This article was published in Esperanto on 20/10/2011.
Let’s face it: our lives are boring. Sure, a small minority of us will go on to earn a living as musicians, film directors or hosts of Media Watch; sure, some of us might end up being famous for doing something really stupid; sure, some of us might end up starting an orgiastic sex cult that devolves into murder and cannibalism. Unfortunately, however, reality dictates that most of us will probably not achieve anything of the sort.
Rather, our futures point miserably towards office chairs and type 2 diabetes; emails and Christmas parties; worse, PR (and the accompanying loss of integrity and self-respect). Even the most initially ‘challenging’ jobs will seem depressingly repetitive after ten years; our home lives reduced to sexless, routine-inflicted dejection, set to a soundtrack of evening television. Through all this misery, just one precious, glimmering hope will remain: travel.
It’s hard to know what makes travel so appealing to us. Is it the chance to interact with people from different cultures? That desire would seem a little variable, if our generosity towards asylum seekers is anything to go by. Is it the ability to see the Eiffel Tower? Sorry to break it to you, but it’s a lot like it looks in the pictures. Is it the thrill of being in a plane for 24 hours? There’s always the Melbourne to Sydney Tiger Airways flight.
And yet, it’s all we talk about: New York. Paris. London. Tokyo. Cairo. If we’re not saving to travel to some city or other, we’re discussing anecdotes from past experiences. Remember the time we caught malaria in Phnom Penh and almost died? Ah yes, what fun. And the photos: endless Facebook albums full of location shots that we will never, ever look at again (except, perhaps, when we print them off and foist them upon unfortunate friends and relatives). The only thing more tedious than the photos you aren’t in are the ones that you are in. Perhaps, some day, some wise traveller will impulsively throw his camera in the Sienne and not regret it at all.
Generally speaking, there’s nothing inherently exotic about these places. For those who live there, they’re undoubtedly as mundane as Melbourne is to us. We may well get to see larger metropolises, more spectacularly gorilla-infested jungles or more intensely soul-destroying holiday resorts, but in essence they’re just backdrops for the standard walking, eating, fornicating or shopping. The bullet trains are fast and efficient, but you’re just as likely to get mugged; the Himalayan ranges might look spectacular from the top of K2, but they probably look better at IMAX.
Some say it’s eye-opening to experience a different way of life. It’s amazing, however, to see how ardently we manage to avoid doing that. The ultimate destinations for many young Australians are countries like England, France and the U.S. — affluent Western destinations for affluent Westerners. Hipsters go to Berlin to hang out with hipsters. Obnoxious bogans go to Thai resorts to get drunk with other obnoxious bogans. Tourists stick to group tours. Familiarity is comfortable. Which is not to say that some travellers don’t seek out the most exotic, strange and challenging destinations possible; but, even then, they’re protected from the harsher realities of undeveloped nations. Western visitors to Malawi don’t go without clean drinking water. Even in the midst of the most difficult experiences we subject ourselves to, there’s always a bed waiting for us back home.
Travel means different things to different people. For many of us, its primary goal is being away from the mundanity of our regular lives. There’s a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown proposes to Lucy that he’d like to get away from his surroundings. “See that plane up there?” he asks. “It’s filled with people who are all going someplace. That’s what I’d like to do: go off someplace and start a new life… maybe, when I got to this new place, the new people would like me better.” “Forget it,” she advises. “People are people, Charlie Brown.” Perhaps that’s what travel offers us: a safe, limited period of escape in which we can feel refreshed, exotic, and, most of all, anonymous. With this experience, however, comes the comedown: we must, eventually, return home. And thus, a few months later (the anecdotes exhausted; the photos posted; the memories fading), we must once more confront the drudgery of our own city, comforted only by the prospect of the next trip.