What is a traveller? What is a tourist? Who goes on pilgrimage to gaze at the Other, or cue in long lines to see what they have seen in photographs? What are we who go to other places, just because?
Somewhere lodged in my memory is the real name of angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition: Watchers. They watch over mankind and wait until they are called upon. They witness the turning of the world, and occassionally intervene.
This might sound, well, a bit voyeuristic. And the “poverty tourism” of seeing the slums of Mumbai originally struck me that way, just as the potential implications of paying to see indigenous people in their element or paying to take photos of people dressed in traditional garb. Human zoo, amateur anthropology, both, or neither?
And yet we hear those stories of people gone on vacation who are so touched by the suffering they see they put their life savings into opening an orphanage, starting a school, feeding the hungry. But are they just colonialists, missionaries, suffering from a white savior complex they don’t even know they have? Does their work dignify the people they do it for, or just inflate their own egos?
Then there are the people who displace themselves sometimes thousands of miles, to go up the Eiffel Tower, to take that photo from Instagram on that remote island, to get some use out of their selfie sticks and maybe even make their “friends” jealous. When you do the thing to do in the place to do it, and often, though not always, conditions are set so you have as little as necessary to do with whatever surrounds the famous landmark or iconic artwork. You can do a drive through version of the Louvre just to get that snapshot, fuzzy and marred by other camera flashes going off at the same time as it may be, and hopefully your elbows are sharp enough and you have a high tolerance for crowds. If you’re really efficient, you’ll take that hop-on hop off tour and check your list off quickly, going to see what there is to see with a minimum of getting lost in the neighborhood that surrounds it.
I never understand what the purpose of travel was, or found it exciting. One of my first experiences of travel was taking a guided tour through the monuments in DC. While it was nice to see them and have a bit of explanation, I must admit I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen a photo of before, and didn’t really understand why people would go to take a photo because of a photo they had seen. But then, anything to get people’s curiosity going, anything that takes you outside of your everyday and makes you reflect, be it on your longstanding values of country as immortalized in marble or the quest for beauty that takes you all the way to the tip of the Eiffel Tower to get that view you couldn’t really imagine.
The tourism industrial complex has its uses. The people who pay for a ticket to the Louvre just to see the Mona Lisa support all the works inside the museum, whether they view them or not, and I daresay paying a fee to photograph in a traditional village in Indonesia helps preserve the traditional dwellings and subsidizes the way of life.
Travel, in all its permutations, is about seeing the world- and hopefully sharing with those at home, which is why I’ve finally started this blog. And everyone’s way of seeing is uniquely different, and that’s a beautiful thing and what can make travel literature so exciting. Because when you explore a place, you are also witnessing who you are as a person, your hopes, your prejudices, your fears, your interests, so many parts of you that you put on a shelf in your everyday life and just refuse to look at, because existential terror and safety issues aren’t a thing in your home town, and maybe there’s no real outlet for your curiosity in your day job, or someone else in your life handles all the logistics and makes things run like clockwork so it’s rare for you to tke the lead and have to make decisions- where to go, what to do, when, how much to spend….
We travel in part because our everyday lives aren’t big enough for us, and that’s a wonderful thing. Wanderlust, even if it can reek of escapism, can show us what is lacking in our lives, whether it be nature, genuine human connection, or an outlet for our creativity.
Place iS a mirror that looks back at you. Your environment changes and influences you, just as you change and influences it, and most exciting, reflects yourself back to you giving you a chance to decide who you want to be.
Even if you are the ultimate guidebook checklist traveller, even if you hire a very professional tour company, even if you are just there for the instagram posts, you can’t fail to escape your normal self for a while, and thankfully, everything rarely goes as planned so you do have at least brief moments of connecting to the transitory, fickle, and untameable nature of reality.
Travel can liberate us from the illusion of control, from our fixed ideas that things can’t be different than we believe, and offer us the nirvana on earth of simply bearing witness.
We see for brief glimpses- not better, not worse, just different- and we go back to our every day lives just a bit more free, having expanded our experience of the human condition.