Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ornery Planet

As the holidays approach, I'm looking forward to travelling a bit around Europe. I've been here a few times before, but only to Paris and London; in the former case, I was on the way to Morocco and in the latter, my plans to travel more widely were thwarted by an explosion and fire in the Channel tunnel, an economic collapse and (maybe I'm projecting here) a plague of locusts with my name on their bellies.

This time, though. This time I'm gonna do it.

My impending tour of Europe notwithstanding, though, a lot of the blush is off the travel rose, at least when we're talking about the less-developed countries favoured by penniless backpackers like me.

I worked for a few years in a travel-accessory store in Montreal and among the items they stocked was the entire Lonely Planet guidebook series. Over the course of three years' worth of slow periods, I read a good chunk of that library and in doing so, was immersed in the modern Traveller's ethos.

The Traveller's ethos proceeds from the notion that "there are tourists, and then there are travellers," that these are two distinct breeds, and that the latter is superior, entitled to a double ration of smugness by virtue of its willingness to immerse itself in local cultures and really get down with the lively carnival of diversity that is the global Benetton ad in which we live.

Conversely, the tourist is pampered and childish, laden with cameras and camcorders, loudly wondering why he can't get a Coors Lite in Islamabad on a Friday afternoon, dragging his giant suitcase across the rutted streets of Phnomh Penh on his way to the killing fields where he will make a beeline to the gift shop.

The traveller knows how to use chopsticks; the tourist doesn't need them for his Big Mac.

That's the idea, anyway.

In reality, in the less-affluent and more exotic places in the world where I've been, I've been gobsmacked to see how everything has been rearranged to cater to Western backpackers, and in particular to Western backpackers who don't want to be reminded that they are being catered to. The desire to be Sir Richard Burton, first white man to penetrate the deepest jungle/desert/Temple of Doom is a lucrative one for those who know how to cater to the illusion. The locals aren't stupid; in their circumstances they don't have the luxury of being stupid. They know there's a billion affluent Westerners who hunger for the authentic, unvarnished globetrotter's experience, and so they are damn well going to manufacture that authenticity.

So, in Morocco, I was approached every thirty paces by a guide offering to show me some local attraction, with the first words out of his mouth being, "It's not touristic." He didn't know me from Adam but he knew what I was after.

In Cambodia, just a year after that country had been removed from Robert Young Pelton's "five skulls" category of lethality, I was met at the mini-bus depot by a horde of moto drivers who got into a minor riot in order to be the one to take me where I was going.

In Thailand I saw guesthouses that played Hollywood movies all day, including the decidedly postmodern spectacle of young Western backpackers spending all day watching movies like The Beach, a Leonardo DiCaprio movie about a bunch of young Western backpackers who go to Thailand and are disappointed that Thailand is full of young Western backpackers who sit around at guesthouses watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies all day.

Now, I can hear some of you saying, "Well if you don't like travelling, then don't travel. You're very privileged to have that option. Quit your bitching." Okay, it's not that I don't like travelling, and I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am to live in a time and place where "polio" and "aerial bombardment" are just words, let alone having the option to travel all over the globe. So I'm not bitching. I've won the historical, geographical, ethnic and gender lottery.

What I'm saying is, a lot of us have this idea that by travelling around the world, we're gathering some kind of authentic experience and engaging in some transformative ritual that will make us come out the other end a better, wiser, more enlightened person. I've had the sadly humorous experience of watching two seasoned travellers try to one-up each other with their travel stories, like two nth-degree black belts in a kung fu movie, determined to prove once and for all who has the most killer move. Anywhere you've been, I've been somewhere more remote, more beautiful, more untouched, more authentic--a lot like the place you went, before people like me and you started going there by the planeload.

There's a whole publishing industry devoted to the frantic checking off of life experiences. The Ur-example is "1001 Unforgettable Places To Visit Before You Die." What a desperate, frantic, joyless pursuit of notches that implies! Hurry up, half your life is over and you're only at #207! At this rate you'll never finish by the time you're done.

Oil, gold, forests and bison are scarce resources on a finite planet. So are authentically untouched places, or even moderately untrampled ones. Telling ourselves otherwise is to pretend that Space Mountain is a real rocketship ride, or that the call girl is doing it 'cause she loves us, and not for the discreet envelope we have left on the mantelpiece.

It's fun to pretend. Sometimes we have to, just to stay sane.

But when it comes to authentic travel, be careful what you wish for. The world is a very different place compared to when Cartier and Cabot, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone, even Jones and Ravenwood did their stomping around. The population of this big round theme park has nearly doubled in my lifetime and that cracking sound you hear is the joists of the boardwalk in the first stages of Malthusian collapse. For most of the people in most of the places you're likely to go, the authentic experience is hunger and desperation, blotted out with pirated Britney Spears recordings, seasoned with diesel fumes and oceans of discarded plastic water bottles.

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