by Samir Chopra
One winter vacation some years ago, as my wife and I waited for a ferry from Fajardo in Puerto Rico to the island of Culebra, I noticed on the walls of our waiting room a poster for the Cayo Luis Pena in the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge. As I gazed at dazzling blue waters and painfully white glistening sands, bewitched by the promise of the colorful aquatic creatures that frolicked below the waters of an oceanic snorkeling and scuba-diving paradise, I felt myself succumb, yet again, to the tyranny of the guidebook. I felt the terror of that most fearful of things: the inadequate, not properly-realized, not fully-treasured, missed-opportunity vacation; the tourism poster I was gazing at provided an artful reminder of all I stood to lose if I did not ‘get it right’ and see the sights it showcased. There is a mode of oppression the travel guidebook and poster have the market cornered on: making us feel like failures even when we manage to put down the laptop, take our fingers off the keyboard, dock the smartphone, and head out, bravely putting away our calendars, for the wilderness.
The artfully put-together tourism poster—like illustrations of improbably delicious-looking concoctions in cookbooks—promises us a glimpse of the impossible, the inaccessible, and the too-beautiful. Its photographs of attractions are invariably of ‘postcard’ or ‘coffee-table book’ quality, fit to be mailed to friends; they suggest the ‘attraction’ is not possible to actually visit: surely the photographer was granted ‘special’ access to the Shangri-La that beams at us from the poster? But the poster and the guidebook assure us with a devastating twin salvo that this place has been visited, and more damagingly, that if we do not visit it, we have somehow failed to meet some unknown evaluative standards for vacations. The guidebook does this acutely with listings of the “essential,” the “must-see,” the “ten things any visitor to X must do.” These are resisted by pronouncements like “That’s only what the editors of that guidebook think; what do they know?” But such rhetorical bluster is just that; under the weight of the prescription, our resolve crumbles. We become acutely conscious of the need to play by the guidebook and the poster’s playbook: Visit this place! Have these experiences! Or else!
Photographs in magazines like Outside and National Geographic and coffee table books shame me; they tell me my that no matter how hard I try, I will not find that angle, that place, that spot, that lighting, that those photographers found; quite simply, I will not have the experiences that someone else had. These photographs tantalize and tease: they hold out promise of Shangri Las over the horizon, but they do not tell me how they are to be attained. The ‘perfect vacation guide’ would, in contrast, tell us how that view can be obtained. A dozen or so years ago, my wife and I traveled to New Zealand to hike the Rees-Dart Trail; we arrived to find ourselves in the Land of the Lord of the Rings. This was not just any old Earth; this was Middle Earth; we were in the land of orcs and hobbits. This landscape was famous, the stuff of cinematic legend; and everyone, hucksters and tourists alike, wanted a piece of the action, to walk this land, to see its scenery, to feel its grass crunch under their feet. They wanted their experiences to be authentic. And they were: tourists were assured that they could avail themselves of the thrill of standing in the precise spot where classic scenes of the Peter Jackson’s trilogy were filmed by being given the GPS co-ordinates of the locale,; by unerring and precise satellite-guided location they could stand in a Field of Dreams all their own. It was a blessed, hallowed land; they wanted to be sure their efforts to place themselves precisely at the intersections of fantasy and desire were not in vain.
The tyranny of the tourism poster is perhaps benign: we can console ourselves that even if we are unable to treat ourselves to precisely that same image, we might have seen a variant of it—our unique one. But the gloss and finish of the poster shakes any such confidence; it assures us we will not see the advertised excellence; we will merely view the weaker, insipid version made available for our plebeian viewing. (We might also, in a fit of instinctive self-deprecation, imagine that our viewing of a ‘sight’ makes it less distinctive.) Yet grimly, perversely, we continue to seek in our travels visits to those places recommended by the guidebook, in the order suggested, and we squirm ourselves into precisely those locations that will facilitate the takings of those photographs that approximate the tourist poster with the greatest fidelity possible. How else would we assure the authenticity and quality of our experiences if not by total adherence to a template provided for us by those who claim to, and thus must, know better?
