The Fetishization Of Travel

Being a stay-at-home mother in a somewhat nebulous employment situation, I appreciate the fact that people are no longer as quick to ask, “What do you do?” It’s a refreshing change from the early 2000s, where every dinner party served as a reminder of career failure. But if anything, I probably resent the replacement conversation starter even more: “Where have you been?” If you don’t give the right answer your life failure is clear for everyone to see.

It is assumed that you are cash-strapped or your kid is a travel hobgoblin or that perhaps you do not fit into an airplane seat.

Thankfully, when that question floats out, someone or the other usually pipes up with revelations of hiking in the Andes or scuba diving in the Andamans or volunteering in Bundelkhand and sharing a hovel with former dacoits. What can I say? I’ve been to the grocery store? To Bangkok? These answers — if you manage to make them heard over the cacophony of exultations over Everest Base Camp or Saint Tropez — are still acceptable, though. It is assumed that you are cash-strapped or your kid is a travel hobgoblin or that perhaps you do not fit into an airplane seat. You are offered pity and murmurs of encouragement rather than contempt.

Try telling the truth, though, and most people look at you as if you’ve whipped out a cervical mucus sample. They wrinkle up their noses, they edge away, they suddenly discover a pressing need to make amends with a former friend they haven’t spoken to for a year. You have marked yourself as a boring person. Someone who is not fun. Who knows what you might want to talk about next? Hepa versus ionic air purifiers? Cartesian dualism? Cat poo? There’s something not quite right about you.

So, I may as well say it. I do not like travelling. If I can avoid it, I will. For me, a trip is usually like being dragged to a distant cousin’s wedding, having a sort of good time and thinking “this is not so bad” — and then coming home, kicking off the nasty gold high heels and saying, “Never again.” The packing, the waiting, the cramped spaces, the hotels, the tourist traps… once a year — once a year is my limit. I’d much rather despatch my child to play school, make some sandwiches and read an Inspector Wexford mystery – hello Sussex, bye bye NCR.

 

Airport hell. Must I really do this???
Airport hell. Must I really do this?

 

Do you think I’m hopelessly narrow-minded? Provincial? Fearful? I don’t think any of that is true. It’s just that I sometimes feel as if my horizons are made broader, the distance I’ve covered is greater and the relaxation I’ve felt is deeper on my own darn couch — I have truly felt immersed in different cultures through books and even TV shows, and never more alienated than as a tourist rooting about in her pocket for enough change for the next “authentic” experience or photo-op. Can I not just shudder at Amazonian leeches and learn about their life cycle on Discovery Channel? Must I have my blood sucked by the disgusting little critters? Can limbo dancing on a cruise ship or relinquishing my savings to the dark forces of Disneyland really connect me better with the people of the Caribbean or the United States than a session with VS Naipaul or Jonathan Franzen?

If I’d been single, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this. It’s virtually a law that you must include a passionate love of travelling in your online dating profiles.

In real life, “connecting” with the locals means you’re either intruding or presenting a business opportunity… no matter how many times one flings one’s arm around the neck of a Turkish waiter or a wrinkled Ladakhi woman or an Afghan chieftain (not recommended) and presses click. All too often, the “other” encountered in the course of one’s travels is assigned with qualities of unparalleled nobility or wisdom. Deep conversations with cabbies are noted on blogs, artful photographs are taken of smiling urchins — every air ticket should come with a guarantee of free life lessons. Really, can I just say I’ve had it with pictures of wrinkled Ladakhi women or sadhus at the Kumbh Mela and their transcendent qualities that you think rubbed off on you?

Now, of course travel does widen your horizons, and is in fact necessary for personal growth in some ways. What I have a problem with is the not-so-subtle pissing contest, the endless comparisons of travel creds. The assumption that you must keep going to “bigger” and “better” (whatever your definition of these) places to signify momentum in your life. It’s ridiculous that travel has become a yardstick by which we measure the achievements and qualities of other people, or even ourselves.

It’s not that I’ve had a hopelessly static existence. I’ve studied abroad, travelled to many countries and places in India, I’ve had a gorgeous destination wedding (not my idea, of course!) and spent a large chunk of my career working for travel publications, including a stint as a commissioning editor for Lonely Planet, that bible of evangelistic high-carbon-footprinters. I once won the first prize in a national-level travel writing contest, my disingenuous outpourings subsequently preserved in a book. Basically, I have lived with the imposter syndrome for too long and it is time to come out.

This fetishization of travel, to me, ultimately reflects a particularly shallow and materialistic view of the world and its people. How far you’ve gone matters, not how far you’ve come.

“Coming out”, of course, is made easier by the fact that I have found a life partner. If I’d been single, I probably wouldn’t have been writing this. It’s virtually a law that you must include a passionate love of travelling in your online dating profiles. You must match passports where you once matched horoscopes. It’s no longer enough to say you enjoy sunsets or walks on the beach or a cup of good coffee. It has to be sunsets at the Serengeti, strolls along Kroh Kradan, coffee brewed from beans freshly defecated by Asian palm civets. Then, my friend, you might get laid on the first date.

“Date a boy who travels” say viral blogs — boys whose “hands have explored the stone relics of ancient civilizations” (conservationists, are you listening?). “Date a girl who travels”, say others, because “she’s seen so many things, met so many people, and if she had chosen you, better grab that opportunity.” Implication: people who don’t travel are not adventurous, they’ve probably never met another human being or had an experience in their life. Really? Is going from point A to point B to point C and Instagraming every moment all that matters?

This fetishization of travel, to me, ultimately reflects a particularly shallow and materialistic view of the world and its people. How far you’ve gone matters, not how far you’ve come. Some people are already taking this fetishization to the next level. If you’re as hot as Natalie Wood here, you can offer your companionship to rich men for a free vacation. Inspired? Try specialized dating services like MissTravel. Forget the person you’ll be with, just think of the places he’ll take you. It’s as if nothing else matters. Even on social media, you’ll find that apart from the odd virulent political comment most friends will reveal nothing of their lives other than where they have been. Cocktails made of dragonfruit, feet in various scenic locales, the Eiffel tower, zebras, coral reefs, sunset profiles, suggestively unmade hotel beds, mountain vistas, delighted leaps caught mid-air… these have become the tropes of our lives, proof that we’re having a good time. It is as if we want to deny the authenticity of the mundane, it’s very existence. Life isn’t worth much unless you’re elsewhere. Pleasure must be chased, but contentment is taboo. Movement is everything, stability is stagnation. This ethos, this selective exhibitionism, exhausts me. I’ve always wanted someone I could be still with.

I understand that Indians of the particular subsection I belong to are mobile in every way and this reflects in their obsession with logging airport check-ins, their preoccupation with flight, with elevation — literal and metaphorical. But it’s all become part of a new class system, where homebodies are the lowest in the pecking order. How can anyone want to be where they are? How can anybody want to stay in the lives they’ve built? Guess what, they can. All it takes is some imagination, a Kindle account and cable TV for some of us, and I’m not going to apologize for it any longer.

I'd rather stay put, thanks very much
I’d rather stay put, thanks very much