Travel as Consumption

The Apple iPad, Reebok Classics, Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Aegean tomato and yak cheese focaccia – ours is an age of consumerism.  From our first forays to the sweet shop, through birthdays, toy ads and Christmas lists, we are subtly schooled in the art of desire; by the time we reach early adulthood, we are all grandmasters of the craft.  We know what we want, we know how to get it, we know how much it costs.  We know why it’s better than its rivals, why Fad magazine gave it 8/10 neighbour’s asses, why Stephen Fry is tweeting about it.

We know what we want.

And we know we don’t need it.

Consumption has been called the pre-eminent postmodern act.  It’s the means through which we in the West, adrift in a world without meaning, cut loose from nature and history, traverse these troubling times.  It is our lifejacket.  It is also our straightjacket.  For the first time in history, entire societies are engaged in acts of holistic consumption.  We buy not merely what we need to survive, but also what we need (or so it may seem) to ensure a happy existence.  And so we buy safety, comfort, beauty and health, learning, leisure and love.  We buy status, power, a sense of inclusion.  We even buy our adventures.

In the age of consumerism, everything is commoditised. To buy or not to buy, that is the question.  Rainforests, footballers, hospital beds – the infectious logic of the market makes products of them all.  And tourism shows no immunity.

Transnational travel makes culture a commodity.  When the ethic of consumption is extended to new people and places, everything comes with a price.  Visit to the palace – $12; mountain trek – $35; traditional dance performance – $8; sense of self-worth – priceless.  Today’s holiday brochures boast bargains like an Argos catalogue; instead of homeware and cheap electronics, we find tigers, temples and tribal villages.  All are commodities, just the same.

We buy these things for the same reason we buy any other nonessential product: to look better, feel better or else appear better.  We are, in effect, cultural cannibals, consuming culture so as to assimilate some aspect of it.  Thus, New York confers cosmopolitanism, India spirituality, the Caribbean coolness and so on.  And then there are optional extras, side dishes if you like.  A five-star hotel suggests status, a wine tour imparts taste, the prefix ‘eco-’ implies ethical acumen.  In the realm of the tourist-cannibal, you are what you eat.

And thus, we travel to consume; it’s all that we know how to do.  Consumption is our (shop) window on the world, framing our every experience.  Just as once we defined ourselves by what we produced, now it is what we consume.  Consumption, then, is mandatory, involuntary even.  And travel is yet another market place.  It is the new mall in a small town, with new stores, new brands and new possibilities.  And so we buy flights and daytrips and waterproof clothing and rugs and postcards and carved wooden statues and tea and timeshares and tailor-made suits.  We buy everything and anything.  New malls are opened, new cultures consumed.  Supply follows demand.

Supply follows demand, but with a marked dislocation: demand from the West; supply from the Rest.  So travel is a form of imperialism, an expansionist project in which vast armies of pleasure-seekers are deployed daily to ‘colonise’ new lands, safe in the knowledge that their motives are sound (the customer is always right).  It is to this issue, together with other inadvertent effects of travel, that I dedicate the following articles.

Travel as Religious Experience

What is travel?  A strange question perhaps, given the purview of this website.  But let’s have a think for a moment.  Why do we do it?  What does it do for us, and to us, and to the world around us?  What is the worth of travel, and what is its cost?  In this short series of articles, I want to think around some of these questions.  My aim is to find not answers but analogies, alternative ways of thinking about travel and travellers that might challenge some old preconceptions.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking at travel as an epic quest or adventure, as an act of cultural ‘cannibalism’ and as a new form of imperialism.  To kick off, though, I invite you to think about travel as a kind of religious ritual.

Picture the scene:  There’s a lake or a river or something like that, maybe even a sea.  And it’s sunrise, or sunset, it doesn’t matter which, and the sun slides low across the sky like an egg yolk.  All along the shoreline, lined-up up like little lanterns, are the beach huts or bungalows or whatever – the backpacker barracks.  And out front, on the balconies and rooftops, sprawled across cushions or strung-out in hammocks, are the travellers themselves.

Tarquin is deep in a dog-eared Dumas he traded two towns back.   With his free hand (and much deliberation) he strokes a ponderous beard.  His is a fossilised figure: skin coarse and cracked as old leather, hair the texture of twine. On his feet, chappals worn to a crisp; his vest is peppered with holes.  He looks up.  Across the deck, four round and ruddy-faced girls sit perched on poofs like hens on the nest.  They gossip, giggle.  One scans idly through photos as another sows beads in her hair.  One is consulting the guidebook.  One is writing a postcard.  Gap years, thinks Tarquin, with a cock of his pierced ‘brow, slaves to the Lonely Planet.  “They change their climate, not their soul, who rush across the sea.”  Hmmm.  Maybe he’ll feed them that one later, if he deigns to converse.

