Chasing enlightenment and inevitable disappointment

In this Opinion Competition-winning piece, Milly Ellen looks at how travel has changed

In this Opinion Competition-winning piece, Milly Ellen looks at how travel has changed

There exists amongst us an idea that to be ‘worldly’ is to be wise. This belief is especially prevalent amongst the hordes of students who flock to the far reaches of Europe in search of historical enlightenment, South-East Asia in search of holistic drunkenness and America in search of every cliché imaginable. When the intrepid adventurers eventually return, tanned and glowing, it is expected that you will listen to their tales of adventure and self-fulfillment. The people they met who changed their worldview and the splendorous sites they saw are both effusively detailed with such grandeur, you wonder why your holidays abroad appear so dull in comparison.

This is the inherent deception of travelling. With the commercialization of travel across the globe as well as increasingly affordable airfares, the once elusive gimmick of baking on the beaches of Thailand, potent cocktail in hand, is available to everyone. Historically pursued on the whims of the rich, with the widespread sales of ‘Lonely Planet’ guides and seemingly obsessive addiction to travel blogs, it is possible to find a destination and formulate an itinerary in an instant.

Fast-forward to the moment when you land in your exotic destination of choice – quick shot of arrivals sign. The moment you get into a taxi – quick shot of stunning architecture or decrepit slums (depending on your location). The moment you arrive at your accommodation – quick shot out the window with obligatory hashtags:  #thisisthelyf, #sunset #paradise. With such instantaneous access to social media and the barrage of travel-boasting that seems a rite of passage for some, it is impossible to ignore these self-obsessed submissions. It is not ‘sharing’. It serves as a means by which the person validates their $1,500 airfare, jetlag and quiet disappointment. By documenting each moment of our travels, to be immediately posted online for approval by our peers, we are diminishing the tangible experience to a series of documents and snaps.

Michelle de Kretser speaks eloquently of this phenomenon in her Miles Franklin award winning novel, “Questions of Travel”, as she highlights the vapidity of seeking ‘truth’ in foreign destinations and inevitable disappointment her characters face in the presence of natural and historical wonders. We may wander through the Vatican City and marvel at golden pillars and artistic genius, but how many of us take sneaky pictures in the hopes that it will receive ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’? To what extent do we actually appreciate what we’re in the presence of? It would seem that we are more concerned with how our trip will be perceived as compared to our actual experiences.

It is obvious to think of corrupt governments, dodgy private enterprises and greedy individuals as being the most deceptive amongst us. But shouldn’t we acknowledge the fact that in the ever competitive world of social media, we have become attuned to synthesizing our lives? We are being forced into a farcical online lie, and this deception seems most visible in our accounts of travel. As we are plagued by terminal FOMO and travel inadequacy, we feel a dishonest compulsion to filter our photos and correspondence. By posting only the gratuitous ‘selfies’ and well-lit, postcard-esque shots that do not necessary reflect our true experiences as well as gushing status updates that convey only superficial snapshots of a foreign destination, we are deceiving our friends and family and inciting artificial jealously.

And in reality, we are deceiving ourselves. By convincing yourself that by following the well-trodden paths of ‘Lonely Planet’ expertise you will somehow ‘see’ a culture, ‘understand’ a nation and reach the effervescent heights of travel nirvana – complete disappointment and bitterness can only follow.

By being honest about our experiences, we can perhaps lower expectations of ‘enlightening trips’ that are generally doomed to fail. By disregarding the compulsion to share the intimate details of what we ate from a fabulous street stall, what we saw at some historically significant ruins or what we heard at a local bar, perhaps we can actually appreciate the beauty of what we’re surrounded by when we travel. Please, put down the phone. Take a breath. Give yourself a chance to just ‘be’ in a place without recording it.

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