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Has Travel Become Another Exercise in Narcissism?

“Travel yourself interesting…”

The concept invaded my consciousness as only an insidious radio advert can.

I was on a South London bus, headphones firmly implanted to drown out the school-kids’ Friday morning hullabaloo, when amongst the usual litany of shouty commercials came the sound of waves and seagulls.

A soothing voiceover inquired: “Why be Andy Nuttall when you can be…” and suddenly there arose the voice of Andy himself, assaulting my eardrums in a strangled underwater scream that proclaimed his name in affirmatory joy: “…A-N-D-Y N-U-T-T-A-L-L?!?”

Then came that slogan: “Travel yourself interesting,” and here was the rub — the once tedious Mr. Nuttall had been injected with an ebullient charisma by way of a simple trip abroad.

My photo of this tree will definitely be superior to the 10,000 I could find online.

As I pondered this seductive message, part of a tongue-in-cheek promotional campaign by internet travel company Expedia, one question nagged: if travel makes you interesting, why are so many ‘travellers’ such a bore?

Anyone who’s spent a fair amount of time in the world’s hostel dormitories will have met the culprit. He sits there on the bottom bunk, emaciated tanned limbs protruding from a Bintang vest and a pair of baggy pyjama trousers printed with a flailing dragon, and then he starts to witter. Whether you like it or not, you are hearing his story, each twist in the narrative prefaced by the dread-refrain: “when I was in…”

He’s been away for two months, spent most of it dancing on the beach addled on diet pills and Sangsom sets—perhaps punctuated by a week of hungover volunteering building a retaining wall that is destined to collapse within a year. His destination’s merits can all be surmised with the brain-dead epithet “amazing”; the natives were “so friendly”. But this facsimile, off-the-peg experience has invested him with unprecedented insight into Thailand’s 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!

This idea that travelling is an essential ingredient of a life well-lived is still in its infancy. Fifty years ago, as granny and granddad holidayed in Eastbourne, sheltering from the drizzle with bingo and haddock and chips on the pier, the experienced traveller was a storied soul, a seeker possessed of genuinely unusual knowledge. Only as the baby boomers came of age did the foreign holiday enter the quotidian. Not until the 90s did going to more exotic climes—the ubiquitous ‘gap-year’—become a post-secondary school, middle-class rite of passage.

I am only standing here to provide a sense of scale.

In the years since, this idea has seeped into the West’s worldview. But somewhere amidst the collision of widening global curiosity, runaway self-absorption and increasingly unputdownable technology lurks a sense that travel is losing its capacity to make us wonder.

The internet, that great reductive slag-heap of YOLO hashtags in the sky, has been one of the main instigators of this phenomenon. Walk into a hostel bar nowadays and look around — chances are that half the patrons will be ensconced in their digital worlds. Expressionless faces illuminated by the deadening LCD glare of tablet screens, they sit around plugged into the home they had intended to leave behind, able to research every flight, hotel and restaurant in advance based on countless peer reviews.

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 (for that is how you awaken the ocular gadget), “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!”

By shrinking the world, the tyranny of the web has stifled our capacity for independent discovery, catering to an appetite for foreknowledge that inevitably demystifies 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 immersion. Yet the axiom that all ‘travel’ (as opposed to tourism) is by definition enriching and transformative persists.

Bit gutted I chose to wear flip-flops in this photo.

Except it’s not. Not always. Going on an overland truck tour through Tanzania, travelling with people from your own country, from your own demographic, on the same prescribed routes, stopping only to point at animals and get leathered in westernized hostels does not make you an authority on all that ails post-independence Africa.

Perhaps Andy Nuttall’s story of his encounter with some clown fish off the coast of Sharm el-Sheikh will electrify the Home Counties, transforming his previously leaden dinner-table repartee into that of Peter Ustinov. More likely, he’ll bore everyone to the brink of violence with anecdotes we’ve heard before—of kebabs and camel-rides, and the hilarious severity of his diarrhea.

In part, our impatience with dullards like Andy blowing on their travel trumpets is born of envy—who, after all, wants to hear about someone else’s hedonism while their own six months of life has evaporated in a barely remembered routine of workplace drudgery and binge-drinking? But it’s also the solipsistic delusion implied by his belief that his story is worth relating—the automatic assumption that HIS experiences hold some inherent value to EVERYONE ELSE.

Travel has become another exercise in narcissistic presentation, one more way of desperately extracting some semblance of uniqueness out of your otherwise soul-crushingly mediocre existence.

It’s as though we’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s not what you experience, but how you perceive it. The apocryphal cosmic adventurer who lived an entire imagined lifetime inside an orange after necking ayahuasca—that’s the fellow I want around my dinner table, not some dunce who’s Eaten, Prayed and Loved their way through a week-long wellness retreat in Rishikesh, but had already decided upon the myriad ways the journey would alter their worldview before they’d stepped off the Shatabdi Express.

In a homogenising, fast-paced world, our appetite for foreknowledge has demystified foreign places. Yet the axiom that all ‘travel’ is transformative persists.

This stance is part-confession. I’m a travel writer, which is short-hand for saying that I’m a workshy dilettante with an over-inflated respect for the unique value of my own experience. What started as a means of investing my inveterate wanderings with more purpose has become an exercise in ego-massage, and a burden: each turn in the road reconnoitred in advance, the camera never far from my side.

The life my stories project has little basis in my daily reality. For each hour I spend scribbling notes in some remote Shangri-la, I spend twenty 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, all the while wondering whether it might provoke the sort of fan-mail I received for recent travel stories, which moved one reader to brand me “a deluded c*nt.”

And, in moments of honesty, I know that I may never recapture the “first pill” magic of my earliest independent trips abroad: the naïve kid in a Bintang vest and dragon trousers perpetually rudderless in Asia, without a guidebook, mobile phone or map to steer me.

Here’s another good photo of myself

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 it makes you feel better about yourself. Just realize: if your travelling 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 bucket-lists inspired by clickbait ‘10 best’ listicles appealing to the lowest common denominator, from one deluded c*nt to another, travelling isn’t making you interesting. It’s just confirming your position as one of the crowd.

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 if that’s the sum total of your response to the world’s wonder, I’m sorry, but a little bit of travel is never going to save you.

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For more cynical musings about the state of modern travel, check out Henry’s new piece: ‘The Death of Awe in the Age of Awesome’:

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