January 7, 2016

"Even though we have sung China’s praises on this blog and social media, and saw some of the most incredible landscapes imaginable, the truth is we struggled there."

"China turned us into bad people. The pushing, the shoving, the pollution, the spitting, the lack of respect toward the environment and their fellow human beings, the oily food, the wasteful attitude that is now ingrained in their psyche, we could go on. This is not to say we didn’t have great experiences and meet wonderful people, because we definitely did. But those moments were far less common for us. We hate being negative, and it may sound arrogant or pathetic, but that is the truth.... We would snap at each other over small things, and these minor arguments would turn into all-day affairs. Alesha would get angry at me over trivial matters, and I would retaliate. In the end I stopped being the caring partner that I should be. I neglected Alesha’s feelings and she would attack me for neglecting her. I continued to neglect her because I couldn’t stand being attacked. It was a vicious cycle. Alesha started to resent travel, and I grew numb to it. Nothing excited us anymore. Just like you can lose your passion for a hobby when it becomes a job, we’re starting to become jaded with travel...."

From "This Couple Traveled The World Together And Admits It Strained Their Relationship/Social media makes traveling as a couple look like a honeymoon every day. One couple admits that that’s not always the case."

So part of this was that they made travel their job, but at least they were making money, not hemorrhaging money.
People who write about travel for a living are strange characters, making it all look amazing and romantic. Who writes about the downside of travel? You'd have to write really well to make your complaining good reading. David Sedaris can do it. Mostly, people who read about travel are going to be people who like travel (or the idea of it). You're therefore best off feeding the fantasy. You may have some great material there ‚ the physical, psychological, and relationship strains — but you'll need more insight and literary prowess than "I neglected Alesha’s feelings and she would attack me for neglecting her" and "I continued to neglect her because I couldn’t stand being attacked."

That reminds me: James Lileks responded to one of my recent travel-skepticism posts.
You can read about a place and see pictures, but it doesn't compare to being there. I wouldn't conflate going to a place with understanding it on some subatomic level like the all-wise locals; wouldn't suggest that going to interesting places somehow makes one an interesting person. But if I had the choice between staying at home for a week in the summer, or spending it in Venice exploring churches, why wouldn't I go? I can walk around the neighborhood the other 51 weeks. Not a lot of baroque around here.

Ann wrote: "Do the people who travel have a more wide-ranging mind than the people who read and think about the world?" Not necessarily. People who read and think about space travel probably had a 'more wide-ranging' set of ideas than Neil Armstrong, who was thinking about getting there, landing, exploring, leaving, and getting home without dying. The armchair space explorer imagines warp-drive and generational ships. One is idle speculation uninformed by experience; the other is travel.
Another alternative: Walk around beyond your neighborhood, to the poorest, most dangerous part of the nearest big city. Get home without dying.
You can read about Venice, but you'll never know how it smells; you can think about Venice, but you'll never read anything that's the equivalent experience to turning a corner, finding a church, going inside, soaking in the atmosphere of five centuries, studying the artifacts. 
Well, me, I have anosmia, which could be an advantage in some places, perhaps even Venice in the summer. I've seen some churches and artifacts — like Notre Dame in Paris and the jawbone of Saint Louis on display in the backroom.
You can read and think about Venice all you like, but you'll never find yourself standing at dawn by the canal, near a stone with a date from the 16th century, waiting for your boat....
I went to Amsterdam some years ago. Stayed for 2 weeks. Avoided the canal boats because I regarded them as tourist bullshit. But then I caved. This is the page from my sketchbook about that day:
Amsterdam Notebook
(Enlarge.)
I am not a fan of canal boats. Back to Lileks:
On the other hand, reading and thinking is all you can do for most of the things outside you[r] town and profession, and if you're not just looking to confirm your pre-existing biases, your understanding of, oh, Turkish politics is quite possibly better than someone who just took a day trip on a bus through Instanbul when the cruise ship docked....

