Dave the Traveler

What is the number one thing on a lot of people’s bucket list? A quick Google search gives you an answer similar to the following: travel the world. I bet even you have dreamt about going to a place far away to experience the Other, the unfamiliar, the exotic. I did the same thing last summer when I went on my solo trip to South Korea and Japan. I learned a lot of things about myself, but in hindsight did not really consider what it means to actually be able to travel.

Exactly 6 days prior to writing, I went to Waterstones to pick up some books. One of these books was William Sutcliffe’s Are You Experienced? I had never heard of Sutcliffe before, but the cover looked very bright and said the story is “very, very funny”, so I decided to pick it up and have a go at reading it. The book is about David, or Dave, who is persuaded by Liz, one of his best friends’ girlfriend, to travel through India for three months. Mind you, Dave is a very cynical 19-year-old British guy who hates the idea of traveling, and Liz is very attractive and very manipulative and, well, she is just a straight up bitch The combination of these two characters and a dash of sexual tension results in a story that will make you laugh out loud on multiple occasions.

But that is not what I think is important about Are You Experienced? I do not know if I should call it something similar to a coming-of-age novel, but it is enlightening to read. Dave, the protagonist, stays critical throughout the whole story and questions the relevance of travel. He compares it to suffering, but a luxurious way of suffering, because the average traveler has the means to move comfortably. The Westerner and the Easterner are constantly juxtaposed, with other travelers telling Dave he is not trying to experience India and become one with the country. Of course, Dave cannot truly relate to the Indians he meets in the story, as, unlike them, he is not poor or really suffering. In contrast, Dave is not as rich as the rich Indians, either, so he has no way of experiences both extreme ends of the spectrum. He is just an average white guy. Western privilege is constantly emphasized in a witty way that still shows how much we take for granted.

The main element that shows how different the two worlds are is the consumption of meat. Early on, Dave is told that he has to give up on meat for three months, because meat in India is not treated hygienically enough to be save to consume. Stubborn Dave listens for a while, but once he is alone he caves and eats a burger, which makes him sick for about two weeks. Already depressed Dave feels like dying and almost “gives up” his travel by returning home, only to recover from his physical ailments, run into an old friend, and spend the remaining three weeks of his big trip at a resort.

The fact that Dave could leave misery and poverty behind in favor of comfort and riches is jarring, as it further illustrates how big the gap between England and India is. A couple chapters later, two girls are actually put on a flight back to England, because they cannot “handle” being away from home anymore. This is seen as “giving up” the experience of surviving in different circumstances in a different country rather than being a traveler who accepts the hardships of being somewhere unfamiliar and keeps on going. The Third World is romanticized into something the First World needs to experience to humble down. In this context, “giving up” just means being too privileged.

We all travel every single day without calling it traveling. The same goes for landmarks: local people do not consider them anything special, but travelers rave about these landmarks. Being aware of these foreign landmarks shows privilege, because this awareness means having the resources to look up information about the place you are visiting. All you need to actually go is money and The Book[1], all very Western capitalist concepts. There is no experiencing the local, there is only projecting the expected local onto the exotic, the whole problem Edward Said writes about in Orientalism[2]. Now Sutcliffe knows this, that is why he ridicules all travelers through the eyes of Dave and makes them seem as the superficial appropriating nit-wits they are. Inevitably, Dave turns into a superficial appropriating nit-wit too, which is where the book ends.

I used the word inevitably, because all of us travelers do this. All we end up with is a story about a country far, far away that is probably less prospering than where we came from, where the culture is different and unfamiliar. Am I arguing that we should stop traveling to these countries? Not really. Like I said, I went to South Korea and Japan last summer. In no way I am claiming that these countries are less prospering, but they are culturally very different from where and how I grew up. That alone brings in the risk of appropriating and offending.

One major difference I personally experienced had to do with the way you dress. In South Korea and Japan, showing a lot of chest as a woman is frowned upon, whereas wearing the shortest skirts and shorts is no issue at all. In Europe this is the other way around. Local people there could easily pinpoint who did or did not know about this dress code. I knew about this, so I was careful when dressing myself. However, on my last day in Seoul I wore something that, in my opinion, was not that low-cut. A middle-aged Korean man thought otherwise of it and called me out, making me feel very conscious, even though I was fully aware of the custom. This encounter in itself shows that you, as a traveler, can never know for sure if you are doing the right thing or not.

Appropriation and capitalism join hands in the shape of renting out traditional clothing for travelers to wear and take pictures in. Especially near older parts of both Seoul and Japan, or near the traditional villages, temples and palaces, a lot of rental shops for hanbok and kimono would turn up and an increase in people wearing these clothes would be visible. I do not think it is right to wear these dresses and call it “experiencing the culture”, because I do not think you need to wear these dresses in order to appreciate the beauty of the individual items themselves and the history behind them.

The whole idea in Are You Experienced? is acting like the locals and not acknowledging the fact that you are different. Doing exactly that is what is wrong. When you visit a different country, you will always stand out and be perceived as different. It would only be offensive and appropriating to pretend as if you know everything because you read it in the Nat Geo Guide you bought either at the local traveling agency or online. Experiencing is learning how to behave along the way, kind of like Dave did. You will initially offend people, but it takes away integral offensiveness bred by indifference.

I do not think it is right to travel for the sake of traveling, to cross it off of a list, to experience something different from your usual life, or to feel as if you are a Good Samaritan. Travel to someplace different because you want to see that place specifically, enjoy the new insights it can give you, explore the connection you have with that place.

I have had people ask me where I want to go next, only to answer them that I do not know yet. Sure I want to go to Paris again to visit some museums and engulf myself in the beauty of art, but Paris is not that different from Amsterdam. That, too, is privilege: not feeling as if visiting a certain place should be called traveling to that place simply because it is not different for me. Millions of people probably dream about going to Paris, so it is quite arrogant of me to call it a simple trip.

Traveling is a First World privilege, or issue, that a lot of people cannot relate to. We do not always realize it, but travel is a two-way street: it is either a luxury or a mean of survival. Where wealthy people travel for fun a couple times a year, the idea of travel for people with less wealth has to do with the mundane movement of going from one place to the other. This last movement sometimes happens in combination with poor living circumstances or warfare, transforming travel to a gateway to a better life. In my opinion, we do not consider this other side of the sword enough when talking about traveling. The next time I board an airplane, I will think of those who are not able to move around the globe that easily. Will you join me?

[1] Any (National Geographic) travel guide could be The Book

[2] Orientalism refers back to seeing people from non-Western countries, mainly the Middle East, as exotic, uncivilized, dangerous, and sometimes poor.


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