When Tourism Turns into Narcissism

Like the dude on safari who doesn't lift his head from the lens, many of us have started vacation to accumulate stories, photos, and experiences rather than just letting the unfamiliar wash over us, and reveling in the surprise of unexpected things.

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Oct 10 2014, 3:00pm

Some hippy holidayers. Photo courtesy of Sam Voulters

Years ago, I bumped into a Canadian couple in Patagonia whose every step had been pursued by serendipity. They'd arrived in the Los Glaciares National Park on the day the ice bridge calved off the Perito Moreno glacier-a once-in-a-decade event. On the Valdes Peninsula, they'd witnessed a procession of killer whales beaching themselves to hunt for baby sea lions from the very same windswept promontory where, two weeks earlier, I'd stood for six hours without seeing so much as a fin. And how did they articulate their astonishing good fortune?

"It was pretty awesome," the man shrugged in a monotone drawl.

And that was it-the sum total of their response to the world's wonder summarized in one drab pronouncement.

Recently, I've found myself thinking about this pair of bons vivants again. They've become my personal symbol for an increasingly common phenomenon: the tedious, uninspired world traveler.

Anyone who's spent a bit of time in the world's hostel dormitories should be familiar with the stereotype. He sits there on the bottom bunk-tanned, emaciated limbs protruding from a Bintang vest and a pair of baggy dragon-print pants-and inevitably gets to bragging about where his journeys have taken him.

He's been away for a two-month stint, most of which he spent dancing on the beach, addled on diet pills and local grain alcohol. Perhaps the partying was punctuated by a week of hungover volunteering session, during which he built a retaining wall that's destined to collapse within the year. His destination's merits can all be encapsulated with the brain-dead epithet "amazing"; the natives are similarly dismissed as "so friendly." But this experience has invested him with unprecedented insight into Southeast Asian society-indeed, into the very essence of the human condition. Suddenly, he is Marco Polo returning from the court of Kublai Khan. He must write a blog, post endless photos on social media. Everyone must benefit from his remarkable new wisdom.

Perhaps a touch of inanity is to be expected in an age when everyone seems to travel. Tourism is a rapidly democratizing business. Fifty years ago, as granny and granddad spent their vacations at the nearest body of water, the experienced traveler was a storied soul, a seeker possessed of genuinely unusual knowledge. Only as the Baby Boomers came of age did travel to foreign countries become quotidian. Not until the 90s did going to more exotic climes-in the UK, we've got the ubiquitous "gap year"-become a post-secondary school rite of passage for the middle class.

Tourists being tourists in Egypt. All photos below courtesy of the author

The received wisdom is that travel makes us more interesting, that it is an essential ingredient of a life well-lived. But somewhere amid the collision of widening global curiosity, runaway self-absorption, and ever-more insidious technology lurks an unavoidable sense that travel is losing its capacity to make us wonder.

The internet, that great reductive heap of YOLO hashtags, has been one of the main instigators of this phenomenon. Walk into a hostel bar nowadays and there's a good chance that half the patrons will be ensconced in their digital worlds. Expressionless faces illuminated by the deadening LCD glare of tablet screens, they sit plugged into the home they intended to leave behind, able to research every flight, hotel, and restaurant in advance based on countless peer reviews. By shrinking the world, the web has stifled our capacity for independent discovery.

With the arrival of Google Glass, shameless self-obsessives everywhere will soon be able to access travel information by conversing with a pair of spectacles. "OK, Glass," we'll say, "please go ahead and expunge any last shred of motivation I might have to rely on the kindness of strangers and hand me everything on a screen beamed directly into my jaundiced fucking eyeballs."

In a homogenizing, fast-paced world, our appetite for knowledge-and our ability to instantly acquire it-has demystified foreign places. Instead of taking time to absorb and consider, many people seem more inclined to travel quickly, tick off the "don't miss" highlights, and form broad-brush assumptions based on the bare minimum of experiences. Yet the axiom that all "travel" (as opposed to "tourism") is by definition enriching and transformative persists.

Except it's not. Not always. Going on an overland truck tour through Tanzania, traveling with people from your own country and demographic, on the same prescribed routes, stopping only to point at animals and get trashed in Westernized hostels does not make you an authority on all that ails postcolonial Africa.

Perhaps my Canadian friends' yarns about their time in Argentina electrified Ontario, transforming their previously leaden dinner-party presence into something more akin to Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. More likely, they bored friends and family to the brink of violence with Gringo Trail anecdotes that had been heard countless times before-of delicious steak, cheap cocaine, and the hilarious severity of their diarrhea.

In part, our impatience with people blowing on their travel trumpets is born of envy-who, after all, wants to hear about someone else's hedonistic escapades while they're stuck in a barely remembered routine of workplace drudgery and escapist binge drinking? But we also need to realize that not every traveler's story is worth relating.

Like the dude on safari who doesn't lift his head from the lens, many of us have started vacation to accumulate-stories, photos, and experiences-rather than just letting the unfamiliar wash over us, and reveling in the surprise of unexpected things. We have become a generation of traveling consumers, convinced that the image of a misty dawn over Machu Picchu just wouldn't be the same without our faces in the foreground.

It's as though we've lost sight of the fact that it's not the fact of your experiences but how you perceive them that really matters. The apocryphal cosmic adventurer who lived an entire imagined lifetime inside an orange after drinking some ayahuasca-that's the fellow I want around my dinner table, not some dunce who's Eaten, Prayed, and Loved his way through a week-long wellness retreat in Rishikesh but had already decided upon the myriad ways the journey would alter his life before he stepped off the Shatabdi Express.

The author, inserting himself into his travel memories

This stance is partly a confession. I'm a travel writer, which is shorthand for saying that I'm a work-shy dilettante with an overinflated respect for the value of my own experience. What started as a means of investing my inveterate wanderings with more purpose has become an exercise in massaging my ego, and a burden: Each turn in the road is now scouted in advance, the camera never far from my side.

The life my stories illustrate has little basis in my daily reality. For every hour I spend scribbling notes in some remote Shangri-La, I spend 20 more hunkered in a spine-degrading keyboard hunch, hammering out articles that only contribute to the problem, exhorting people to visit places that may well be better off without them. And, in moments of honesty, I know that I may never recapture the magic of my earliest independent trips abroad: the naïve kid perpetually rudderless in Asia, without a guidebook, mobile phone, or map to steer me.

Look, I'm not saying that certain types of travel are without value. Get away, get some sun, write a journal, prostrate yourself before the altar of benumbing technology, and record every step of your journey on social media if you really must. Just realize: If your traveling is a box-ticking exercise, if you predicate even one iota of self-worth on how many countries you've visited, if you think in "ten best" listicles, take it from me-traveling isn't making you interesting. It's just confirming your position as one of the crowd.

Henry Wismayer is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, and Time.

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