incident from the history of his own shitty town in the Midlands than most other travellers could from a lifetime of trekking.

I therefore question the necessity of travel. It is only one of the many ways to broaden one’s mind. This can be achieved just as successfully by remaining completely still and exploring the world at your doorstep through the insulation of a curious mind. Thoreau and Kant made a greater name for themselves by employing this method than any travel writer I know of.

The atrophy of experience to which I refer can be at least partly blamed on globalisation. It is almost inevitable that as countries and cultures become more familiar with one another they will eventually compromise, capitulate and morph into watered-down copies of each other. Making slight and near indiscernible compensations that slip-melt and coalesce with those of the rest of the world, rendering everything similar and subsequently mundane. After all, no matter where one is on this planet; we are never too far from a McDonalds, a Starbucks or an airport.

I drunkenly rum-inated on these thoughts whilst sitting on the beach of a small Malaysian island which was, as you might have guessed, a popular tourist spot. I must admit that these words were written in haste and slight bitterness in the morning of a giddy drunken haze; those wonderful hours when you realise you are still drunk but somehow retain the mental capacity to truly appreciate the fact.

This whole island is based on tourism. Every factor in its make-up is in some way geared toward this need. There is a strong stench of the worst type of consumerism. It is the worst because it is the most insidious and subversive. It wears the mask of enlightenment but is in fact just another tool of complacency and comfort. Everywhere I look I see idols of western security. Their comfort is built on the relative poverty of the local people. Of course tourism brings in a lot of money for the area and the people. But the dichotomy of the relationship ensures the ideological victory of capitalism. The role of each party is entrenched and they are ensnared within each other. The nature of this relationship ensures the subsequent fate of both parties. One is condemned to perpetual struggle while the other is offered a fleeting and trivial experience. An experience that is completely dictated and defined by the omniscient tour culture. This is the invisible force that hangs above the head of the tourist. They have unknowingly surrendered to this force and now it envelops their every action. It is lamentable that such a beautiful place could be corrupted by such an ugly force. It is everywhere on this beach.

In hindsight this depiction seems forced and over-dramatic. But the ideas and the sentiments are sincere. It is impossible to ignore the manner in which the tourist industry has now monopolised the entire concept of travel. And how this industry is in certain poor parts of the world the main source of income. The pay-off which is then made between the wealthy idling tourist and the comparatively impoverished local is to my eyes crude; but in the backward logic of global capitalism completely fair and indeed necessary. Hence my confusion. Hence this strange sense of monotony.

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