I’ve lived in Chile for two years. This is another way to say I’m really behind on US television. Sometimes programs arrive here right away; others arrive capriciously, much later. This explains why I’m just now considering the show 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, in which newlyweds Albin and Melanie Ulle travel the world, camera crew in tow. I know it’s from 2007. Here in Chile, however, it’s shiny and new.
I see the show’s appeal. Sitting on my sofa with an arroz con leche and a beer, I can press the “ON” button and, with the help of a heady mix of signals, energy pulses and satellite, I’m panting my way up to a Buddhist temple in Bhutan, I’m salivating over some fried red ants in the swarthy heat of the Amazon, and I’m savoring the last bites of ceviche in Peru as the locals spring into dance.
The show encourages travel. That’s a noble motive. I would say that, for those with the means, travel is close to a moral imperative. Travel betrays a curiosity for the world. It tests assumptions about how people live, and why. It creates a new lens through which to view your home.
Travel changes you. Travel calls for you to defend your beliefs, to reevaluate what you took for given. Travel means new flavors splashing across your tongue, new surfaces scratching and caressing your hands, new melodies reverberating in your ears. Travel means doing stupid things you wouldn’t do at home. Travel builds a quirkier, more complicated scaffolding on the construction site that is your life.
Whether you go to a new city, a new state, a new country or a new hemisphere, travel will alter you in some way. It can be shocking; it can be a rebirth. And yet, people still ask too much of traveling. They are not content to let traveling be a simple, explorative act. They want it to be anthropology. They want it to be epiphany.
In 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and its kindred shows and travel agencies, one, particularly misleading word keeps popping up: “immerse.” When 1,000 Places couple Albin and Melanie Ulle arrive to the Buddhist temple in the mountains of Bhutan after a three-hour trek, they say they feel “immersed” in Eastern spirituality. When the Peruvians break into dance in the restaurant, the Ulles sense they’re really “immersed” in the local culture. In these programs and the travel industry they’ve spawned, the local folk are there to show the tourists dances, rituals, funky clothing and exotic food. Yes, Albin and Melanie embarked on a tour across a world of ruins, churches, palaces, and mountaintops. But were they really “immersed” in anything during their year of travel, apart from tourist culture?
The concept of “immersing” yourself in a foreign place is naïve at best, patronizing at worst. Yet I once believed in it, too. I didn’t leave the US until I was 18. Back then, I imagined what travel would be like. My flights of fancy were born mostly from the images and tropes I’d received from television and travel websites. These stereotype-laden visuals informed me that the world outside the US was a giant field of artisanal cookware, bright, geometrical wool blankets, strange straw hats, Europeans with wine-stained lips, and diminutive South Americans riding llamas up a ruin-heavy mountainside. Immersion in a culture was easy: get a local tour guide, drink the regional alcohol, snap the typical photos, and come home with a keychain miniature of the most famous nearby tourist attraction. It was simple, and oversimplified.
My ideas about immersion quickly unraveled. Two months volunteering in Russia left me with more questions than answers. I’d read Tolstoy on the banks of the Volga, I’d eaten enough borscht to last a lifetime, but I was no closer to understanding Russian culture.
The following year, I tried again. I enrolled in an “immersion” language course in Spain. A sampling of my institute-sponsored experiences in Madrid includes several things, none particularly Spanish. I took Cuban salsa lessons with a German and an Austrian. I visited the national art museums with two other Americans and read the descriptions of Rembrandts and Monets, all neatly translated into English.
In the evenings, the other students and I kept showing up at sangria bars two hours before the locals had even decided what they were doing that night. The street hawkers knew enough English to offer free drinks to large groups of gringo-looking folks wandering the Gran Vía at midnight.
“Immerse” means to submerge, to plunge into, to involve oneself deeply, to be completely covered. When it comes to travel, immersion is an honorable goal and a complete buzzword. It’s useful for selling neatly packaged, sterile “experiences” that will hurtle you down the tourist thoroughfare with a bottled water and a charter bus. Yet it’s not only a buzzword. It’s also a lie. For travelers passing through India in two weeks or doing Paris in three days, “immersion” is impossible, nothing more than a pat on one’s back for talking to a local or going to a restaurant with no English menu.
For those staying in their destination longer — two months, six months, or in the case of expats and immigrants, years — the issue is more complex, but immersion is still an impossible feat. No matter how long you stay somewhere, or how deeply you’re invested in that place, “immersion” is a misnomer for any experience you have in a country that’s not your own.
I work in Chile. I’m married to a Chilean. The texture of my daily life is informed by this geography. The stray dogs barking around me are Chilean dogs. The car alarms blaring are Chilean alarms. My grocery store, though in some far reaches of the universe owned by Walmart, is staffed and stocked by Chileans. When I look out my window, I see the western face of the Andes. When I smell a flower, it’s a flower rooted in the Chilean dirt, grown in the hard shine of Chilean sun.
One might say that after two years I’ve achieved that holy grail of travelers and expats: immersion. I disagree. No matter how long I live in Chile, my experience of the country is altered by my intrinsic, inescapable status as an Outsider. I’m not from here. I didn’t grow up here. Instinctively, I see Chile from a different point of view than a homegrown Chilean. Like expats, immigrants, and travelers everywhere, whether I want to or not I constantly compare Chilean processes and patterns and foods and wares to their counterparts back home. Little things like store layouts and quirks of language continue to trip me up. People can tell I’m a foreigner from the way I walk, my accent, the brand of my shoes, my gestures. I’m still offered higher prices at the market. I’m still asked, “¿De dónde eres?”
To say that after two years I’m immersed in Chile would be to sell Chile short.
Immersion travel smacks of a collector’s mindset: I’ve gone to France, eaten a baguette, photographed the Louvre and made the day trip out to Versailles. I paid extra for a local guide, for a company that would take me to an “authentic” lunch in the countryside with local vintners. I swished my Bordeaux and smiled for the camera.
With “immersion” experiences like this, we snap up a caricature of a country’s soul and hammer it onto our travel totems, an ever-growing stack of places we’ve been, photographed, and forced into a bite-size piece that suits our understanding.
We don’t do this consciously, or maliciously. But it still impedes us from gaining richer vision of the world.
1,000 Places to See Before You Die and its recent appearance on my television screen in Chile is just a symptom of the American tendency to oversimplify other cultures. We amble through the world in awkward reverence and chatty awe. We lunge at stereotypes because they’re something we can manage. In the context of the show, the idea of “immersing” in a local culture while a camera crew is following your every step is laughable. In a larger context, the idea of immersing leads us to forget why we travel to begin with.
Of course you should try go to that local cafe and not to the Starbucks on the other corner. Of course you should try to meet the locals and not stay huddled with the fanny-packed Ohioans.
When you meet those locals, though, don’t talk, theorize, or photograph. Don’t attempt to understand. Just listen. Don’t confirm your biases. Complicate them. Look for questions, not answers. You won’t immerse. You will, however, take home something more valuable than a keychain.