Most all popular online publications, especially those geared towards women, are reliable for one thing if nothing else: Listicles. Listicles are like the fireweed of online literature. They are pretty and appealing and are the first things to pop up after all other journalistic options are burned through. At least monthly, you’ll stumble across a listicle of that will promise a better life after taking “these ten or twenty small steps!!” You know these: Call your mother. Practice gratitude. Measure your life in experiences and not in things.

Never has there been a listicle on life tweaks for happiness that does not include the highlighted adage above. And I totally get it! It’s a good one!! I’m certainly not here to argue the cliché — the mantra is one of my life’s greatest jams. And really, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that outwardly argues this point, whether or not they actually live it. It is our generation’s most unshakable dictum, a universally accepted truism, one you simply do not question if you like having friends and getting invited to parties…

Well, here goes nothing.

This’ll surely make me out to be a cynical old crow (not wrong?), so allow me to disclaim: On most days, I am happy and confident in the lifestyle decision to place more resources into experiences than into the accumulation of shit I don’t need. It’s just that on other days, I’m leery of the way I see the maxim play out within both the global and interpersonal rubric. I wonder, on these rare days, if we’re abusing this allowance that we’ve made for ourselves, the allowance to flaunt our experiences free from the consideration of others.

It is no secret that for many people, the notion of experience is interchangeable with tourism (unless we’re the ones doing it, and then we call it traveling), and these days, our travels are easier to flaunt than ever. But because no one questions traveling’s social benefits (broadened horizons, for example), travel somehow dances outside of what modern Western culture considers materialistically-driven behavior. Travel is oftentimes accepted as “deeper” and “cooler” than obvious material purchases, exempting it from the conversation of what qualifies as a self-indulgent or selfish act. (And to be clear, self-indulgent acts are fine, but let’s call them what they are.)

Traveler friends: Before your rage takes an unopen fist through your computer screen, know that this is as much a criticism of my own behavior as it is of anyone else’s. Glance at my Instagram feed for one baby-second and you’ll find someone who’s not exactly shy about sharing her worldly experiences. My intent here is not to discourage anyone from travel. I think the benefits, in general, outweigh the costs, but I also think it’s important to consider travel and tourism for what they are: consumer-driven activities that we may sometimes engage in for the same types of reasons that someone buys a big house or a luxury vehicle: because we want to fill our lives with pretty things, things that are rare and exotic and that people will ask us about. It hurts me bad to admit this about myself, which is precisely why this is a worthy conversation to be having. It’s important to examine one’s own motives every now and again.

Is social media vacation-sharing the modern-day equivalent of Mad Men-era material one-upmanship? I’ll admit that I’ve thought of places in terms of Instagram photos WHICH IS SO WEIRD AND MAKES ME HATE MYSELF, but it’s true. But, I’ve got a hunch that I’m not alone here; if you travel and share photos to social media, maybe you’ve had these thoughts too. (And no, slapping an inspirational quote alongside your photo does not make it an altruistic act. The travel was always for you. Don’t fucking kid yourself.)

For the most part, I believe that people are driven to travel by a genuine curiosity that’s good for the world, including me. But I’m also not upset when someone is impressed by my travels. And that’s okay too, right? It’s a great thing, to want to discover, and it’s really okay when people want to receive praise. So why the fuck even worry about it? Well, for me, it raises uncomfortable questions, ones at war with my own behavior (and every listicle ever been written): Is traveling just materialism in another guise? Have we taken experience culture too far? Have we commodified even life’s experiences, and if we have, isn’t that antithetical to the whole damn point?

Travel it is an acceptable way to display one’s utter fabulousness without coming off like some Bravo Housewife. It’s considered gauche to post a picture on social media of a new diamond bracelet (although of course, people still do it), but far less so to put up a pic of a helicopter ride over Kauai — though both are clearly purchases made only by folks in positions of privilege. Still, only one is a too-obvious display of wealth; the latter is a more subtle, acceptable display and is even celebrated because this person is supposedly experiencing life to the fullest.

Wealthy white people have been enjoying the luxury that is travel since the dawn of modern society. That’s no secret. It’s a hobby for the privileged, always has been. What strikes me as new and naïve is the notion that travel is no longer this way, that travel is equal-opportunity, and most baffling of all, that we have convinced ourselves that through travel we give as much as we take.