Ann also says: "Anyway, as Irving observes, places like the ancient ruins of Rome have tourists walking all over the place." Depends. Pompeii has spots where you, depending on the day, find yourself alone on a street, looking up at a wisp from Vesuvius. But as with the ancient ruins of Rome, experiencing them with lots of people is hardly an inversion of their original state. It's like going to the Colosseum and complaining about the crowds.
That would only be true if people are interchangeable. The other people at a tourist attraction are tourists, not the people who made the attraction an attraction. You can't be with the ancient Romans. You can imagine them, but mostly because you've read about them. If you are inspired to call them to mind as you stand in their ruins, it is only because you are able to overcome the noisy discordance of the other travelers, the people who don't belong there, people like you. But those who extol travel tend not to talk about excluding other people from their visual and mental field. When I've traveled, I've done a mix of things. I've drawn myself into a spiritual/artistic place where I've communed with the great art and architecture and great men and women of the past, and I've noticed the incongruities and disappointments (some of which were exactly the fodder I wanted for my sketchbooks). It's something I can do. It has some value, but often not more value than living daily life at home, especially if you factor in how much it costs and all the effort of planning and getting there.

And getting back without dying.

47 comments:

Birches said...

Blame China.

D. B. Light said...

On our most recent trip to China my wife said "I don't ever want to come back here again." I asked why and she said "The people are so rude". We haven't been back. By the way, my wife is Chinese.

Michael said...

The Chinese do spit and they do shove. I can attest to it Back in the early 80s before the country "opened" I had a chance to travel there and witness the incredible upside down world they lived in. Only the rural people had the leisure to travel and they were unskilled in any courtesy. The government found it necessary to place "no spitting" signs in every public building. Long before the country had gotten "rich" flying into Shanghai at night would be like flying into a city where the power was out. Dark. No traffic because there were no cars. In the older sections of town, the old German and French neighborhoods the beautiful mansions were packed with families, scenes from Dr Zhivago. In Beijing it was impossible to see more than a quarter mile in any direction, it was like living in a fog and dirt dense Dickens' London. The pollution was horrible. As I said, there were no cars. Only bicycles. Millions of them. One marveled at how they could find their own among the parked masses. They were all identical.

Trading on their exchange was halted yesterday when their "circuit breaker" kicked in at a 7% loss. Interesting times. We are tied, but not hooked, to them thus nervous American equities.

David Begley said...

I learned plenty about the Chinese culture from The Weekly Standard. The government executes political prisoners and then harvests their organs.

Don't trust them at all.

Don't trust their accounting or a thing about them. They are authoritarian and worse.

Daniel Richwine said...

Travel is so overrated anyway.

mccullough said...

These folks aren't long for this world. Whining and weakness are not a skill set. They can't deal with the Chinese or cope with struggle, two skills that will be needed in the near future.

Tibore said...

The fact it has some value is all the reason some people need in order to engage in travel. Enthusiasts inflating that value insanely does mean that value is not there to be had; it simply means you have to see through the BS to find it.

There's a legit criticism that too often people don't investigate and enrich themselves with experiences closer to home. But that doesn't take away from the fact that excellent experiences can indeed be had abroad.

madAsHell said...

My daughter spent a year teaching English in Nanjing. She now has chronic respiratory issues, and allergies.

mikee said...

Lawrence Sterne, in his wonderful travelogue A Sentimental Journey Through Italy and France, ended the story in the French Alps. Still, this is one of the most wonderful books ever written in the English language. Ever since I was exposed to Sterne's writing, I have tried to travel sentimentally, too.

Rebecca West's Gray Lamb and Black Falcon explained more to me about the Balkans than anything I saw on the news in the 1990s. Grant's Personal Memoirs are a fine way to relive the Civil War. Frank's Guadalcanal will take you into humid jungles during WWII. Boswell's London Journal is a window into England of the 1760s. "Auntie Mame" became a template for rearing our children. The world is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.

I highly recommend travel, however you perform it.

David Begley said...

If the Greens wanted to a legitimate good deed their movement would focus on the real pollution in China. Not the pie in the sky global warming scam.

Richard Dolan said...

The back-and-forth with Lileks seems like an extended proof of the idea that one size doesn't fit all, or if you prefer, different strokes for different folks. Travel can be fun and enriching and educational, or the opposite or something in between, depending on how you do it and what your interests are.

It's all reminiscent of the blogs about novels vs. non-fiction that, in times past, were the subject of some discussion here.

Sebastian said...

"China turned us into bad people" A potentially useful data point. So (apologies), extrapolating boldly, what happens when a great power of 1B+ people who don't give a damn about each other, ruled by a regime that doesn't give a damn about them, goes up against another, smaller great power, comprised of people who care a bit, or are eager to be considered to care, about each other, ruled by a government that (pre-O) also had to at least pretend to care? The geopolitical question is, how can we prevent China from turning the rest of us into bad people?

jaydub said...

"China turned us into bad people. The pushing, the shoving, the pollution, the spitting, the lack of respect toward the environment and their fellow human beings..."

