Saturday, May 05, 2007

Travel without immersion

I often think that travel was more fun just a few decades ago. At the time we did not realize just how lucky we were. Flights were certainly more expensive in real terms and fewer people travelled. I do think though that we have given up an awful lot.

We can now travel with more safety and perhaps more fun upon arrival. The actual act of travel is now more isolating. It is much easier now to travel and never leave one's home comfort zone.

Some of my perception is due to my loss of innocence.
In the seventies there were plenty of hijackings but I did not hesitate to fly when I got the chance. Few of the hijackings seemed to involve many lives lost. In any case, we did not have global 24 cable news to pound the stories into our brains. While there were some bad plane crashes we never saw History Channel documentaries illustrating the failings of pilots, aircraft maintenance and government incompetence.

There were more than a handful of serial killers cruising the highways looking for their next victim but I rarely worried about my hitchhiking safety. I just did not know any better.

When I was younger we might read about the horrible excesses of communist governments and African dictators such as Idi Amin but no one was producing Hollywood films about it all. If we heard about Iran the story was to glorify the wonderful jewellery and palaces of the Shah. Excesses in Cambodia and Burma where hidden in the smoke screen of the Vietnam conflict.

Flexible plane tickets and stopovers
When I first travelled across the Pacific I had an open ticket. It was possible to change the route and dates almost at will as long as there were seats available. Between Vancouver, Canada and Sydney, Australia I made stopovers in Honolulu, Pago Pago, Apia, Nadi, Auckland and Wellington. Of course one can still do such a trip but I suspect that the fare would be several times the more direct no stopover fare.

When I first travelled across Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal we took the train. It was a great way to see the country and we met people from all across the country. It was educational for me to see how other travellers were to be in the mountains that I see daily. Travellers nowadays miss much of that thrill and sense of the country. Flying the red eye flight to the East coast one has no sense of actually being in Canada rather than a completely different land. One see so much more when travelling at ground level.

Today's travel is much more like staying at home.
Some things, such as cheap phone calls and international news have made foreign travel easier. I fear though that they also make it easier for people to travel without actually being immersed in the local culture. In the mid seventies when I travelled for months across Asia I only made one phone call home. It involved booking a time at the big city post office for my three minute call. The cost was high and confusion was abundant.

For months at a time the only news that I got from Canada was a few mentions in the family letters waiting at Poste Restante. Modern tourist can talk daily on the Internet, watch CNN in their air conditioned hotel rooms and have the New York Times delivered to their rooms. I clearly remember sitting in a cheap Queensland hotel room listening to the local radio. They were switching between numerous locations around Eastern Australia as they played the daily horse raising results. I was amazed that they could bring so many diverse locations into one program. By 1984 I was able to stay up late in my rental apartment and catch the CNN Headline News from North America.

The downside of all this news and information is that it is easy to travel without getting at all immersed in the local culture. If a Japanese tourist visits Vancouver and watches Japanese TV and reads Japanese newspapers and talks to Japanese tour guides can they say that they have really seen Canada?

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