Every now and then, people ask me why I don’t write more about travel. (Right before the boom of Instagram travel bloggers, I backpacked through Mexico, Central, and South America for a year, by myself.) I’ve written a few times about how I saved the money to travel, but not about the experience itself. While I adore talking about these places, I just don’t feel comfortable contorting what felt like a huge damn privilege for me into a learning experience for someone else. Yes, it was difficult at times; I was often lonely, frustrated, scared, weird shit happened to me — I once even fell into and had to be extracted from a Brazilian sewer — but I’m not sure this espouses me with some unique wisdom over the next person who doesn’t have my privilege and hasn’t had my opportunity to travel. The dangerous assumption here is that people who aren’t traveling are doing so by choice. Of course, this is true for some folks, but there are just as many people who would fucking love to leave work for a year (or even a week!) to travel but that may never have the chance.

When it comes to international tourism, we all know who is doing the enjoying (middle- to upper-class, white folks) and who is doing the serving (lower- to middle-class, people of color). Even within our own country, hospitality is run upon the back of a colony of workers that might as well be the cells of an organ; doing the thankless work of keeping the whole system running completely unbeknownst to those doing the “living.” Jobs in tourism keep people in poor, developing nations employed, yes, but this is a simple pro-travel argument that ignores a pretty embarrassing history of oppression that left these countries so desperate for said tourism jobs. (None of this is to address the ecological impact of tourism; I’ll save it for another day.) I know I don’t want to wash the linens of people born into higher socioeconomic status than me. Travel is far from equal-opportunity, as much as folks are desperate to make it seem that way.

Just as important, how do we make the people in our own lives feel when we post pictures of traveling to exotic locations? We know that social media makes us “compare and despair” and yearn for all that we don’t have. My friends aren’t immune. Your friends aren’t immune. So why do we continue to knowingly inflict this pain on people we love? People, I’m not saying you should stop traveling if you have the means. I’m not going to. But just because you think that this is “the best way to live your life” or that you are “living your life to the fullest,” it doesn’t give you have a free pass to be an asshole about the reality that travel is a huge privilege that not everyone has, including people within your group of friends, family, or in your social media cosmos. (And please, please, don’t let Insta-bragging or ~~the need to travel~~ get you into crazy debt or abandon financial stability; it’s just such a scary idea.)

Early on in my travel journey, I was traveling on a local bus in rural Mexico and struck up a conversation with a guy wearing a Seahawks hat. (He had no f*cking idea who the Seahawks were, lol.) He inquired about my big backpack, and I proclaimed (in some real whack Spanish) that I would be traveling for a year. His face contorted in confusion. To him, it was unheard of that someone could just not work for an entire year.  I shrunk into my seat; his reaction (rightfully) making me feel like hot dog shit. I’m certain he ached for any opportunity to save some money, to buy a home, to have enough food for the month, and to feel secure. (Retirement is not a word in his lexicon.) And here I am, over here, denouncing people that put too much credence in material possessions… That moment, and many more to follow, shone a harsh light on the privileged perch from which I see the world; a light that even Instagram could not filter out.

 

13 thoughts on “Is Traveling Just Materialism in a Clever Guise?”

  1. “It’s important to consider travel and tourism for what they are: consumer-driven activities that we may sometimes engage in for the same types of reasons that someone buys a big house or a luxury vehicle: because we want to fill our lives with pretty things, things that are rare and exotic and that people will ask us about.”

    This right here. Never thought about it like that. I would like to give you a pat on the back for pointing this out because I’ve never thought of traveling like that. Please keep up these amazing introspective, fun yet painful articles. I find them inspiring and eye opening, funny and amusing. A good balance.

  2. I think the question is more about the sharing than the travel itself, no? I rarely share much about our travels online because I travel to visit loved ones and to eat delicious foods, and APPARENTLY people aren’t all that into seeing food pictures if they’re not also enjoying that food. @frugalishphysician excepted from that because her eating in France tweets warm my heart.

    Anyway back to the point – certainly it is a part of materialism. And a lot of us could but maybe don’t take into account the fact that our travels contribute to global warming among other things that aren’t good for society at large. I think about it and try to balance our desire for travel against the impact it has on the greater good. And I was very uncomfortable with the tourism trade in the more popular parts of Thailand where it was very obvious that the people who lived there had a much lower standard of living – it reminded me of my family who, even in my generation, were living in one and two room “houses” with dirt floors. I couldn’t reconcile that feeling of dissonance, being a rich tourist in a relatively poor country, for our whole trip even though I know that in large part, the tourism industry fuels a fair amount of those country’s GDP.

