I recently ran into an old acquaintance and we were forced to exchange awkward banter for a couple of minutes. He happily (drunkenly) explained to me that he had recently embarked on his first trip overseas, and went on to inform me how travelling truly, irrefutably, makes you a better, changed human being. He then politely enquired as to whether I had ever been overseas, before returning to his good-natured though tipsy rant.
Yes, I indeed have been overseas: for a few years now travel has been my exhilarating, expensive, and incredibly addictive vice. However, I disagree that travel will uniformly make you a better person.
Some people certainly come home more confident, independent, intelligent, compassionate and culturally aware versions of themselves. However, this is by no means a rule. Different people travel in different ways, with different means, and for different reasons. This, consequently, produces different outcomes.
In reality, seasoned travellers are often some of the most self-absorbed, culturally ignorant, alcohol-dependant, patronising people you will come across. For every wise, knowledgeable, and softly spoken dreadlocked angel you meet on the road, there is a small Californian man, who smells like he forgot to shower for a week, and will tell you all about the “hot Swedish chick” he “fucked” that time in Phnom Penh, but not of how harrowing his visit to S-21 was.
There are, definitely, types of travel that do not make one a better person. I will briefly outline my perception of these.
1. Drunken/drug-coloured travel.
That trip where you only visited nightclubs doesn’t really count. You know, the one where you didn’t visit the Eiffel Tower because you were too hungover. Or where your only memories of Hanoi were of the Hostel bar. You may have spent two weeks in Ios, but you slept through every day, and never made it to mainland Greece.
You can go to nightclubs at home fool! Why devote an entire trip to their frequency? It honestly baffles me why western tourists will spend thousands of dollars to fly across the world to do little more than get continuously inebriated and dance to the same music they listen to at home.
2. Or, where you refused to visit Churches…
Many a traveller I have heard utter something along the lines of ‘oh, you see one church, you’ve seen them all,’ or, ‘no, I don’t like museums,’ or even, ‘I just don’t get the attraction of ruins, they’re old right?’ If you don’t want to learn about the history and culture of a destination, then why are you there, mate?
Your trip to Istanbul was rather futile if you didn’t explore a number of the city’s stunning Mosques, and a Church or two. And, what was the point in going to Jordan at all if you don’t get completely lost and dehydrated in Petra for a day? Moreover, whilst the War Remnants Museum in Saigon may have its flaws, you’re definitely at a loss if you haven’t wandered its corridors and grown teary at the futile tragedy that is war.
3. If a travel agent organised it all for you…
You’re incapable of booking yourself a flight, opening up a Lonely Planet book, or searching a city on Trip-Advisor, yet you espouse how wizened you are by your adventures abroad? Please, give me a break.
I once met a group of Australian girls whose travel agent had booked their trip down to a tee, except for one thing; he forgot to tell them they needed visas to get into Turkey. They were furious: what’s a visa? Why should we have to pay for one? It had seriously never occurred to them to do a tiny bit of research into the foreign country they had spent thousands of dollars to visit.
4. Culturally insensitive travel.
If you’re teetering around a conservative country in your western heels, mini-shorts and crop-top then you should also realise that everyone is judging you. No, we are not judging how the outfit looks; we are judging you for your cultural ignorance and insensitivity. You don’t have to agree with their conservative standards of dress, and you don’t even have to cover all that much skin: just enough to vaguely look like you made an effort.
5. Whirlwind travel…
Oh, tell me again how you visited 12 countries in 18 days?
6. When you ate at McDonalds every day…
Food is an extremely important part of culture, so how does one experience a culture, without experiencing its cuisine? I travelled with a girl in India who basically refused to even try curry. It was her loss though, because Indian food is incredible, and, while I got to feast on the wonder that is Dahl, she was stuck nibbling on Naan bread.
7. Irresponsible travel.
Australian tourists, travelling in Thailand without travel insurance, who cannot afford their own medical bills (when they inevitably fall off motor bikes and step on glass at half moon parties…), cost the Thai public health system millions of dollars a year. If you can’t afford insurance, then you shouldn’t be travelling in the first place. Simple.
8. When you only spoke to other tourists…
What’s the point in leaving America if you’re only associating with your fellow Americans, buddy?
9. Travel where you didn’t check your privilege.
Mostly, travel won’t necessary make you a better person because it is completely monopolised by the wealthy. There is a reason that the majority of other travellers you meet are from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, the UK, the US, and Scandinavian states. There are only a handful of countries where the economies are strong enough, and the quality of life high enough, for its citizens to enjoy the luxury that is travel abroad, and, even then, chances are the travellers you meet, including yourself, are members of the upper and middle classes of these states.
When we recognise this, and begin to treat travel as a privilege, rather than as a right of passage to become a superior human being, then we will be finally getting somewhere.