In a homogenous world of multinational symbols and tired old tourist cliches, the question might be asked: is travel dead?
Not if you open your eyes to what’s really around you…
Sometimes I see the ranks of backpackers waiting to go on their white water rafting experience, the tourists clicking away at the monuments and the guide books that create the reality the traveler is looking for and I wonder if travel is dead.
The locals all around the world ape the Hollywood movies, aspire to eat American fast food and wear Western brands. The old religious rituals and traditions hold interest only for the travelers tracking them down, hoping to fill a hole in their own culture while the locals are quite happy to trade their ancient medicine for Pfizer, their music for MTV.
Check out the passion for something like Sufism in the West, the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz claiming millions of readers – yet head to Iran, Pakistan or Turkey and Sufi traditions only survive amongst the older people out in the sticks. Until Sufism meets Multimedia it’s unlikely to flourish again in its places of origin.
Or how about the romantic image of the Bedouin roaming the deserts with their camels, crossing the hypnotic dunes and living on dates and camel milk as in Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands ? A far cry from the Bedouin of today who hang on precariously around the edges of the cities, many of whom only head to the desert to smuggle drugs, guns and prostitutes…
The world is no longer a romantic playground for our adventures that might be navigated in 80 days. It’s a mixed up, over-populated place where traditions and technology and immigration overlap in the kind of sticky collage that only a blind artist could create. The travel industry sells the romantic images to the tourists and the travelers soon find that there’s a whole world behind the cliches that doesn’t match our two-dimensional expectations.
And nor should it.
Travel is about discovering this world as it is, not as we imagine it. And though the days of adventurers like Richard Burton are gone, there’s still plenty of opportunity to explore – in fact, travel is now all around us.
A few weeks ago I got talking to a Sudanese guy I met in the street in Tel Aviv and discovered that he’d just been released from jail for crossing the border illegally from Egypt. He was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war. I took him around town to show him where the cheap markets were and when we came down to the beach he paused in wonder.
It was the first time in his life he’d ever seen the ocean.
I grabbed some friends that evening and we went along to jam with a community of newly-arrived Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, dancing and singing and hearing stories that touched us to the core.
Travel will never be dead once we understand it’s all around us, whether at home or on the road. It’s not about how many bus journeys we endure or temples we visit, it’s about opening our eyes and finding ways to interact and communicate with those around us. Only then can we transcend our own personal worlds.
And what else is the point of travel?