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Such anxiety about ‘vacation performance’ is especially great in a world in which leisure time is a rarity, a commodity artfully parceled out in bite-size helpings, carefully rationed away for a rainy day. The pressure placed on this time to ‘perform’ is immense; every day, every hour, every second of the vacation must meet evaluative benchmarks for efficiency and consumption. We are told what to pack; which vacation planner apps to use; which flights to take; where to go and how; the vacation-industrial complex slowly grinds into action to produce an itinerary for us. Once our aid-free travel marked us as intrepid travelers; now we are foolish if we do not take advantage of the aids the modern world makes available. Our Spartan nature is now a handicap. The downside of the urge to get the best and the greatest views and ‘experiences’ have long been known; crowding at the ‘most desirable’ spots, horror stories of parking lot fights and traffic jams, the feeding—and poisoning—of wildlife, the trivialization of nature and its residents as props for photoshoots. But we persist in seeking guidance so that we may join the crowds and avoid failure on vacations. And in doing so, court another one, that of being a mere follower, a bleating sheep in a large and unruly flock.
The more impressive, the more beautiful, the more vast the destination, the greater the pressure to see and experience its ‘best’ parts, in keeping with our cultural imperatives, in the most ‘efficient’ manner possible. And the greater the sense of deprival, of frustration, of mounting pressure as the vacation progresses; time is short, you will not be back here again; there will be no time for do-overs. The pressure for the perfect vacation grows and grows; we see quite clearly—on social media—how our vacations fall short of the ‘ideal’ ones taken by our friends. We did not find the cheapest vacation fares using the clever apps that good travelers use—failure to use a vacation planning app is a particularly unforgivable sin; we did not get the best deal on the most charming AirBnB of all; the food we ate was not as authentic, as local, as exotic, as home-cooked as the meals our foodie friends ate; we did not hike the best trails, the most challenging ones; we did not even experience the worst weather for then we could have worn our unique medals of adversity with pride; we did not find that charming hidden bay that lies at one end of the turnoff from the highway that only your friend’s charming local contact—the one who speaks very little English—knows.
Now, with every vacation, a growing terror, a performance anxiety of sorts, grows and festers: my vacation will not be the best; I will go to ‘famous’ places and I will find out I did not visit the prettiest, most exclusive spots. My failure is unavoidable: I either go to the most crowded spots, or I fail because I did not find the truly exclusive spots, the ones all the clever, connected travelers do. A vacation used to be time away from work but now it is work, packaged with a merciless evaluation scheme. Our photos must acquire a certain number of ‘Likes’ and ‘shares’; the electronic ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of approval that reassure us we made the right choices on our vacation and our travels and went to the right places. A vacation is another zone of potential and possible failure, just like the world we sought to leave behind. The purchasers of computers and expensive audio equipment dread the moment, when, soon after an expensive and long thought out purchase, they open a magazine to find out a better model had been available all along; so too, do we find out that the cheaper flight, the prettier room, the more scenic hike, was ours for the taking if only we had been more diligent in our scouting and planning.
The failed vacation, which fell short because it was not planned properly, and the over planned vacation, which has too much going on for it, are staples of our modern lives. There we sit in our psychic corners, nursing our drinks, knowing we failed, that we did not explore adequately, that we missed out on greater glories. No story of how we were lucky to even take this vacation while other schmucks remained bound to their desks serves as consolation. This failure should not be surprising; vacation and travel are domains visited by many others before us. They have constructed its contours with a surprising level of detail and left behind a great deal to conform to; vacations are zones of expectation and prescription too. We seek templates of travel that are not ours, based on glimpses of a world painted for us by other artists. When we venture forth to travel, we do not go forth with open eyes; we have very distinct blinders on us. When we grant the tourism poster, the guidebook, the Buzzfeed list of the ‘twenty must-do things’ too much authority we become guided missiles homing in on targets locked on for us by someone else. We fail according to standards imposed by others, and internalized by us.
