Thoughts on travel

I’m currently reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux, and it has gotten me thinking a lot about people’s relationships to travel, and specifically international travel. My own travel experiences strongly influenced my outlook on life, and it is a thing I find to be genuinely meaningful and yet troublesome in many of its aspects, perhaps almost sickening (not in the [insert historical figure]’s revenge sort of way).

Paul Theroux is a prolific travel writer, and calls himself a “glorified tourist.” I think I understand the mental journey that leads one to such a phrase. One sees a beautiful place filled with tourists with money, who travel thousands of miles to reach a destination and then insist on finding ways to keep everything around them as similar as possible to the place they come from, starting with language. They seem loathsome in their cluelessness, so one labels these others as “tourist,” and oneself as a “traveler,” a dirtier, poorer, more enlightened visitor in a place, seeking authenticity over the tourist’s closed and protected experience.

Drunk on moral superiority, the traveler enters a dark cave. There, in a scene plagiarized straight out of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the traveler is confronted by an angry drunk tourist, whose face is obscured by a ridiculous Columbia brand sun hat. With a swing of his rolled-up sleeping pad, the traveler decapitates the tourist. The head rolls on the ground to face the traveler, who realizes that the lifeless face looking up at him is his own…

And so, sobered up with a powerful dose of self-consciousness, the traveler can call himself a tourist once more, embarrassed by the pretension and insincerity of rejecting that perfectly appropriate label, which happens to be a convenient word understood in almost all parts of the world.

One funny object that I saw while traveling was a suitcase being loaded into a bus I was waiting to board in Iran. The ostentatiously printed brand name on the suitcase read “JAPAN TOURIST.” I’m guessing the JAPAN TOURIST brand cleverly wishes to associate its products with the glamour of having the money to travel abroad, stay in nice hotels, and eat at nice restaurants. All brands aim to associate themselves with a sort of “idealized you,” so in this sense there is nothing weird about JAPAN TOURIST being used to sell suitcases, although the directness of it caught me a little off guard.

And yet there I was, a real life “Japan Tourist,” with a grungy backpack that was honestly more vain than practical, because I guess you’re not a backpacker without a backpack. I looked generally disheveled (a surprisingly common question I was asked: “You Afghanistan?”) I was in pursuit of a different kind of glamour. Thinking of oneself as poor is central to the backpacker creed, but how many instances of being the richest person in sight (which happens frequently in certain places) will it take before this affectation becomes untenable?

But this just goes to show that not all ideas of glamorous travel fit into the JAPAN TOURIST mold. At the beginning of that trip I opened up the in-flight magazine for British Airways, and a certain ad caught my eye. A tall, blue-eyed white man in rugged clothes, thronged by brown children. It was an ad for a water purification device. Caption: “I came here to help. I can’t afford to get sick.” Make of that what you will.

You can become a traveler in pursuit of an “idealized you.” I know I did. You could try to become a JAPAN TOURIST, or the man in the water filter ad. One ideal of travel tempts the traveler with comfort, bright lights, displays of wealth and hedonistic pursuits. The other, quite opposite ideal tempts the traveler with promises of adoration, and cool stories to tell your friends when you get back home, tinged with an element of righteousness. Irritatingly for post-college me, I see a Nietzschean master/slave morality dichotomy at play here. However, it seems to me that both of these ideals all too often result in the same thing: the intrusiveness that comes from treating others’ living spaces as a playground.

International travel exposes the traveler to severe inequities in power to a degree that you rarely see at home. You step out into the street, and you are surrounded by a foreign language that everyone understands except you, which makes you powerless. At the same time, you come bearing wealth, and depending on where you are you might find yourself to be conspicuously wealthy, and this makes you powerful. These chasms must be navigated with tact, and few people do a perfect job.

What is the point of travel? You leave home, sleep on strange beds that feel like cardboard, discover delicious food, meet angels and crooks (sometimes in the same person), get sick, get in situations that are stranger than fiction (seriously, ask me about the Russian Ice Cream Thief sometime), and then you return home, and not much has changed, except your inner life feels two sizes bigger. Your acquaintances ask if you “had a nice trip” (and for the sake of convenience you may respond, “Yes”).

Is traveling good? Traveling is polluting for the earth, intrusive for others, and embarrassing for you. It also enriches the soul, and promotes world peace. Traveling and being in a strange place makes me feel more alive. I am forced to do things that I would otherwise shy away from. Things are quicker, more condensed, more saturated. More life happens while traveling, so I guess traveling, like life, is good and bad. And maybe, like life, it’s best not to think about it too much.