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A philosophy of travel
Agnes Callard's New Yorker piece should prompt at least a little soul-searching
By now I’ve traveled far and long enough, to enough places, with enough different kinds of people, to know there are many good and bad ways of doing travel—and that its effects vary widely.
I agree, as philosopher Agnes Callard suggests in a recent New Yorker article, that travel does not necessarily make one interesting, and that many of us return from travels essentially unchanged, essentially proving Proust’s thesis that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
In fact, most of us do not see things all that differently when we come home.
Callard’s The Case Against Travel is actually a critique of one particular kind of travel: the touristy kind. Take this, from her own experience:
…a decade ago, when I was in Abu Dhabi, I went on a guided tour of a falcon hospital. I took a photo with a falcon on my arm. I have no interest in falconry or falcons, and a generalized dislike of encounters with nonhuman animals. But the falcon hospital was one of the answers to the question, “What does one do in Abu Dhabi?” So I went.
Exactly right. To ask that particular question—what does one do in a place?—reveals a certain underdevelopment of one’s own interests, and indeed, a failure to think through what exactly one is doing there in the first place.
It’s true that travel carries a certain cachet, and that to be well-traveled (which means I suppose to have been to many different places), is a kind of universally-regarded status symbol. Callard quotes the inimitable Samuel Johnson, advising Boswell to travel to China for the sake of his children: “There would be a lustre reflected upon them. . . . They would be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of China.”
Granted, one should not go places for lustre or cachet. Just to say that I have been to 40-something countries is itself no evidence of anything other than that I have had access to unusual amounts of time and money. And, I suppose it reveals some of my priorities since I did not spend that time and money on other things (a nicer car, a bigger house, etc.).
But at this point I must confess that in my 20s, I did show up to some places asking, what does one do here? That is how I found myself standing outside La Sagrada Familia while in Barcelona, or outside the Louvre in Paris (and deciding not to go in because the lines were too long).
And I suppose it’s also how I found myself in Agra, India, marveling at the Taj Mahal. At least by then, I had the words of a young English poet in mind, Edward Lear: “Let the inhabitants of the world be divided into two classes: them as has seen the Taj Mahal, and them as hasn't.” At least part of me wanted to test that proposition: would I feel any different after having seen it?
It is quite a sight. The pictures don’t do it justice.
My friend Francis had a slightly better reason to be there: he’s an architect. Most of our itinerary through India on that trip was driven by his desire to see formative architectural achievements, which did bring us to some kinda crazy out-of-the-way places (not sure we saw a single tourist in Chandigarh).
Early trips—like the European grand tour, like India—were instructive, in that I found myself gravitating toward food and the outdoors, rather than toward typical tourist traps. In India, my greatest memories are not of the Taj Mahal, but of the samosas and chai tea served by kids on train platforms. $1.50 for the best hot breakfast of your life after an overnight train to Rajasthan. Or, the most delicious curry in the world tucked down an alleyway next to the Red Fort in Delhi. The Red Fort was meh—the curry was divine.
In Nepal I was on my own—I meandered Kathmandu and couldn’t get enough of the utterly unique Tibetan-Chinese-Indian fusion food I was eating. Then, I took a two-day river rafting trip down one of the steepest rivers in the world. Class 4 rapids all day.
As I got older, I built on these experiences and grew into my own way of travel.
I also had my son, which narrowed the universe of possibilities, if only for a few years. Around that time, I learned how to kitesurf. I discovered the Outer Banks in North Carolina was the perfect sweet spot for a new parent and kitesurfer: endless, open sand beaches and ice cream stands, and the main launch point for kiters is a football field-sized swath of warm, shallow water on the Sound side near Avon. Perfect for both toddlers and newbie kitesurfers.
Besides, I’d been living on the outskirts of Washington D.C. for years, and it didn’t take long to realize that I almost never went to the National Mall, the galleries, or the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a straightforward observation that New Yorkers hardly care to visit the Statue of Liberty or go to the top of the Empire State Building, and most of them actively seek to avoid the pushy, noisy moshpit that is Times Square. And I have to assume that the residents of Barcelona are not routinely visiting La Sagrada Familia.
If these places are so great, why don’t the locals go?
In short: touristy things are not exactly fun. Most of us should just admit that here and now. The long lines, the expense, the same damn photo a million others took just last year, and that feeling of shrugging one’s shoulders with a meager, is that it?
Plus, playing tourist is just exhausting.
