Inspiration without perspiration?

| September 29, 2009 | 15 Comments
wing1 Inspiration without perspiration?

Photo by l1mey (Creative Commons)

Recently, on Brave New Traveler, Ross Tabak asked if we could “assert that luxury and life-changing travel are generally opposite to each other?” Tabak makes the case that they are antithetical and cautions: “if we begin to blur the lines between everyday comfort and eye-opening experiences, we stand to lose the most important aspect of travel”—which he asserts is its transformative power.

While I commend Tabak for the courage to wade into the murky pool of the “tourist/traveler” debate (don’t worry, Ross, you have good company), I do take issue with his conclusion. In my opinion, hardship and adversity aren’t the primary agents of transformation offered by travel. Instead, I believe that these transformative properties owe more to the power of juxtaposition than, say, exertion. Juxtaposition implies contrast and contrast surprises. And it’s these surprising relationships that engender new questions, new ideas and new associations. The bringing about of these new ideas is part of the work and nature of travel.

Contrast and juxtaposition aren’t solely the domain of backpackers; if anything a jaded backpacker is less likely to be “moved” by travel than a wide-eyed novice that’s on his first packaged excursion. Let’s face it, backpackers—and I count myself among them—haven’t cornered the market on insight. And the transformative power of travel isn’t necessarily forged in the furnace of worry and hardship.

Now, I think it’s admirable that Tabak is examining travel styles in terms of the social worlds of their producers, but he fails to make his case. The truth is that the independent backpacker and the urbane flashpacker can co-exist. In fact, they have an obligate relationship with one another—the collective identity of the backpacker set presupposes the luxury traveler. It’s the age-old argument of identity seen through the lens of long-term travel—the ‘traveller’ relies on the ‘tourist’ to define their own identity. You can’t have one without the other.

While Tabak points towards this, he ultimately asserts that the more complete experience of the ‘traveller’ is somehow redemptive. The truth of the matter is that growth and insight are attainable for anyone who opens their eyes. It’s not the tour group that’s the problem; it’s the clinging to the tour group. Authentic travel experience does not require you to rush out to your local co-op and get fitted with a backpack—unless you want to. What it does require, however, is for you to leave your preconceptions behind, whether you leave them at a 150 baht/night guesthouse or the Westin is immaterial.

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

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  1. Puerto Viejo’s new luxury neighbor | Nomadic Narrative | October 2, 2009
  1. Shannon OD says:

    Really thought provoking article and I have to generally agree with your point of view. It’s a bit of a gross overstatement to suppose that luxury travelers miss the tranformative power of travel just because they are not on the backpacker route. Although it is certainly a different experience, not everyone is a backpacker and travel is too important on the whole to dismiss it in any form.

    If the only way that someone is going to travel is with in the comfort A/C and other niceties, well, then at least they’re getting out there and seeing SOMETHING. Too few people use the notion of discomfort when traveling as an excuse to stay home. Travel in whatever style suits you, but get out and explore is my take!! :-)

  2. I agree. I see travel as a process of self-discovery. Self-discovery happens when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and then take the time to reflect on the experience. In those reflective moments, we can feel other points of view and broaden our perspective. Either the backpacker or the luxury traveler can do this. In fact, I’ve seen more and more luxury tours include volunteer and rural tourism opportunities. Though approaching travel from different positions, there are people on both sides with one thing in common, and that is a desire to explore.

  3. Corbin says:

    I always get a kick out of the whole tourist/traveler debate. Always thought provoking. The way I see it though, is that as soon as you’ve been slumming it long enough, eating nothing but itchi-ban noodles and sweating to death in non-a.c, the only thing stopping the “roughing it” type of backpackers from trading it all in for a fresh pressed linens and a massage is money. If money wasn’t an issue, I know I would ditch the hostel dorm room, at least temporarily, for some resort style accommodation. But the fact is, the true backpacker knows that money he or she has to spend on a 3 day spa treatment resort, is money he or she could use for accommodation for another month, or food for two months, or drinks for the next 4 months. Love what you had to say though Daniel. Lotsa big words in there. A+ :-)

    • Daniel says:

      You’re right, Corbin, and the argument here is value, I think. I find greater value in “accomodation for another month” than I do in a “3-day spa treatment”. That’s not to say one is better than the other—just different. But, my wife and I find greater relaxation travelling in a hard seat in China than we do at a beachside resort sucking back Mai Tais. Although both have there place!

