Symptomatic of so many other areas of our lives, the act of travel is increasingly complicated by expectation; to go to certain destinations, to take part in the tourist rituals of that place, and then to share and distribute the photogenic evidence of your jet-setting self (and companion/s) with friends and family at regular intervals on social media.
Stories of travel are, admittedly, one of the ways we connect as humans. Your friend’s description of a windswept afternoon trying to get the perfect picture in Moscow is likely to prompt fond recollections of your own, though the two stories, recounted over a cup of coffee, may on the surface have little in common. It is the challenge of conducting oneself in an unfamiliar location which provides the shared memory thread. And yet such stories bely an overlooked reality; that travel is often no longer the domain of the traveller. The dynamic between the participant and their destination which once dictated travel has since been superseded by the rise of an online dialogue between participants and their already-established circle of acquaintances back home. Thanks to the internet we are now as connected to someone on the other side of the globe as the person sitting next to us at the dinner table, however this connectedness and sense of community can become a double edged sword when we decide to travel. We are never alone, and we are never wholly present in either location.
Unsurprisingly, cameras, and to an increasing extent the photographic capabilities of our phones, significantly contribute to the complexity which is contemporary travel; so much is overlooked and unexperienced when the focus is on achieving postcard-quality images in the viewfinder, choosing between filters and cropping out a fellow tourist’s foot from the left-hand corner of the screen. Some contemporary philosophers, such as Susan Sontag, argue for a complete ban on holiday snaps, so powerful is the camera in shaping our experiences of place. In her novel On Photography, Sontag states that “So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful”. Whilst I would certainly not prescribe a total ban on holiday photography, I do agree with Sontag to the extent that it is important the camera (and by extension our phone) remains a functional tool rather than the purpose of the holiday itself.
A little more surprising is that the holiday destinations themselves are often also to blame as impediments to true experience and the act of travel. Major cities are understandably persuasive drawcards, constructed in our minds as they are by preconceived expectations and multiple Google image searches. Everything is known, experiences can be planned, and photo opportunities abound.
Yet there is a beauty and simplicity in the smaller cities and quieter, unknown destinations which are often overlooked by the modern traveller. Without the regimented list of must-see monuments and top tourist attractions, these ‘in-between places’; the small towns, back roads and stretches of highway boarded by national park; become spaces for gently hedonistic pursuits which would otherwise be neglected. The homemade scones in a little hole-in-the-wall cafe. The flowering jacarandas lining the median strip in the country town. The stall by the side of the road selling fresh nectarines.
Slow everything down, be flexible, and pretend for a couple of hours that home no longer exists. No Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter, no instant messaging. Stop for a moment and think about who you are with, and where you are.
And then simply breathe and enjoy being ‘temporarily misplaced’.
Celebrate the freedom of being able to spend half a day lying prostrate on a picnic blanket in the local park with a book, bottle of sparkly water and cheese, bread, dried fruits and nuts. Luxuriate in the decadence of spending three hours chatting with your best friend over coffee and pastries in your new-found ‘favourite’ café rather than trudging through the rain. Spend a whole day sedately wandering the local art gallery and museum, camera/phone optional but preferably in the bottom of your bag, with long meandering detours to very out of the way foodie spots, just because you can.
When holidaying is approached as, shockingly, a holiday, rather than an opportunity to add to your Facebook feed, a few days in one place suddenly become a huge stretch of time with endless potential rather than a finite rush to tick all the boxes.
A respite from daily routine, holidaying should be a time to rejuvenate and experience a new place to its fullest. The local character of a town cannot be gauged from the window of your car, or during the fifteen-minute tour-bus stop to use the public bathrooms. Slow down and enjoy the beauty of that which is freely given; time to reflect, the undivided attention and deep conversation (interspersed by comfortable silences) of your companion/s, and whatever sparks the gentle hedonist in you; sunshine, long walks, fresh brewed coffee, the smell of the ocean or the burn of your muscles as you climb a hill.
Travel to wander.