Tourism is marked by its locomotive character. “I went to France.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to the Louvre.” O.K., but what did you do there? “I went to see the ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” That is, before quickly moving on: apparently, many people spend just fifteen seconds looking at the “Mona Lisa.” It’s locomotion all the way down.”
So, one should perhaps only ask “what does one do here?” in order to know where not to go. On my last trip to Barcelona, I couldn’t wait to walk my way out of the tourist area around La Rambla—tourists all the way down does not make for a pleasant afternoon.
But the more important reason to avoid this kind of travel is to avoid being misled into traveling for someone else’s purposes, to satisfy someone else’s idea of what travel is.
One should travel with a mission, and that mission should be driven by one’s own internal passions and interests. Do not think, “I should go see the Mona Lisa one day,”—unless you are a particular fan of Renaissance art. If not, then don’t go and save yourself the line.
For my part, I travel for a few reasons, and they can be kept on one hand: rock climbing, kitesurfing, food, and to find places that feel like home, and which I would like to keep returning to an investing in (this fourth reason is what Post Nomad is all about).
So my travels are intensely mission-focused and passion-oriented.
The most typical tourist thing I do is probably my pursuit of food (those samosas!) When I walk around new places, I am often in pursuit of new food, drink, and markets.
If I’m in Mexico, I want to find the best fish tacos. If in Southern Europe, the best olive oil and pizza. If in anywhere, the best street food. Grilled, with oil, cooked hot, and cheap—wherever there is a crowd of locals cramming a hole-in-the-wall food establishment, there you will find me. That is, if it’s a rest day from climbing.
The main thing Callard got right in her piece is that tourism does not live up to our romantically-inclined notions of travel. In short: tourist travel will not change us. More often than not, it is tourists changing the place they go to, and not the other way around. (“…travelers tell themselves they’ve changed, but you can’t rely on introspection to detect a delusion.”) On this much, I agree.
But Callard is only looking at one kind of travel—call it the Trad Tourist. Her essay is not so much a screed against travel but against travel as tourism.
She aims her negative critique at the one who buys the bucket list book from the book store and starts working their way down, moving through life according to someone else’s list. She is convinced that those who go for a week to see a new sight and expect to come back changed are mostly deluding themselves and possibly hurting the place they went.
So I agree—don’t go somewhere because you think you will be changed. But do go somewhere if you love a thing and want to do more of the thing, or see more of the thing. If you love food, then go taste the wonders of the world. If you love art, go see it, wherever it may be. If you are an ancient history buff, go see the ruins. If you love climbing, then climb! (Of course, I don’t need to say this to climbers—they already know what to do).
Yet I’m afraid that almost no one does this. Instead, they wander.
Digital nomads are perhaps the worst offenders. They appear to have made the novelty of travel into their own kind of God. Travel as an innate virtue. Travel as pure cachet, pure signaling. Perpetual travel as evidence of complete freedom. Travel just to show the world on Insta.
When I see digital nomads in Facebook groups asking for recommendations for places to go next (always with the same set of requirements: must have high-speed internet, under $2,000/month for rent, either someplace calm or otherwise with lots of “stuff” to do, as if these were the only two possibilities), I always wonder whether they’ve given any thought of their own beyond see lots of different countries.
It’s especially distressing when I see globe-trotting, “world schooling” parents at their wit’s end because their three kids, ages 5, 7, and 10, are exhausted and not enjoying themselves and not at all thriving on this supposedly life-changing journey that the parents had it in their minds they would all have. To them, I say: go home. Or, choose the place you’ve liked the most and make it your home. But stop traveling purely for its own sake.
This kind of travel, always one place to the next, is no way to go through life. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like “floating with the tide,” as opposed to swimming for a goal, as Hunter S. Thompson would say.
As Callard writes, for most, the purpose of travel appears to be merely to break up the tedium of life:
If you aren’t planning a major life change, the prospect looms, terrifyingly, as “More and more of this, and then I die.” Travel splits this expanse of time into the chunk that happens before the trip, and the chunk that happens after it, obscuring from view the certainty of annihilation. And it does so in the cleverest possible way: by giving you a foretaste of it. You don’t like to think about the fact that someday you will do nothing and be nobody. You will only allow yourself to preview this experience when you can disguise it in a narrative about how you are doing many exciting and edifying things: you are experiencing, you are connecting, you are being transformed, and you have the trinkets and photos to prove it.
I agree. Don’t travel as a means of masking your own existential desperation. There are better ways to do it.