My frustration at people who waste traveling with sight-seeing

by phil on Saturday Aug 26, 2006 11:41 AM

When I first arrived at the London School of Economics student housing, we met a group of other university bright eyes, hanging out in the lounge, drinking their newfound London pints, and generally relishing their good times and good looks. It was hard to look ugly there, underneath the dim colored lights, drunk with excitement and jet lag, and pleasant with a comfort that you were in the company of those that can also take summer sojourns to London.

2am, and the Harvard filipina with curls was strewn over the Duke dude with short hair, and they were sick. Everybody was sick, sick of the alcohol, sick of the jet lag, sick of the excitement. And yet, they were discussing plans for their entire week: a trip to Stonehenge, a tour bus to Edinburgh, a trip to Oxford, etc. Between the group, there were about 120 hours of scheduled sight-seeing discussed when only about 30 hours was actually available.

Maybe I've become jaded with travel. Or perhaps I've developed a dullness where the simple things in life don't excite me. But what they were doing was not "The Way." A 6 week trip to London, to them, was an "opportunity-of-a-lifetime" to get pictures of themselves at various famous spots, and subsequently collect them into a photo album.

I knocked on the filipina's door a week later, and said "hey, we're going to check out Trafalgar Square tonight, have you been there before?" She was underneath her covers, actually sick with some sort of cold or something. And she lit up with hurried excitement, ready to jump right up and go for it. But then I assured her, "Oh, sorry, I didn't know you were sick, never mind. It's cool." And she relaxed a bit, relieved of having the responsibility of gathering a new ornament to place in her memory bag.

I love the romance of travel. I hate the tourism of travel. To me, when I go to a new place, my goal is not to do sight-seeing. My goal is to really feel present there. To take a bite out of a creme brule on the busy streets of Paris. To play video games at 5am around harajuku girls in Tokyo. To dance with the goths and other crazies at an underground club in San Francisco.

Tom Wolfe urges budding writers to become journalists. He believes that it's important to learn how to observe the human condition and record it. To me, he is right, and not just when it comes to writing, but when it comes to a philosophy of life. Socrates once said, "the unexamined life is not worth living."

It seems those university bright eyes had the right intentions at least. They were in search of peak experiences. However, I think they just had the the wrong education and believed erroneously that somehow traveling somewhere else is a gold mine for such experiences. You can save up your entire year for your two-week vacation, take it, and then not remember a single thing from it. Or you can be with your buddies, playing video games, late into the night at some shanty apartment, eating overly doughy pizza, playing as if the world is going to end tomorrow, and that moment will last a lifetime.

One way of thinking is "travel for travel's sake." There are people who are naturally wired to "love traveling." I don't use the word "love" lightly anymore, especially because it prejudices me into thinking I have a passion for something that I don't. I know people who have a genuine love of traveling, and they believe in traveling on a spiritual level. Movement is meaningful. The goodness in life is in the trapezing from one part of the world to the next.

By a principle of a distribution of labor when it comes to passions, there's no way that so many people can say authentically that they love travel. I can't say I love travel myself. I know I love the romance of travel—don't we all—but there is nothing really pleasant about a crowded airplane.

I love in Richard Linklater's Slacker where this boy and girl talk about travel.

Girl: Do you ever just want to get the hell out of this country?
Boy: And go where?
Girl: I dunno, anywhere, doesn't matter.
Boy: I dunno. I've traveled. And all it is is bad water, bad food, get sick, gotta deal with strange people. And when you get back, you can't tell whether it really happened to you or you just saw it on TV.

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