The Fantasy of Finding Different Worlds

I mean the persistent lure of travel—even in the face of all those airport horror stories, outrageous costs, cancellations, crowds and cattle-car accommodations. One ex-traveler put it this way: “Prices everywhere you go are absurd, and still, crowds are everywhere. Places are understaffed, expensive, the service is atrocious, and the quality of the food is all but gone.”

Why do people willingly endure these indignities, and what do they gain from the experience? They think that travel will somehow transform them, make them better, more cultured people, give them more notches in their conversational belts, and so on. Travel, they think, broadens the mind, a notion I had some fun with a couple of years ago. And how many of you have dozed off listening to a returned traveler’s stories?

Tourism (and who wants to be labeled a tourist?) has grown exponentially—and so have all its environmental impacts—as those with leisure, money and opportunity have proliferated.

In 1950 there were 25 million international tourist arrivals, in 1970 the number was 166 million, and by 1990 it had grown to 435 million. From 1990 to 2018 numbers more than tripled reaching 1.442 billion. By 2030, 1.8 billion tourist arrivals are projected.

A recent New Yorker story brought to mind some of the reasons why I no longer will undertake any long-distance travel. I guess money is one reason. But an older person would have to be some kind of masochist to go through the indignities I mentioned earlier.

Some of my best friends are travelers, and I excuse their behavior on the grounds that they are bored. All travelers feel the need to expose themselves to something different, to feel something different, to expand their stale lives. But in the end travel makes you a spectator, not a participant, in another culture.

Travel may in some sense be fun, but it also dehumanizes. It makes us into zoo-goers with cameras. It can produce a false sense of empathy or a pseudo-compassion. We can happily identify with, say, the lifestyle of the Danes and show pained sympathy for the poverty in Lesotho. Travel always, I think, gives one a false sense of empowerment.

Celebrity travel to the most dangerous environments is just such a search for new sensations permitted by money and access. At bottom this is not science but one-upmanship on the fools who fly coach. Yet, as recent events have shown, you can’t fly too near the sun without your wings melting.

Don’t Take a Laxative Before You Travel

Stating the obvious can make people uncomfortable. Still, why do most travel and expat sites not tell you the obvious things? For instance, with Covid still on the rampage in many places, and with widely varying responses to it, it may not be a good idea to travel at all. You should read “The Travel Industry Is a Total Mess, But Everyone Is Traveling Anyway,” in yesterday’s Intelligencer. Why would anyone voluntarily undergo these wretched experiences?

Travel advice often gets political, especially in the personal comments. Regarding the trials of travel, readers often make it a Covid matter, like this guy rayornot from Las Vegas—in the “Total Mess” piece—who expresses a pretty common feeling:

Headlines say masks are ‘suggested’ indoors again.  To protect the unvaccinated.  I got one message for the unvaccinated: fuckem.  I’m vaccinated, I will show my card and I will get a booster if necessary. But any business (except the grocery store) that puts up a ‘mask required for entry’ sign will be telling me they don’t want my business.  And any politician who supports a mandatory return to masks ain’t gonna get my vote.  Don’t care what party they are.

The greedheads who opened these resorts here should have given tourists an option:  get vaccinated or stay home. . . . Vegas is a perfect example of a digressionary [discretionary] expense: nobody HAS to come here.

And nobody has to travel when conditions are this bad. Yet some travel writers encourage it, and they are not just the industry hacks. Here’s one, with perhaps the dumbest advice of all:

Now is the best time to travel: because you can’t delay life. We all want to make the most of our time here, which is why taking a break or a mini-retirement shouldn’t be put on the backburner. Stop delaying all those things you really want to do and just do them. Make a travel plan and stick with it. Don’t let your travel dreams keep being just dreams—make them goals. Bring them to life.

For those sensitive plants among us, travel can bring personal nightmares to life. One such person named Erin writes about that:

Things will go wrong. You will stress out about making friends, and you’ll wonder how everyone else in the hostel already knows each other. You will rehearse openers and practice them in your head. And maybe you’ll try convince yourself that you don’t need to make any friends—at least then you wouldn’t have to put yourself out there. You wouldn’t have to take the risk. Travel is full of risk.

Without taking too many risks, I managed to make it out and back last month from Oaxaca to Charlottesville to see my kids and grandkids. The trip entailed a whole day of bad food and involved four airports and three flights each way. It was worth it, despite having to deal with the incidental chaos of Mexico City’s airport and the premeditated pain of surviving Atlanta’s. Getting there was not half the fun, as the Cunard ads once advised us.