Another of my intermittent random musings, this one written almost a year ago one afternoon in Akaroa, New Zealand, a wonderful little waterfront town I first visited in 1995 and I’m happy to say feels just as lovely today as it did almost two decades ago. I’m not sure why it took me so long to post this…maybe I was trying to wait until I wrote the New Zealand post? I’m not sure. Anyway, here it is, somewhat before writing the New Zealand post.
Sunday February 17, 2013. Day 3 of 7 in Akaroa, New Zealand
I have been thinking—ruminating, really—about the concept of “adventure.” It’s a word that we hear a lot during this year from people we meet along the way who enthuse about our trip: “What an adventure!” We see it on advertisements for tour operators offering safaris, bungy jumping, ziplines, white water rafting, skydiving, etc, etc, ad nauseum. We use the term, too, most commonly associated not with preplanned activities, but to put a positive spin on things that have gone awry: “Remember that time the bus in Norway took us to the wrong place and then took us back and got stuck on that little lane and couldn’t turn around? That was an adventure, huh?”
“Adventure” has been on my mind ever since we were in Zanzibar. It was shortly after our safari in Tanzania that we were talking to a very nice, friendly young woman—a fellow traveler—who happened to have been on safari at the same time that we were. Orion was chatting her up, describing one of the lodges that we stayed in and asking her whether she had stayed there, too.
“Oh no,” she began, “we camped…we had a proper adventure.”
Leaving aside for the moment the issue of belittling a 7-year old’s experience to his face (which I suspect was more an error in judgment than anything malicious), it got me thinking about the concept of adventure. It also reminded me that one of the least attractive traits of many travelers is the need to minimize another’s experience in order to emphasize the superiority of one’s own.
The most interesting thing I came up with, no matter how much we would like to imagine otherwise, is that none of us is having a true “adventure” in the classic Indiana Jones/Hiram Bingham “will-I-survive-the-night” kind of way. While it is certainly possible to find real death-defying adventure in the world, it’s increasingly rare and not something we (or most others) seek out. Few wander the world, socializing with apocryphal “cannibal tribes” and hunting cape buffalo with their bare hands, at least not without a satellite phone and an armed guard. Socialites climb Mount Everest with espresso machines, for crying out loud.
And all those bungee jumps and “adventure tours?” Who are they kidding? Those are carefully managed ways to induce your sympathetic nervous system to dump some adrenaline into your bloodstream, generally involving less actual danger than crossing the street in New York, or certainly Hanoi.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing—skydiving sounds amazing, for instance, and if I didn’t have a problem with the concept of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, then I’d sign right up. And my friends who have bungee jumped have loved it and I wouldn’t deny them or anyone else that joy. Furthermore, humans really have no business wrestling grizzly bears in this day and age, so why not stick to something safer?
No, what I’m trying to say is that there’s simply no reason to put down my “adventure” just because you feel that yours was “more authentic.” And “camping” on safari in Tanzania, where someone drives you around, sets up your tent for you, cooks for you, and serves you drinks as you watch the sunset from comfy chairs at your “camp”? Let’s be honest here: if the scale goes from zero (sitting in your living room without even turning on the TV) to 100 (the dude who wrote “Shantaram”—which, by the way, should be required reading for anyone who ever claims that they had more of an adventure than someone else), and if our safari was…I don’t know…maybe a 42 on the scale, then “camping” brings you to a 44. At best.
The sin of making fun of other’s ways of traveling must be almost as old as travel itself. Mark Twain certainly did it to great effect 150 years ago, and his lineage continues at least through PJ O’Rourke, Bill Bryson, and Paul Theroux, all of whom lampoon, to some degree, those who choose to travel differently. In fact, anyone who’s ever indulged in the conceit that they’re different from all those “tourists” because they’re a “traveler” is just as guilty. It seems hard to avoid, somehow.
The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.
I’m far from innocent on this score. From my days as a smelly backpacker sleeping in aisles of trains in the late 80’s, convinced that my pennilessness and discomfort somehow made my experience more authentic than someone on a guided package tour, to earlier in my blog when I made fun of someone for using an iPad as their safari camera, I’ve been just as bad.
But I’m trying to do better. I’m making an effort to avoid that vulgar habit of elevating my travels by ridiculing (openly or otherwise) those of others. Especially now that I’ve occasionally had a local guide for some things and I’ve seen firsthand how this can be an entrée into a culture that can sometimes allow you to experience more rather than less. Vincent, our safari guide, springs readily to mind.
The truth in travel, as in everything, is that everyone comes from a different place and anyone with the guts to get out of their comfort zone, whether that involve taking the bus across town or hitchhiking the length of South America, deserves our kudos. (But it’s still ok to make fun of espresso makers on Everest…that’s not one I’m willing to give up.)
I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
~Robert Louis Stevenson
Anyway, there I had been, thinking these noble thoughts and making an honest effort to be more open-minded, and reasonably proud of the minor success I was having in this regard, when it all came to a grinding, screeching, catastrophic halt…in the form of a cruise ship.
Two cruise ships, actually, that arrived early yesterday morning, anchored in the harbor, and proceeded to vomit (yes, vomit) FOUR THOUSAND passengers into the lovely sleepy little town of Akaroa and its four hundred residents.
As we battled our way down the previously-deserted sidewalks and past the previously-lovely little craft shops (which were now full to bursting with khakied, nylon-windbreakered, scopolamine-patched throngs who’s bright, uncreased “New Zealand” baseball hats did little to disguise their borderline-obesity or North American accents), I felt all my progress ebbing away. I despised these innocent tourists for changing “my town” by their mere presence.
We fled as quickly as possible, bundling into our rented car for the first time since our arrival a few days earlier, and headed up into the hills. We found tiny lanes along cliffs and between farms, wonderful views from the summit road, and blissful emptiness. We stopped for lunch at a place with a view to write home about, and cheese at the local cheese-makers. The day was salvaged, but I couldn’t forget the feeling of the cruisers arriving.
It’s impossible to observe something without changing it.
– Excessively paraphrased version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainly Principle.
This statement is indisputably true, but like so many truths it is not black-and-white, all-or-nothing—it exists in shades of grey—and those 4000 people were indisputably changing Akaroa more than we 3 were, at least temporarily. While I could decide I didn’t like it, escape, and return the following day, that was the only experience most of those cruisers would have of Akaroa. Hopefully they’d at least see the basic beauty of the harbor, the architecture, the crafts, but they would certainly miss the feel of the place. They wouldn’t see it the way I saw it. And that made me sad.
On the other hand, I realized, I would never know the feeling of arriving in Akaroa for the first time by boat—what must be a wonderful way to arrive in this waterfront town. So maybe they found their own beauty in the place; a beauty that I had missed.
Perhaps that’s why it matters how we travel. Not to make our experience more “authentic” or “adventurous” or even “better”, but simply because it shapes how we experience a place. And that shapes how a place affects us. Which, in the end, is the reason why we travel.