This perfectly describes Chinese tourists, too. I don't necessarily think it's their fault - it's kind of like plucking a few thousand Muslims out of North Africa and plopping them down beside the train station in Koln - they don't understand the culture in which they're suddenly emersed, and they have no idea that spitting and pushing (or raping and groping, for that matter) are not the norms in their new environs. My wife and I have taken to traveling to places where we're unlikely to encounter Chinese tourists, which is anywhere off the beaten path.

Lyle Smith said...

It's total bullshit for a tourist to ever think they aren't a tourist. Taking that Amsterdam boat ride reflects self-reflection.

buwaya said...

"Rebecca West's Gray Lamb and Black Falcon explained more to me about the Balkans than anything I saw on the news in the 1990s."

Not for me. She seemed a little bit of a romanticiser.
Ivo Andric "Bridge on the Drina" is closer to the ground.

EMD said...

WWTFD?

What Would Tom Friedman Do?

YoungHegelian said...

The Chinese penchant for rudeness & abuse causes no end of problems with their foreign outreach, e.g. into Africa.

The natives, often sensitive to snubs from foreigners thanks to colonialism, see the rude Chinese behavior towards them as proof of racism or worse. The Chinese, on the other hand, are mystified as to why anyone is taking such deep offense: "After all", they say, "we treat each other shabbily, too. It's not like we're picking just on you. I mean, if we Han Chinese are rude to each other, then we can certainly be rude to you, because, however good you think you are, you're not as good as we Han Chinese. No one is."

A lot of the world puts great store in manners. Americans are somewhere in the middle, prizing public affability but not emphasizing getting the ritual of manners down pat (e.g. the Japanese). The Chinese will have to work on their public demeanors if they want to be "playahs" on the world stage.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

David Begley,

As I understand it, some organs are "harvested" from prisoners before execution. Better quality that way.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Re: tourists vs. ancient Romans (&c.), there's a Chesterton essay I wish I could lay my hands on at the moment. The gist is that it's not the modern people in their ugly modern clothes that are vulgar, but the modern determination to "see the sights." He says something to the effect that the real way to "see the sights" is to see them accidentally, on the way from somewhere to somewhere else; if you're just cutting across Trafalgar Square as the easiest way to get to Charing Cross, the Nelson Column might actually, for the first time in your life, remind you of Nelson. &c.

David said...

More evidence of how lucky we are to live in this country at this time. And why I am so impatient with American whiners.

tim in vermont said...

Traveling is stressful. I just spent a week in a place where I had to see men in shorts constantly. Apparently this is a local custom, but it was as if they had no concept of civilization.

John Constantius said...

Went to Japan over the holidays. It was magnificent for all the reasons Lileks mentions. Already planning the next trip there.

The only negative I could mention was the Chinese tourists. The Japanese hate them with good reason. But as jaydub suggests they are always in big tour group packs and only at the major sites (e.g. Golden Pavilion in Kyoto). Keep away from those areas at peak times and you're fine. It also helps to stay in nice hotels and eat at nice restaurants, because they're cheapskates.

Static Ping said...

I've done the walk through the terrible neighborhood thing. It was quite invigorating. The result is you brag about it to all your friends and it makes a nice story, but you never want to do it again.

I've also done the Amsterdam canal ride and I found it fun. For the business traveler/tourist it is more or less essential since the rides run well into the evening on work days when the museums and other tourist attractions have closed at 5pm. (Unless you want pot or a hooker. Those are readily available into the evening.) However, I would recommend walking around Amsterdam at semi-random as there is a lot more to see than what the canal rides can provide. The walkabout is actually recommended in the tourist guides. Amsterdam is ridiculously safe to the point that bicycle theft is one of the more prominent crimes. If you get tired, mass transit is everywhere and cheap.

As to the couple at hand, you must appreciate that they admitted to the problem and took steps to fix it. That speaks well for their relationship going forward. Travel itself is, for most people at least, a novelty which is fortunately over before the novelty wears off and the natural stress takes prominence. Making it a job, even if you really truly love to travel, will take the bloom off the rose eventually.

Roughcoat said...

... they don't understand the culture in which they're suddenly emersed, and they have no idea that spitting and pushing (or raping and groping, for that matter) are not the norms in their new environs.

That's like saying they're assholes because they're assholes.

William said...

The romance of foreign travel is far greater when you're younger. Also there's no foreign sight or experience that transcends the awfulness of dysentery.

Gabriel said...

