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The Trouble With Travel Writing

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Recently, I stumbled upon some travel writing done by an acquaintance of mine. I know this person only in an abstract sense -- we met once at a party and thus became "friends" on Facebook. The degradation of the concept of the "friend" -- due in large part to social networking sites -- is a subject worthy of a separate article entirely.

Anyway, I found nothing unusual about this rather facile travel blog: the stories, the photographs, the patronizing advice, when I realized that this itself should be cause for alarm. English novelist Martin Amis (and surely one of the finest of his generation) has said that writing is a "a war against cliché." I would argue that travel writing should be like a perpetual thermonuclear strike against cliché, a position my friend evidently does not share.

My friend suffers from an emotional affliction that I like to call Columbusitis.

As "Westerners," that most ambiguous and condescending of terms, when we travel abroad we tend to think of ourselves on some level as modern-day "explorers," which really means as we all know, going where no Westerner has gone before. The contemporary notion of the "Explorer" is entirely a Western construct. It goes without saying that none of the bloated white European explorers from the pages of our Grade Eight history books were "explorers" in any sense of the word at all. Columbus, Hudson, Champlain, Vespucci, etc. were mostly all "exploring" land known to the indigenous peoples of the region for countless generations. So why, still, do so many of us think of ourselves in these fallacious terms?

I am not suggesting that this is always a conscious phenomenon - what I am suggesting is that, on some level, when we travel to the so-called "Developing World," we still think of ourselves as "explorers," eager to write to the King (the internet) of our experiences with the "natives," immersed in "local" culture, embracing a truly "foreign" psyche; sometimes even requesting funds from private donors (our parents), eager to support a civilizing mission of such intrigue.

The trouble with this equation is the fact that all of these constructs -- "locals," "natives," etc. -- represent a sort of less-pronounced Orientalist mindset which we, by virtue of our privileged culture, upbringing, and environment project on foreign bodies to render ourselves all the more heroic, "worldly," more interesting to other people -- the Explorer, instead of the Tourist.

As soon as you stop, step back, and recognize this aspect of your humanity you are not only a less egocentric and arrogant traveler; you are a more productive and less pretentious member of the global community, which is what we should all aspire to, shouldn't we?

Because when you mark the differences between you, your culture, your background as so distinct from that of the "natives," you are perpetuating a myth about East-West, North-South relations that has been possibly the most destructive in human history. The more of the world one experiences the more it is made abundantly clear that no matter where in the world ones travels, the human experience is one of remarkable uniformity. This is not to suggest that there are no nuances, no real differences in culture, no genuine individualism. What I am saying is that every human being in the world has a great deal in common -- philosophically, intellectually, emotionally - with every other human being in the world. Our collective Orientalist perceptions of the "developing world" must be addressed and overcome. (Eat, Pray, Love I'm looking at you.)

So get over yourself, my Facebook compadre; you are not an "Explorer." You are one human being blessed with a precious opportunity to see some new places, eat some good food, learn, meet, and interact with other human beings. You're not Christopher Columbus -- indeed, neither was he.