The art of staying put

by NJ McGarrigle

Photo: David du Plessis

The hot air filling the balloon of common consensus that travelling to far-flung places somehow aids the human condition is an idea worth deflating.

There is a mild degree of fascism from ‘fellow travellers’ with well-thumbed round-the-world tickets towards those who have not to taken the same journey. ‘How could you possibly not want to?’ is the inference; the tone is one of condescension, as though the person who stays at home is wrong – and condemned to suffering a massive void in their lives. By all accounts heroin is a sublime experience too, yet one doesn’t have emaciated partakers ramming the message down one’s throat: you haven’t lived until you’ve tried junk, baby!

The myth perpetuated by anyone who has lugged a backpack almost the same size as themselves around some god forsaken outback is one of transcendence; as though strapping 20kgs to one’s shoulders will allow shed your inner, psychological baggage and strip one’s mind of social inhibitions.  But let’s weigh up the average backpacker’s journey: fly to some location on the other side of the world, hang around hostels and befriend fellow westerners, take in some sights and sample exotic cuisine, while scurrying around for power points and wi-fi to send photographs or email missives to everyone back home, to remind them of the fun time being had. Bravo. Irish writer George Moore said: ‘A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it’. In a modern context, the item discovered by the traveller is ego, and then he or she comes home in the certain knowledge that we all wish to stroke it.

Of course the idea of the loveliness of the long distance backpacker was aided by the revolution of low-cost airfares in the nineties and noughties (the latter such a fitting epithet, now that we can look back on a decade filled with decadence, financial meltdown and moral panic). One positive change of cheap aeroplane tickets is that it democratised travel, making it accessible to most, whereas fifty years ago only the rich were privy to the jet streams. However when the votes are tallied as to whether this has enabled a more civilised age, the nays surely have it. Consider some of the major social concerns since the Ryanair revolution: an upsurge in racism and isolationism; terrorism and holy wars (which we are keeping at bay by putting our toiletries in a plastic bag); an increasingly selfish, consumer-centric western society; social uprisings driven by scarcity of resources; the rapid erosion of civil liberties by our governments.

If travel is meant to ‘open up the world’ and drag our minds along with it – the usual mantra of those whom have spent several thousand pounds on trekking the globe to find their new, better selves – and if record numbers of people are doing it, how come we live in society more distrustful, narcissistic and selfish than ever before? To give a smaller, but fitting, example: how is it that a backpacker will happily put their fate in the hands of some chancer in (say) Colombia or India, yet, absurdly, are unable to mutter hello or befriend a neighbour living in their own apartment complex?

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The only thing worse than travel is listening to someone talk about his or her travels. I dread the moment when someone at dinner or a party gets on to the subject – their travels become my travails. For some reason, the inveterate trekkers always have the demeanour of a pent up tour guide, earnestly trying to impress. This person, call him Tim, will drone on about how they once drank coffee consisting of a mixture of beetle droppings and tree sap in some small Asian village, in the idea that he is impressing us, while we sit around nursing our freshly brewed Italian blend. Then they might follow this up with how they once excreted into a 20-foot-hole, while the fifty-degree sun scorched their back, and a pack of stray mongrels lolled around, growling with each intestinal strain.

In which case I always wonder about their faux chagrin and what they expected visiting an isolated village made up of bamboo housing, a dozen people and three asses (Tim not being counted).

When Tim has finally exhausted his stock of travel anecdote – and exhausted your patience – if you are really unlucky, and have inadvertently cursed the place seating gods somehow, the person next to you may feel suitably inspired to begin wittering on about their ski holiday to truly enervate one’s desire to live. In which case you can either feign illness and slope off home, but many a time I prefer to roll a conversational hand grenade into the middle of the table to blow the après ski bore back to his chalet: this is the precise moment to change the topic to global warming, terrorism or the consumer-centric western society we live in etc.

The problem is that these culprits talk about a holiday with the same air as someone who valiantly decided to leave their comfortable home in order to go to battle – and while away zapped a dozen Nazis, liberated the small town where they were based, and won the hearts of six women (all sisters) on the trip back– and all this with only one change of trouser.

They completely lose the run of themselves: instead of realising that all they have done is bought a lemming-spawning, passé guide book, booked a flight online, caught it, wandered around somewhere they had no logical reason to be for a while, had the good fortune not to be mugged, murdered or raped and returned home after indulging in some form of crass class tourism. Emerson wrote ‘travelling is a fool’s paradise’ for a reason and in the modern backpacker’s mind, he or she think they have achieved something truly unique or special; along with the thousands of others who have stomped the same path before or after them.

Worse still, they want to tell us all about it.

But let me put it on record: I don’t care about your trip. When someone talks to me about some thing or some place where I have no frame of reference, I simply detach my mind; a glazed look takes hold. You may as well be talking about the history of jazz-fusion, or nuclear fusion for that matter. Thankfully, age allows one the wisdom to switch off and in my mind’s eye, I’m drizzling liberally on their dusty flip-flops, while bursting their hostel ping-pong ball of conceit.

At this stage, you are probably wondering about my previous travel itinerary. I have travelled only as far as mainland Western Europe and am content to go no further. There is little desire for me to breach some remote frontier – give me a civilised vista to look upon. When travelling, I wish for art and architecture, good food and wine and comfortable beds, with the rudimentary joy of a flushing toilet.

For all their deluded poncing around the world for their own satisfaction, backpackers increase carbon emissions and global warming; cause hyper-inflation and fracture indigenous economies; add tourist footfall contributing to the destruction and gradual decay of previously unspoiled sites; (directly and indirectly) impose western culture and values on local communities and create a vicious cycle of tourist pimping that local people and their families can never break free from. Then add in the fact that the global backpacker sees these places through a sanitised, inauthentic looking glass and perpetuate the condition of post-colonial superiority.

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Alongside the amorphous army of backpackers, a similar plague of delusion has infected those westerners who raise thousands of pounds through sponsorship – from the kindness of ordinary people – to travel to a part of the African continent on the premise of building houses, hospitals or schools. However, considering the majority of participants wouldn’t know one end of a trowel to another and that the perfunctory training will enable them to carry out only menial tasks, one has to question the value of this altruistic tilting at the white man’s windmills? An acquaintance of mine who has worked in construction all his life and went on one of these bricks and mortar missions, told me that the untrained do-gooders end up only getting in the way of the skilled workers. Instead, these good hearted but misguided innocents abroad, would be better sending the money directly to the charity and staying put.

Aside from the pain of the rest of us having to listen to them, what are the tangible benefits to these quixotic crusades by the ‘Y generation’ (or maybe that should be ‘why?’ generation)?  Secularisation of society has perhaps made us embody the spirit of the seeker more readily than we realise, and we imagine travelling to the other side of the world will give us some answers to our roles within it. However, as Horace once wrote, ‘they change their sky, not their mind’ and I don’t think a boarding pass is a journey towards one’s true self. That search always has to begin at home and for better or worse, that’s where you will find me.