Here’s a post that I never, and I mean ne-he-he-hever thought I would write. And yet, here I am, a healthy bloke in his 40’s with a stable career, financial comfort, and a ton of freedom. This is the prime time to travel the world and see the sights. The only problem is, I have almost no desire to do so.
I have been an eager explorer for as long as I can remember. I was born in the 70’s when traveling and sightseeing were regarded as noble pursuits. Free time meant travel time, and nobody thought any different. I have attended Premier League matches in England, enjoyed street festivals in Estonia, even walked through the Hermitage museum in Russia. My travel cred is respectable and there are plenty of other places on my bucket list. But alas, I have decided to crumple that list and throw it in the trash can.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Travel sucks these days. I get more joy out of a trip to the dentist. I would rather smash my head with a brick than endure the nerve-shredding insanity that is modern day air travel. And that’s with full recognition of the miraculous achievement. (Hell, my wife is even related to the Wright brothers.) However, the airlines have abandoned customer service for the bottom line, which has sucked the magic right out of the experience. Thus, I have to really want to see something in order to suffer the hassle of getting there. This alone has cleared much of my wish list.
Some destinations will always remain. I would like to see Paris. I would like to set foot on the Galapagos Islands. These were “musts” for as long as I could remember, but now I chalk them up to “if the opportunity arises.” This shift in attitude would be outright blasphemous to the me of yesteryear. So what the hell happened?
We all experienced a massive reality shift over the last several decades. The Information Age exploded into existence, giving us instant access to a boundless sea of information. In doing so, it rendered the traditional forms of cultural study and mental growth obsolete. In short, we no longer needed to go anywhere. The world started coming to us. It’s a mind-blowing realm where I can Skype with a Stockholm native should I want to brush up on my Swedish, all from the comfort of my living room.
This became more apparent to me after living in New Mexico for several years. The state is overflowing with amazing sights to see, from the Rio Grande Gorge in Taos to the Very Large Array near Socorro. These are awe-inspiring sights that require long dives through beautiful landscapes. But in the age of Google Maps and Lonely Planet, there isn’t a single inch of these trips that cannot be experienced at home in high-definition. So it begs the question, why waste the time, money, and oh-so-precious sanity?
At this point, I should clarify that this post is not anti-travel. As Mark Twain so eloquently put it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I agree one thousand percent. Travel broadens the mind like nothing else can. However, I argue that the manner in which we are accustomed needs to be updated. Specifically, the act of sightseeing.
Sightseeing, by definition, is the act of traveling to see sights. This was a rewarding activity before we could see every nook and cranny of every sight online. There was a time when seeing a sight without being there meant going to a library to consult an encyclopedia. And even then, the images might be less than impressive (if there were any at all). It made total sense to go see the sight because it gave you an enhanced perspective that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Nowadays, every sight has been visited by countless tourists and a glut of images is available online. Hell, many sights have live video feeds.
To put this in perspective, imagine going to see Machu Picchu back in the 1800’s with no Internet and no air travel. Let that sink in for a moment. You had to travel by land and sea to Peru, which took weeks or months with no guarantee that you could actually visit the place you sought. You were limited to library research about laws and customs, most of which were out of date. In addition, you needed to acquire and pack gear for every situation, from horseback to mountaineering. It was a super expensive undertaking that was only available to the healthy and wealthy. Thus, going to see that sight was a cathartic experience because you had to earn it through an arduous effort.
Nowadays, half an hour of online research and a cheap plane ticket will get you to Machu Picchu over a long weekend. And when people do get there, most of them tool around the place for ten minutes, take some pictures, then go to the nearest bar. They fail to create a lasting impression because they didn’t have to work for it. Furthermore, dealing with this onslaught of fair-weather ramblers has significantly inflated my misanthropy. You can no longer just sit and appreciate a charming destination because there are always obnoxious assholes who want to claim it in the name of Instagram.
The modern world cheapens the sightseeing experience by handing it to everyone on a silver platter. Even worse, places that should be difficult treks are now overrun by day-trippers on rascal scooters. It’s an ugly reality that has turned awe-inspiring places into tourist traps. Think about it, what’s the last tourist spot you visited without a gift shop? … Exactly.
What really hammered this home for me was a recent jaunt through Google Maps. I had read an interesting article about a small town in Norway. I went to Google Maps, entered the town, zoomed down to street level, and click-toured the entire area in HD from the comfort of my couch. I even click-drove to the next town based on a curious signpost. An hour later, I felt perfectly comfortable with the layout and vibe of both places, should I suddenly materialize there with a bicycle.
Now imagine introducing this tech to a traveler of the 1800’s. You would be burned at the stake for witchcraft.
So what’s an ex-nomad to do? Oddly enough, I find a great deal of satiation from shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown, detailing the travel antics of the late Anthony Bourdain. He was always curious and deferential, which made the shows endlessly appealing. Whenever I feel a wanderlust coming on, I pour a cold beer and let Tony do the trekking for me. (Another reliable favorite is Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.)
In addition, I have discovered that exploring my own backyard can be just as rewarding as visiting faraway lands. Uncovering a true local gem is equally cathartic, especially with the understanding that no one else in the world knows about it. Since moving to Toronto, I have found a world-class French patisserie with the best macaroons I have ever tasted, a superb coffee shop with top-notch beans, and a fantastic English pub that imports brews from the motherland. (And no, I won’t tell you who or where they are.) As icing on the butter tart, the most gratifying aspect of every safari is that I get to sleep in my own bed at night.
With all that said, I’m sure there are many readers who will disagree with this post. Rest assured, I am not here to crap on someone else’s opiate. By all means, trek the world and enjoy what it has to offer (just do your research and don’t be an ass about it). I am simply stating my own conclusions based on a shift in mindset. I still enjoy the occasional weekend excursion and I still see the value of changing the scenery every so often. BUT, and this is a big but, the world is a much smaller place than it used to be. Objectively, the Korean noodle shop around the corner is just as good as the ones in Seoul. In short, I have stopped romanticizing the treks of old and have grown to appreciate my own locale.
Would I like to see the Eiffel Tower? Sure, but I would rather stream a live feed and order some takeout from the local patisserie.