  4. These tourist/traveler debates are silly. Someone always wants to feign superiority or sophistication.

    Is the quality of traveler determined by:
    stamps in a passport?
    languages spoken?
    willingness to eat exotic food?
    how little luggage you bring?
    whether or not you can remember what happened last night?
    how long it has been since your last shower?
    who had the roughest bus ride?

    If someone claims they have more “life changing travel experiences” than I do, let them believe it. Travel is not a contest. People who try to turn it into some sort of competition are entirely missing the value of travel anyway.

    • Daniel says:

      You raise a good point about the public/personal dichotomy of travelm, John. I’ve been reading more this week about travel as performance. There’s some interesting stuff written on the topic. I hope to have a post about it later next week.

  5. Thandelike says:

    You can’t plan how travel will transform you. Anything can happen, or nothing at all. I think it depends on the individual’s openness and what a location has to offer. Moving in a cloud of your fellow country-people does make it difficult to experience a place, and both luxury and shoe-string travelers can be guilty of that.

    It seems there is a definite tension between luxury/comfort and authenticity these days — cf. the kerfuffle ( from Arthur Frommer about AFAR magazine’s experiential travel stories. Frommer says by definition these high-end personal experiences cannot be duplicated and most travelers wouldn’t want to even try to apprentice with a Parisian baker.

    • Daniel says:

      Thandelike — thank you for the link to the AFAR site; interesting perspective there. I disagree with Arthur Frommer’s assessment that those asventures and possibilities seem to be out of reach for the average traveler. Travel is, like you said, whatever you’re willing to make of it!

  6. Another insightful piece, Daniel.

    In November 2007 Karen & I set upon a RTW trip. We did it in 42 days and stayed at luxury resorts all the way (and I MEAN luxury; the Rayavadee in Krabi and the Shangri La in Sydney are a couple of examples of this).

    We didn’t feel like we had experienced the traveler way and have since embarked on another trip, this time much longer and primarily sticking to SE Asia. This time around we are ensuring that we base ourselves not on the banks of the river but in mid-range hostels in ‘Backpackerville’.

    For us, it has meant that we are getting more of a rounded experience of each of the places we are visiting however the fact is that during the 2007 trip it was our own fault that we were limited; had we wanted to venture out in to the land of the traveler we could have. Easily.

    We are inherently lazy and I guess if we have the five star luxury to wallow in we’re less inclined to venture out into the real world. This point was further emphasised recently, we decided to treat ourselves on Koh Samui with two nights in the Six Senses; we didn’t leave the hotel for those two days. It was really nice though!

    If you’ll forgive the shameless plug, go to my blog and read the ‘About Us’ section and have a poke about from there.


    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Andy. Oh, the Rayavadee in Krabi. We didn’t stay, but Kathryn and I took our motorbike up the drive. It was a nice place! With my nose in a Bill Bryson book, I just came across this quote—which would be great to add to the article: “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

      Oh, by the way—I know your blog well; I’ve subscribed and have been reading it for a few months now!

  7. I agree up to a point. Most of these discussions are based on the fact that you care more about what someone else is doing than what you’re doing. Heck, I’m doing it now by writing this. :)

    What I mean is, don’t be so concerned about that person in the fancy hotel next door when all you can afford is the hostel. Maybe you can afford the hotel too but still want the hostel. Fine. But either way, let the other have his way through the world. Once you fully understand all there is to know about city X (which, might I add, will almost always be made up of different classes/levels of wealth) then tell the other person what you know and let them sit with it.

    Telling anyone they are not having an authentic travel experience is assuming you are now a master in authentic living, everywhere, all the time.

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