What’s the Point of Travel, Anyway?

by Nathan James Thomas

In the first installment of The Recovering Backpacker, a column that looks at what makes for a meaningful travel experience, Nathan James Thomas responds to Agnes Callard’s controversial New Yorker article, “The Case Against Travel.”

“The single most important fact about tourism is this: we already know what we will be like when we return.” 

So writes Agnes Callard in a New Yorker article that lays out “The Case Against Travel.” While pausing to briefly let the reader know of “the many great cities I have actually lived and worked in,” the author takes aim at the narcissism and futility of travel. A few people in our space brought the article to my attention. My first reaction was to laugh it off… the writer just clearly doesn’t get it. But the article itself traveled widely. It is well-researched and coherent. So, after giving it a couple of weeks, I decided to look it in the eye and ask: Does the article have a point?

Are you a traveler or a tourist?

In my backpacking days, many nights were spent in seedy bars in Dublin or cramped hostel lounges in Budapest or Chiang Mai, talking about the difference between being a traveler and a tourist.

At some outback excursion in Australia’s Northern Territory, the muscular tour guide challenged the rag-tag group of visitors (mostly German backpackers and the occasional terrified-looking Korean exchange student): 

“Look at those sugar ants crawling on that tree branch,” he said. “Now, if you’re a tourist, you’ll take photos. But if you’re a traveler, you’ll pick one up and lick its bum.”

Our outback guide demonstrated the shibboleth, licking the bum of the sugar ant. “Tastes like lemon-lime ice cream,” he said. 

The challenge thus issued, I, too, licked the ant. I wasn’t going to let anyone call me a tourist!

If being bold or foolish enough to lick an ant is a daft definition of the traveler/tourist distinction, Callard provides an alternative in her article. Tourism, to take her pithy definition, is what we call travel when someone else does it.

That stings, a little, doesn’t it? Feels like you’ve maybe licked the wrong end of the ant. 

The intent behind “real” travel

As you’re here, you’re likely not someone for whom travel is a clearly defined break from life. It’s part of who you are. You revel in the weirdness of a place. Unlike the author of the New Yorker piece, going to museums (or Falcon Hospitals) is not your core motive when going abroad. 

Your worst nightmare is hearing the clamor of the English language when you’re vibing in a quiet sidestreet of an intriguing foreign city. That group of four Australian lads with the selfie sticks and the beer bellies? Those are tourists. You, sipping palinka on the rickety chair outside a semi-derelict cafe while making broken half-English-half-Hungarian conversation with the chain smoking grandmother, are a traveler. 

It’s a difference of intention. Of scope. Of a willingness to surrender. You travel slower. Hear people’s stories. Allow your assumptions to be questioned. 

And yes, you do—despite what Callard claims—allow yourself the genuine possibility of returning home as a different person than you set out as.

Sometimes, the tourists get it right

When you’re face to face with one of the world’s great sights, do you feel genuine wonder? Do you feel Carl-Pilkington-esque disappointment and exasperation? Do you think about the number of likes this photo will get on social media, wondering not at the monument or majestic marvel of nature before you, but at your own fortune and guile that got you here?

It was in rebellion against that very calculation that, some years back, I told my wife that we weren’t going to see the Taj Mahal.

We’d been in India for three weeks, the trip was winding down, and we had a day or two unaccounted for before flying home from Delhi. The plan had been to go to Agra and see the Taj, but after three weeks of being prodded and patted down on train, bus, and rickshaw across the country, I was tired.

“Besides,” I said, “it’s probably just a tourist trap. Overrated. Not really that special.”

My wife argued. We went to the Taj Mahal. 

The long ticket queue. The persistent flies and more persistent beggars. The sickly feeling in the stomach from last night’s dinner. The smog and the horns and the stray dogs and the smells. I was tired. The trip had been long. We shuffled forward in the queue. People pushed and jostled and yelled.

And then, there it was. White and pure and there, right in front of me.

And, I felt… Well, I just felt. Awe is probably the best word for it. But I wasn’t thinking or calculating or taking writerly brain notes. It hit me like your partner flicking on the lightswitch in the bedroom at 3am when you were deep in slumber. Blinding. All-consuming. Impossible to ignore.

This capacity to feel gets harder and harder. At first, every foray overseas was akin to mainlining that travel feeling. After years of almost constant travel, it started getting harder and harder to find. But it’s still there

When you feel that feeling, you are changed. You are a person who has seen the Taj Mahal, or the Grand Canyon, or the Great Wall. For the rest of your life, you are someone who has been there. (In Chinese there’s even a saying, 不到长城非好汉 – if you don’t see the Great Wall, you are not a true man). 

You don’t always feel it. But when you do, you can’t help but allow yourself to be changed—to return as someone different from who you were when you set out.  Every trip is a wager on that beautiful, if increasingly remote, possibility. And that is the case for travel.

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