by Dr. Daniel Dooghan
When Chairman Mao questioned the dedication of those who could not reach the Great Wall, he did not envision the difficulty of having to navigate a maze of a thousand selfie sticks. Agra’s Taj Mahal teems with touts who promise Instagram-ready pictures of tourists appearing to grasp its dome. Visitors to the Sistine Chapel are likely to get stuck behind spectators transfixed not by Michelangelo’s masterwork, but by their iPads raised above their heads in electronic prayer. Simply to see the sights is not enough for many tourists; they need instead a tangible record of their visit.
Souvenirs—literally memories—are hardly new. Postcards date at least to the nineteenth century, and medieval Christian pilgrims could acquire holy relics on their journeys. The public display of travel is not a contemporary development either: mailing a postcard announces to its recipient where the sender has been. Curio cases allow travelers to exhibit their memories. Often the bane of family gatherings, the slideshow can inflict one’s memories upon a captive audience. More convivially, conversations easily turn to stories of adventures abroad whenever travelers return. The performance of memory seems inseparable from travel, though not all performances were created equal: Uncle Chester’s blog about his trip to Minneapolis probably won’t become the next Odyssey.
The quality of its public performance notwithstanding, travel supposedly changes individuals in positive ways. That teachers regularly encourage students to study abroad testifies to this belief. What is more, aimless wandering is socially acceptable when done in a foreign country: the gap year. The reasons range from the practical to the metaphysical. For the former, we may point to language learning and cross-cultural understanding; for the latter, the pilgrimage practices in many religions. Catholics who complete a prescribed pilgrimage may receive a plenary indulgence, freeing them from certain punishments. The spiritual effects of a pilgrimage to Mecca are so important that Islam esteems it as one of its five pillars.
Many of the personal transformations resulting from travel are intangible; however, the proliferation of devices at monuments and indeed of entire trips mediated through screens suggests a desire to make visible what fundamentally is not. Just as, an only half-kidding joke goes, a relationship isn’t official until a couple’s Facebook profiles announce it, so too may one’s travel become meaningful when shared online. Although this represents a reversal of conventional assumptions about travel, it fits with broader logics of curating our identities via social media. Tourists can now show their virtual friends that they are exciting people who do exciting things.
Certainly we could amass an impressive haul of photographs in exotic locales while still soaking up whatever mystical benefits travel confers, but do we? Travel, especially in its more luxurious varieties, is a type of conspicuous consumption; simply having the resources, time most of all, to leave home and work behind signifies some economic privilege. Social media opportunities to crow about our roving demand neatly framed experiences: tweeting about getting lost—again—in Cairo is less compelling than a selfie with the Great Pyramid.
Moreover, our expectations about travel often come pre-digested. Guidebooks offer caption narratives and efficient itineraries. Bucket lists reduce travel to discrete experiences to check off. In this way, travel becomes a commodity that we can acquire and display like a new pair of shoes. Well-heeled travelers can thus demonstrate their worldliness not by speaking another language or trying new foods, but by their photo albums of visits to famous sites.
This commodification of travel experience and focus on high profile activities may correspond to a disinterest in activities that lack the same public recognition. About ten years ago, I had the good fortune to spend winter break in Paris with some friends from high school. Afterward our paths diverged; I stayed in Paris, while they traveled around France and Italy. We all met again in Paris before heading home and talked about our respective trips. One of our companions, who had just returned from Italy, said she had eaten nothing there but bread. Though Italian breads are delicious, she was not expressing a fondness for them but an aversion to trying the local fare. Seeing the Colosseum was important to her, but eating Italian food wasn’t. When I finally got to Italy a couple years ago I confirmed my suspicion that she had things backward.
Americans tend to get singled out for this kind of behavior, but they are hardly unique. The American who refuses to speak the local language and eats only at McDonald’s is real, but so is the Indian whose tour package includes a chef from home. Indeed, a quick search will reveal a staggering array of travel options based on diet, religion, comfort and even politics. One can see what’s famous and collect the necessary photographic proof all without ever having to do something new.
Valuing the destination over the journey may be unfortunate, but this kind of commodification has a more sinister consequence. By looking at travel as a set of atomic experiences to be collected, we often rob them of their human context. The Taj Mahal—a tomb—sits in a city of over a million people. It does not exist solely for the benefit of the tourist. Yet when we pursue travel as consumption, we implicitly adopt this attitude.
Travel is the great opportunity to realize that the world does not revolve around us. This is not to say that one shouldn’t visit Taj Mahal—you should; it’s amazing—but that context is important.
No matter how much time we spend on our phones, we are not our profile pictures. A completed bucket list has ominous implications. Rather than trying to master the world a selfie at a time, we can use its wonders as jumping-off points into the unexpected. Not only is the thrill of discovery more rewarding—and often tastier—than pre-planned consumption, it is also a gentle reminder that the world is always bigger than us.