With pre- or post- study adventures across the world – the “gap year” – a fast growing phenomenon (read: right) for many British/ Western students, what are the implications? In terms of pollution, perhaps not so positive. But can cultivating more open minded citizens ever be a bad thing? According to British-Indian essayist Pico Iyer on Travel in the Age of Instagram, it’s not so black and white…
My fear is that more and more people will look only at those menus. That “tasting” cultures become more fashionable than truly entering them, and that it will be just the surfaces of other places we collect, not their essence. Indeed, that collecting places becomes more a goal than plunging into them and being transformed by them.
I worry, in short, that travel is becoming more a form of consumerism, whether you live in Santa Monica or Shanghai, than a real exercise in curiosity, and that as the world grows more open and available, going to another country will seem more like going to a cool ethnic supermarket or trendy restaurant than a true journey into shock or difference. I worry, in other words, that the tasting menu will replace the true unsettledness of being lost on the streets of Kolkata or spooked by a witch doctor in Haiti; that people will seek to become plusher versions of themselves when they travel rather than different versions. That comfort will seem a more essential part of the travel experience than challenge, not so different from shopping online, and that the selfie will become a more central part of our experience than the detailed portrait.
People, rightly and wonderfully, grow ever more concerned about the wilderness around us, and what we’re doing to our rivers and trees; I worry about the wild places in the imagination and the rainforests of our being. That travel has grown so commonplace is a blessing for us all, and has the potential to make us all more cosmopolitan, broad-minded and alive. But if we don’t travel to Ethiopia or Japan for something deeper than the ramen joints and the clothes shops there, we’ll remain no less provincial than before.
By skimming across the surface of such places, cherrypicking the most instagrammable locations, we run the risk of not truly immersing ourselves in the experience, letting it infiltrate our lives, our Self. Missing out on truly living like, with or at least learning about and talking to the locals – that “authentic experience” countless voluntourism* organisations/ companies capitalise upon. I may be biased, but why not actually live in these places? At least a little while. If foregoing multiple plane rides holiday, it may even destroy the planet a little less, as well as inspire creativity, enable one to think better, without the outside influences… Not to mention reveal the real world problems outside our bubble (and the banal origin of many of our own, obsession with busy-ness (business), skinniness, success and beyond).
To truly realise the privilege we have, of freedom of movement, of crisp white sheets, being able to flush the loo roll down the loo.. cannot be underestimated. Equally, the indulgence of such incredibly colourful cultures, cuisines, exquisite nature, innovative infrastructures such as those seen at Comuna 13, the renewed (previously most notorious) neighbourhood area of Medellín I was lucky enough to be introduced to by friends, and its own inhabitants.
Tales, true stories, politics and its importance – a matter of life or death in fact, in a time up of instability, I heard both sides from work colleagues voting for/ against “La Paz”, about how those against the accord did indeed want peace, but not on the terms agreed, to a large extent forgiving 15 years of criminal activities of the FARC, terrorising their own relatives. It was also the place I witnessed the harrowing impacts of our seemingly inane everyday actions we are so distanced from: plastic pollution, littering miles upon miles of beautiful beaches on the Pacific.
In a world where the most subtle and ingrained/ gradual of changes can seem the scariest, maybe travel, and, dare I say it, technology will be the tools enabling us to make the impact us “millennials” so badly want to see in the world. If indeed we use these experiences for exploration, entertainment, and to truly open our eyes.
“Real travel requires a maximum of unscheduled wandering, for there is no other way of discovering surprises and marvels, which, as I see it, is the only good reason for not staying at home.” Alan Watt
The beauty of unplanned wandering, letting our fears transform, and flow into fate cannot be underrated. Provided, to let it all sink in, get to know our true self, and indeed to stay sane, we also seek stillness.