So consider: a ritual, loosely defined, is a kind of social operating procedure.  It’s a time-tested template, a pre-cut pattern of acts and utterances, which, properly connected, can communicate changes in the status of participants.  A wedding ceremony is an obvious example.  There are vows and rings and drunken speeches, and these have to be used in just the right place, at just the right time, to make the marriage effective.  So too with funerals, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, you name it.  A ritual doesn’t have to be religious of course.  Graduations, hazings, even stag- and hen-nights – all involve a certain modus operandi (think silly clothes and public performance), adherence to which serves to signpost safe passage from one life-stage to the next.

Now in secular society, we’re somewhat starved of decent life-changing rituals.  You’d be hard-pressed to argue that a stag-night is as mind-blowingly transformative as the Hindu vel kavadi or an Amerindian vision quest (despite, perhaps, the noble efforts of the best man).  But regardless, we all still partake in rituals.  In fact, they appear to be pretty much indispensable to human culture.  By following the established procedure at certain key stages of our lives, we’re in effect ‘reinvesting’ in society, subscribing to its overarching ethos.  Thus, every time we do a ritual, we at once remake society.

So how does all this apply to travel, you might justly ask.  Let’s think again about the gaggle of gap years sketched out above.  Every year, approximately 100,000 school-leavers head overseas prior to embarking on work or further education.  Many more young people take similar breaks during or after their studies, or in-between jobs.  Among this growing demographic, which is worth an estimated £2.2 billion in the UK alone, there are two major gap year options: project-based trips with organisations such as Global Vision International (GVI) and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO); or budget backpacking through Asia, Australasia and the Americas.  Of those who opt for the latter, some 25,000 visit Thailand, Australia and New Zealand in the same outing, making this the pre-eminent gap year circuit.  Already, then, we have the first elements of ritual: time and place.  But what else?  Well, for a start you need the costume.  (Rituals, you will recall, work best in garish garb.)  Ponchos, sarongs, fisherman’s pants: practical, yes, but also symbolic.  Like braids, dreadlocks, tattoos and piercings, this decorative dress denotes a departure from everyday life and heightens the sense of occasion. There are other adornments too: the journal; the guidebook; the low-slung knapsack.  And then there is ritual talk: “where are you going?”; “where have you been?”; “did you ‘do’ this monument/trek/natural wonder?”; etc.  Drink, drugs and digital photos, sun, sea and social networks – these too are ubiquitous features.

Travel, then, becomes ritual; there is an order of action, a template to be followed.  Upon their return from the wilderness, our young vagrants are transformed (or reformed) into worldly-wise Westerners, new sovereign citizens of a global era.  (Theirs is the Earth and everything that’s in it!)  Through their reintegration, initiates renew a vow to society.  In return, society bestows on them the mantle of maturity, endorsing their experience as life-changing and morally valid.

But what of Tarquin, and his scorn, and his esoteric fiction?  What of all those who recognise the ritual and take pains to avoid it?  Is travel, for Tarquins, still quasi-religious?  Here, the idiom of ritual is surely redundant.  Consider, instead, a pilgrim, or a wandering ascetic.  Both are in search of spiritual fulfilment, the latter through acts of denial, the former through transit itself.  For souls such as Tarquin, travel affords a path to enlightenment, whether through disavowal (detachment from one’s home-world), austerity (renunciation of material comforts) or more formal spiritual practice (yoga, meditation and so on).  In such cases, travel seems less an assent to cultural values than a means to reflect upon and challenge them.

So there we have it.  What appears a humble waterfront guesthouse is in fact a stage upon which various reverent rites are enacted, be it a kind of coming of age ritual akin to an aboriginal walkabout or the righteous restraint of the shoestring ascetic.  Viewing travel in this light is in no way meant to devalue it – quite the opposite in fact.  While at one level these foreign forays are decidedly frivolous, at another they can be seen to fulfil basic social functions.  Indeed, for many in the West today, overseas travel has come to fill the void vacated by ‘real’ religions, providing meaning, purpose, awe and wonder, as well as a sense of belonging.  As we shall see in the following article, it may also serve to satisfy an ancient appetite for adventure and the itching innate in our figurative feet.

Travel as Epic Adventure

In the last article, I set out the idea that travel can serve a quasi-religious function akin to a ritual or pilgrimage.  This week, I want to look at our motivation in a different light.  Rather than viewing travel as a kind of religious experience, it is, I contend, an epic adventure, a journey of discovery whose destination, as Henry Miller once suggested, ‘is never a place but a new way of looking at things’.  Above all else, it affords us a new way of looking at each other, and at ourselves.  More tellingly perhaps, it offers the chance to change what we see, to ‘find’ oneself and fashion it anew.

