If there's one thing that irritates me, it's people who think they are "holier than thou" when it comes to travel. These are the people who trump every travel experience you mention with one of their own that they consider intrepidly superior to your pedestrian efforts. Went to the local beach for your holiday? Oh right, I went to Spain. Went to Spain? Hmmm, I went to Australia? Stayed in a nice hotel? That's nice, I stayed in an abandoned yurt on the edge of a cliff...
I coined the term "intrepider than thou" a decade ago, on a day when I was feeling pretty intrepid myself. I was returning from working as a doctor in the Belizean jungle -- probably the most adventurous thing I'd ever done at that point. And yet my satisfied feeling of coolness and achievement was dashed by a random girl at the airport.
"So, what have you been doing here?" she asked.
"Oh, I've been working as a doctor," said I, bursting with pride.
"Huh, well, I've travelled up from the tip of South America. On my first day I dropped my guidebook in the river, along with my money. But I just built a log raft with my own bare hands and used it to navigate upstream where I briefly joined an indigenous tribe never before known to man..." and so on.
The clear implication: don't make the mistake of thinking you had a cool adventurous experience worthy of being cherished forever; any coolness or enjoyment you might have mustered pales in comparison to my superior experience, you loser. I still remember the wrathful disappointment I experienced at that airport as I let this intrepider than thou stranger downgrade my adventure by willfully trumping it with her own.
I was reminded of this feeling when I read Robert Schrader's latest travel blog, Luxury Travel Misses the Point. Sporting an attitude that can only be described as intrepider than thou, Schrader disparages the idea of luxury travel: "that's an oxymoron if ever I heard one," says he.
Schrader quotes Jamaica Kincaid's essay in support of his argument, against the phenomenon of: "visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it." In this context, that rather oversimplifies the varied impact on people of seeing and experiencing things that reflect the experiences of others' lives, whether current or historical. Furthermore, is that same visit really more valid if you undertake it in a suitable amount of squalor? Do all people who sleep in a tent really feel more than all people who sleep in a fancy hotel?
It's time to come clean. I was once an intrepider than thou traveler. I once believed that the less money you paid for your night's accommodation, the cooler you were -- and the key travel aspiration was to never encounter another tourist or eat anything recognizable. I disparaged those who took taxis instead of a local bus, and as for tour groups who cruised past? My scorn was relentless. My stories of charming adversity and local encounters in foreign parts, on the other hand, have been dinner party staples for years.
However, a problem with the intrepider than thou brigade is that they believe in their hearts that they define travel, and furthermore that they are qualified to assess the quality and validity of other people's travel experiences -- and to pass judgement. They throw travel stories around, trying to trump each other. "You were thrown into a Thai jail for the night? That's nothing, I was locked up in a Thai jail for four years, with nothing to eat but maggots".
Woe betide the traveler who confesses "I stayed in a really beautiful local boutique hotel, had a truly fabulous six course dinner by a famed local chef and strolled by the sea at sunset." Pah, call that a good travel experience? Deluded! No adversity escaped in the nick of time? No discomfort endured in the name of acting like an impoverished local? Not even an encounter with a charming village granny or a malnourished child? You might have gone somewhere, but you haven't travelled.
I first began to lose my intrepider than thou status when, ashamedly, I experimented with an ironically named Intrepid Travel tour to Thailand. I found myself rather enjoying not always having to figure out which $2 hovel to rest my head to stay as darkness fell. I didn't have to get up early and fight to get my train ticket because someone had already bought it for me. I didn't find myself stranded somewhere ridiculous with no transport home. These novel experiences were... not unpleasant. And I found they didn't detract from my really lovely vacation: I traveled all round the country, I hiked in beautiful woods, I visited temples, I ate in local restaurants, I learned to cook, I met fun people. I had a wonderful time. And I felt ashamed for it.
The next stage of my downfall occurred after an unfortunate experience in Cambodia where, due to my forcing my partner to stay in a $2 hovel miles from anywhere in an obscure Cambodian town, we tumbled into a landmine hole in a pitch black, deserted road. As we lay there in agony, listening to the dogs howl around us, I had two premonitions: 1) This will make an awesome intrepider than thou story to be recounted numerous times forevermore, assuming we survive; and 2) I'm pretty sure I'm going to be obliged to bow to my partner's pleas to stay in nicer hotels in future.
Both premonitions came true. On my more recent vacations, I've researched increasingly nice hotels. It's almost as addictive as hunting down the cheapest. I've dined in lovely local restaurants. I've taken the occasional tour. Locals celebrate any extra cash I put into their economies. And my travel experiences (by now I've visited over 50 countries, in every way from living with impoverished locals to embracing hostels and camping to staying in luxury hotels) have been wonderful and inspiring and sad and joyful and scary and exciting and tedious and real -- even though I haven't always suffered quite as much as I could have. I may not be consistently acquiring quite as many new intrepider than thou stories, but I've learnt that the way I naively and arrogantly believed was the 'right' way to travel is just one way of traveling, neither right nor wrong.
If your specific reason for traveling is to experience life as the poorest locals do, fine. But that isn't everyone's purpose, and that's not the only valid purpose. People travel for all sorts of reasons, and it's almost always enriching to be in new places, encountering new cultures, experiencing new things. I only wish the intrepider than thou brigade would stop trying to prove their own intrepidness by seeking to trump and invalidate other people's travel experiences. Schrader says "If you are unable to detach yourself from your wealth, your comfort and your entitlement for even a few days, then please just stay at home." I wonder what he thinks gives him the authority to issue that instruction to the world.
Or maybe I'm just bitter because I can no longer hope to trump his intrepider than thou stories.