At the heart of our attunement to evaluative guidebook commentary like “the views along this trail are spectacular” lies a desire for explicit, hopefully numeric, ratings of beauty so that the world can be classified and ranked, divided into zones and grades. We are not willing to sit with the truth of William Blake’s observation that he could see the world in a grain of sand and infinity in an instant. For us the world is not mysterious or beautiful all over; instead, its allure is concentrated into particular spots. In doing so, we betray a religious inclination that some ground is hallowed and other not. All creation is not blessed with the mystery of being and existence; it is only those spots, the ones that have been touched by some mysterious force—perhaps the approval of a guidebook or an authoritative guide—that are so beautiful. This preference underlies all of travel, for after all, if the heart and soul of the universe, so to speak, were visible here and now, then why travel at all? It also underwrites our unwillingness to live in the moment. Now is not it; there is something somewhere else in time to be anticipated or feared; that other place in time is the one we seek, not this one, now and here.
Nothing then, creates quite as much tension as the injunction to not miss out on the ‘essential’ or the ‘must-see.’ Anxieties like these find their grounding in deeper existential worries, and it should be clear which one is at play here: we are born into a world configured by expectation and promise, we are told this life and all its pleasures could be ours, if only we would do the most essential, the best, things. So we seek instruction in what we must do; and if we do not do things the way ‘guidebooks’—perhaps religious or moral texts, or corporate brochures—tell us, we will have missed out on the authentic life that was possible, the great ‘views’ others have so carefully curated for us and held out for us as attractions. The far more basic fact of existence, the unique particularity of each life, is easily ignored in favor of allegiance to an abstract, transcendent, invisible reality. There is some right slice, some right or best view of this panorama, which we must endeavor to obtain.
We are persistently reminded the worst sin of all is to not have lived at all; we are told everyone dies but not everyone lives; that all around us there are those who are wasting their lives, who are not living every day as if it were their last; who are not squeezing out of every instant everything that can be so squeezed; that the aesthetic of efficient utilization must guide our every step, our every foray. We have talents; we have limited time; all is possible; all could be yours; if only you lived the right way. We know the counterpoints to these oppressive nostrums; but we cannot internalize them in the same way; conformity and ideology beat us down. Perhaps we have too many guidebooks, too many maps; too many guides for the perplexed; perhaps we should entertain anxiety and uncertainty and see where it takes us.
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The traveler can paralyze himself in both ways. I do not want to walk the beaten path, even though the ‘best sights’ are on it; I do not want to walk my chosen path because I will not receive reassurance that my preferences were the right ones to guide my actions. The end result might be predictable: as Shahnaz Habib notes: “A lot of travel can be about pretending….I have spent perfectly sunny mornings in museums that I did not care for…I am now beginning to see the case for doing only the things you are curious about….When we arrive in a new place, I skip the iconic.” The guidebook can make us do things we do not want to do. We feel compelled to participate in rituals which hold no meaning for us; we sing, as members of choirs made up of strangers, hymns whose words we do not understand; we pray to false idols; our prayers are not heard. I’ve done it all: I’ve seen too much boring art, too many boring museums and boring buildings. I’ve found more interesting things elsewhere. This is not to make the old claim that off the beaten path is best; to seek out the off-beat just because it is the off-beat is to miss the point all over again.
There are always as many ways to travel as there are travelers. Every way of traveling, every exposure of this world to the consciousness of a traveler brings a new world into being, to be talked about, described, written up. To decline guidance, to seek the cold comfort of our own perspective on and in this world, is to write new meanings into it. We should resist the trajectory of the guidebook and write our own. The choice that the freedom to not follow the guidebook affords us is liberating; it is a lesson we take back with us when we stop off the trail and head home. It should be acceptable to go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower, to go to Brazil and not see the Amazon, to not experience a glorious sunset or even the kiss of a lover. There are no ‘essential experiences.’