    1. Dumpster Doggy

      Completely agree re: the ecological impact of travel. I just didn’t have it in me to tackle that issue in this post!
      I haven’t been to Thailand but often hear people use some version of the adage “I lived like a King while in Thailand!!” and I just wanna be like, wow, wanna think about what you’re sayin’ there? smh

      1. William Francis

        Traveling is bad bc global warming……
        also:
        Travel is good bc GDP……
        Irrational austerity or prosperity, let’s pick one and stick with it people.

        Apologies in advance for that little troll dity, as I very much loved the article DumpsterD. Keep fighting the good fight to keep the social media communities thinking about why some feel obligated to post a geotag every time they leave their state.

  3. Excellent post and thought provoking. I’m not a big traveler and question at times people’s love for international travel. Sometimes I wonder if traveling is a different form of indicating your wealth. I too favour experience over stuff, but some of my most profound and satisfying experiences happen at my home with my family, in my community volunteering, and being in my home town. I look forward to the day it becomes fashionable and elitist to humble brag about volunteering and showing off how much fun you are having in your back yard.

    MPF

    1. Dumpster Doggy

      AMEN MPF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Great post! I’ve never seen a bright line between experiences and material possessions. A $2,000 ironman bicycle and a similarly priced ski vacation are both money spent in pursuit of an experience.

  5. I kind of thought of these when I travel that I am doing it to show off. However, I came from underprivileged family from the Philippines that work very hard and put my brothers to University and build a house and supported my family financially until now. that i felt that I have the rights to have my dreams realized too by visiting all the places that I just daydreamed when i was little, much more when it rains and inside of our house get flooded because our natve roof cant be replaced because my parents doesnt have enough money to buy food to feed us 3x a day much more to repair it. Faraway places that i used to read from english novel that i borrowed from school are the one who help me escape hunger and gave me strenght to dream higher and not be content of the life my parents gave us. When friends and extended family say that I am always lucky I say to them that its not just luck but also hardwork that get me to where I am now. I try to encourage and help others to work hard and to dream because that where I started. I still have Europe to conquer, I am hoping that i will be able to do it before my 50th birthday that will be 7yrs to go so Ive got years to save up for it and i will be done with travelling.

    1. Dumpster Doggy

      Good for you for making your dreams happen! You deserve it and clearly have worked hard for the experience. It sounds like you genuinely want to inspire people to do it themselves. Unfortunately, there are many people who travel-brag with less decent motives.

  6. Totally agree with what you have just written. I would like to point out though that the traveling world is changing and numerically the Chinese are now at the top of the list for international travel……..Yep…..I have seen all those buses of Chinese tour groups at Angkor Wat.

  7. I ponder this issue as well and now cringe whenever someone refers to travel to a distant, exotic locale as an experience. Yes, there is value gained from observing natural or man-made beauty. There is value gained from observing and interacting with individuals who are different than us, too. Attaining such benefits, though, does not require leaving one’s immediate region, let alone one’s state, time zone, country or continent.

  8. 100% yes! I call myself a minimalist (I know, I’m the worst), but collecting ‘experiences’ with the same mindlessness as we collect stuff is just a bad! If you’re just doing it for the Insta glory, it doesn’t matter if it’s a fancy purse or an expensive vacation. The result is the same. I recently went on my first ever vacation and I know it was an immense privilege. How could it not be? I got to take a week off of work and sit on a beach chair by the ocean. If that’s not a privileged experience, I don’t know what is. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels the same way!

  9. I’m a travel blogger and I LOVE THIS! And it made me laugh, which is awesome on a rainy Wednesday morning. I know so many of my colleagues who brag about being to X number of countries as if they’re showing off a collection of jewels but when you look deeper, they’ve only spent an afternoon in a capital city on a layover, etc. Now I love country lists as much as the next person and I think layovers are deeply rewarding, but it’s a bit ridiculous to claim you’ve “done” Germany because your train connection gave you a free day in Berlin.

    Keep the good stuff coming -loving it. xx

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