Observations of an Aspiring Traveler

I visited Europe for the first time on a school trip when I was 17. While the other students in the group were queueing up at MacDonalds for a taste of home within the first few days, I teamed up with a brave companion and together, we ventured forth in search of something different, something authentic, something new.  On the streets of London, we approached some local folks, my brave friend doing most of the talking, and with some guidance, we ended up ducking into a Chinese restaurant down a side street close to Leicester Square.

There were no forks on the table; each place was set with the first non-disposable chopsticks I’d ever seen. We ordered veggie spring rolls and egg fried rice. To my present mind, it sounds like a pretty unremarkable meal but back then, when the food arrived and I took the first few bites, I felt like I’d found something special. This fried rice was nothing like the greasy, meaty heap drowned in soy sauce I’d seen so many times at restaurants in Georgia—it was light and fluffy, gently seasoned with sesame oil and other flavours that were subtle and new to my young American palate. It was my first taste of authentic Chinese food. My friend and I snuck a single pair of chopsticks out of the restaurant when we left; she kept one, and I kept the other. I still have that single chopstick in my kitchen today.

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That experience, and a myriad of others that remain just as vivid in my mind, sparked an obsession: I wanted to see the world. If you had asked me at 19 who my biggest role model was, my answer probably would have been Anthony Bourdain. It was through the lens of his camera crew that I fell in love with the idea of exploring for myself. I vowed to do so by fearlessly seeking out authentic interactions with local people: eating what they eat, asking them questions about themselves, respecting their experiences, and remaining open to and curious about whatever I might encounter. And also by being a bad-ass who could hold her liquor and generate an endless string of  sharp, insightful, and oh-so-sarcastic one-liners like my hero.

Through all this, I hoped to learn what it might be like to live in a culture different from my own without being a bother to the folks going about their business, to “Be a traveler, not a tourist.” And for a short while in 2012, (before the Wanderlust trend took hold and adventure travel proliferated into the cash cow it is today), I was blessed enough to live by that creed. But those are stories for another time.

Other than a few short ventures into the back country, I didn’t travel very much in my late 20’s. Wrapped up in the urgent need to learn to be an adult, I threw myself into work and assumed that once I’d reached the arbitrary point where I had “made it,” I would be able to travel the world to my heart’s content. However, I missed something pretty important in my calculations: the rise of Instagram and recent boom of the tourism industry.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take a week-long trip into the Scottish Highlands. When we were planning our trip, I thought we were doing all the right things to ensure an off-the-beaten-path experience. We talked to people who’d spent time in the area, we read the guidebooks, we hired a car, we plotted our routes, and we also left ourselves enough flexibility to follow any leads we found along the way. I thought we’d done everything right, yet I experienced a series of little shocks and impressions along the way that left me feeling the melancholy thinker instead of the elated traveler.

Most places we went felt over-run, even though we were far out of reach of tour buses and coaches for most of our journey. Whether in the pub or on the trail, we heard more North American accents around us than Scottish. Every destination we visited was crammed with herds of tourists and aspiring influencers: Any opportunity to interact with people who actually lived in the area was clipped for the sake of efficiency. Most of the locals we encountered were paid to keep the herds fed, watered, and moving along the conveyor of castles, historic sites, and picturesque vistas.

Like many places known for their rugged and untamed landscapes, the Highland economy has become increasingly dependent on money generated by tourism. And for good reason. It’s fucking gorgeous. But making a commodity of  a place’s geography, its culture, and even the warmth of its people runs the risk of making genuine glimpses of what life is like for the people who live in a place increasingly hard to come by. These peeks behind the curtain and into another culture generally can’t happen when the majority of human beings in a given area are tourists themselves. At that point, and for much of my trip to the Highlands, the experiences we encountered felt more like demonstrations constructed to show people what life was like, much of it in a by-gone era, rather than genuine encounters with day-to-day life itself. I assume that there’s real life happening somewhere behind the scene, but it seems that increasingly, it’s kept there, which, for me, was very different than my previous travels in Scotland, limited as they were. I can’t say I blame societies for putting up these little barriers, considering the number of people who simply want to find something interesting, whether human, mineral, animal, or vegetable, and pose for a selfie with it. Gone seem to be the days of traveling to observe, and on rare occasion participate  in a foreign culture without altering the experience of the people who live there.

On the trail, this takes a different form. Typically, I take to the trail when I’m looking for solitude. However, on the majority of the hikes we chose, I felt as though I was on a treadmill to the top, pushing myself to the limits of my sedentary office-worker physical abilities and trying not to encumber the walkers behind, all to snap a wanderlust selfie at the top, proceed back down in reasonable time, and move on to the day’s next photo op. Despite the crowds, people were generally respectful toward each other and the environment: there was little to no litter, and folks were relatively kind, even though I’m a slow, fat-ass North American who became more of an obstacle than a fellow hiker. However, despite the best intentions of the travelers, the sheer number of human feet covering the same ground on a daily basis was taking its toll on the land. The trails and the areas around them were eroded, and much of the natural vegetation had been driven back where people strayed from the path for better views, or to give their knees a break from the steep, rocky trail on the oh-so-spongy peat (guilty).  I wonder if in some way, the wear and erosion resembles the neural pathways of the people who live day-to-day in places where tourism is a major pillar of the economy.

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This brings me to the crux of it all: is there a way to combat this wear and tear without restricting  travel? Sensitive sites like Machu Picchu have begun issuing permits to limit the number of people visiting the site to limit further degradation due to human activity. Think you can escape the crowds with an extreme wilderness adventure? Take a peak at this article inspired by Nirmal Purja’s photo of a literal queue of people attempting to reach the summit of Mt. Everest and think again.

I don’t have an answer, and on the whole, having an influx of people with the financial stability, physical health, and curiosity/desire to explore other cultures is a pretty good problem to have. However, I do hope that we can stop focusing on creating the perfect wanderlust-driven Instagram feed and ask ourselves what this lust is doing to our world. In doing so, maybe we can create a more genuine and rewarding dynamic between the traveler and the destination, and take a bit better care of Mama Earth in the process.

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