Is Traveling Just Materialism in a Clever Guise?
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.