“We’d just made it to Camp 3, halfway up the Lhotse Face, when the storm set in.  24,000 ft., -20°C, and the snow’s coming in literally at right angles…  I remember thinking: there’s a very real chance I’ll die here tonight!  We just had to bunk down and hope for the best…  The next morning the sky had cleared completely, and to see that sunrise – I’ve never felt anything like it…”

“The rooms were filthy, I mean really dirty: the sheets hadn’t been washed, the bathroom was a state, I was like ‘honestly!’  So we got the maid up but of course she doesn’t speak English.  Anyway, the manager was ever so nice about it – we got upgraded to the Queen suite, proper VIP treatment!  And the food was fantastic…”

Whatever one says about travel, whatever truths one tries to mine from its representative depths, it is most certainly, literally, an adventure.  Be it two weeks in Malta or two years in Tibet (visa permitting), the act of travel presupposes the same encounter with the unknown that is at the heart of every adventurous undertaking.  The term itself is suggestive: ‘adventure’ is derived from the Latin advenire, ‘to arrive, come about or befall’.  As such, we might view the adventure as a series of unforeseen episodes that befall one, much as the gorgon befell Perseus or Gene Hackman befell the Poseidon.  And as travel is more or less a matter of letting things befall one, of submitting to the new and unfamiliar in the pursuit of pleasure, it is, by definition, an adventure.

So what are these things we allow to befall us?  Which novel events comprise the adventure?  To name but a few of this endless assortment, there are different climates, different foods, different modes of dress.  Often, the language too is unfamiliar, while elsewhere we may encounter disparate laws, singular customs, foreign fauna and strange currencies.  More generally, travel rests on a series of oppositions or inversions in the fabric of everyday life.  Thus, we swap cold weather for warmth, city living for country, fast living for slow, stress for calm and so on, perhaps vice versa.  While the extent of these inversions may vary – not everyone swaps the rat race for an ashram or the Arctic for Arabia – they have in common the essence of adventure, namely, the substitution of novelty for normality.

Why, then, do we take pleasure in reversing our daily routines?  For creatures of habit, as humans are, what is to be gained from abandoning the comfort of familiarity?  Well, the first and most obvious explanation is that the highs justify the lows, which is to say that the unforeseeable pleasures equal or exceed the unforeseeable pains.  So it is, then, that the sunrise trumps the blizzard, the food trumps the filth and so on.  By extension, travel offers the possibility of discovering paradise, a place where pleasures don’t merely trump pain, they trivialise it.  But travel isn’t simply the upshot of a cost-benefit analysis, its aim being to increase our net measure of pleasure.  In fact, the epic adventure is less a quest for paradise than a quest for ourselves.  Now this might sound like a clumsy cliché, and granted, it can be unwieldy.  But there is truth to this truism, for in the course of the adventure, in the process of displacing our persons from their usual surrounds, we cannot help but arrive at a fuller conception of our characters.  This is equally true of those who travel with us, be they friends, partners or family: change someone’s context, induce the unfamiliar, and you see what stuff they are made of.  For the vast majority of people, this is arguably the ultimate appeal of travel: it is a means and a medium to know one another, an adventure to be shared.  But what of those who prefer to go solo?  Why the desire to ‘find’ oneself?  And what does this actually mean?

At this point, things get a little messy.  Traditionally, people have thought of the ‘self’ as something absolute, unchanging; we are born with a certain nature – good, bad, brave, dumb, etc. – and that’s the way we remain.  Existentialism changed all this by arguing that the self had to be discovered in the course of existence (hence the name), only for postmodernism to shift the goalposts once again by asserting that the self was in fact an illusion.  Now this might all seem pretty abstract, but these various ideas have had some very concrete effects.  Existentialist concepts of freedom and choice, for example, were readily apparent in the counter-cultural movements of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which spawned the first era of self-seeking travellers.  A generation and a half later, and we’re starting to see evidence of the postmodernist claim that the self exists only as a self-penned, self-conscious caricature; we do x, y and z not because we need or even want to, but because we want ourselves to appear like we do.  Viewed this way, the desire to travel is inseparable from the desire to appear (i.e. look and feel) like a traveller, just as the need for adventure is synonymous with the need to appear adventurous.  Travel, then, is a brand that helps to define one’s identity.  Like the food we eat, the car we drive and the clothes we wear, it works to confer on us sense of our own individuality.  Nevertheless, like any other product, it is subject to the market and the whims of consumerism, a theme that I’ll return to in the following article.