@Ann:The other people at a tourist attraction are tourists, not the people who made the attraction an attraction.

Ancient Rome had ancient tourists in ancient times. The Colosseum was always a tourist attraction.

Of course few people traveled for pleasure in those days. This is betrayed by the etymology; the root is the same as French "travail", work; in Middle English the sense was "backbreaking labor".

Wilbur said...

At the holiday dinner table, the son-in-law's parents (who are forever going on ostentatious overseas cruises) look at me and ask:

"So Wilbur, when you retire, I assume Europe will be in your travel plans, hmmm?"

No. I done seen pictures of it. Good enough for me.

"But, you'll miss out on so much!"

Nope, Wilbur doesn't enjoy living out of a suitcase nor being at the mercy of an airline or ship company. If you do, knock yourself out. Anyway, there's so much within a day's drive that I haven't experienced, I see no need to go much further.

So they then went back to discussing how great Bernie Sanders is.

Ipso Fatso said...

My goal is to eat in a Taco Bell in Guadalajara. Some day soon, some day soon.

Bill Peschel said...

Now that we can travel, we're going to start with the U.S. and Canada. I've lived in the South; it's a different country. So's New England, New Orleans, the Midwest, Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Alaska.

If we want to be insulted in French, we'll go to Quebec. If we want to travel overseas, we'll look into a cruise for at least one trip. Cunard has around the world cruises -- three or four months long -- that can set you back $25,000, but it's the type of luxury I'd like to afford.

I haven't been on a plane since 9/11, but between security theater, discomforts and rip-off fees, it sounds even more hellish than it used to be.

Michael said...

John Constantius

You remind me of the way in which the Chinese went in packs to museums in Beijing in the early 80s. They clung to each others coats as if they would fly into space if they let go. And they shuffled in the way they do through the museums without looking at the art on the walls; they were too intent on crowding into the one before them.

speaking of shuffling. There is a way to distinguish upper versus not-so-upper class Japanese by the way they walk. Many of the men walk with a shuffle, as though they were in slippers which they are when they are not at work. Can never remember if the shuffle was an upper or lower class characteristic. The former I think.

Love Japan. Young kids in uniform dropping down into the subways on the way to school. Alone. Perfectly safe. Once in a very early Sunday morning I was in the Ginza walking down the sleepless night. Across the street and walking the same way was a Japanese man. When the light turned red and the red hand signal of don't walk came up the Japanese man stopped and waited for the light to turn green. There were no cars on the street. None. Thus is Japan a safe place. Rule-bound but safe. Not big on the multi-culti there and the results show.

jaydub said...

Roughcoat said: "That's like saying they're assholes because they're assholes." More like saying their assholes because they don't know they're assholes.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

My parents did a tour of Italy last year and my Mom said that Venice was the most disappointing city in terms of expectations--she wasn't impressed.
Just, you know, an opinion.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

In all seriousness, Professor, have you considered trying recreational drugs (of the mind-expanding variety, marijuana or MDMA or LSD or the like)? It almost sounds like that'd be more of something you'd like as a "get away" than physically travelling.

I also note, as a regular reader of your blog, that you frequently post pictures of the places to which you travel while at the same time saying you don't like to travel much! Maybe it's a distinction between travelling far vs. exploring w/in your own area, but for someone who says she doesn't believe in the gospel of travel you sure seem to get around!

Birches said...

Traveling is stressful. I just spent a week in a place where I had to see men in shorts constantly. Apparently this is a local custom, but it was as if they had no concept of civilization.

Scottsdale or Orlando?

madAsHell said...

Venice was the most disappointing city

If you can overlook the smell, then it's the city of constant discovery....or maybe it's the joy of being perpetually lost. You walk down narrow alleys, and suddenly you're in a glorious plaza full of history. Of course, once you leave the plaza there is no way to find it again.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Ancient Rome had ancient tourists in ancient times. The Colosseum was always a tourist attraction.

For that matter, Romans who could afford it would travel to Egypt to see the already ancient pyramids and temples.

Wandering around and discovering new things is in our genes.

tim in vermont said...

If you can overlook the smell

When our boat pulled up to our hotel, the Venice equivalent of a "Honey Wagon" was there pumping the septic. Still it was a great trip.

Quaestor said...

I wonder if blaming China is just a sublimation of deeper problems the Salem/Bradford couple is incubating. Firstly I see no evidence of marital status. Are they married or are they just a "couple"? Whenever there are legal bonds intelligent people reason differently about relationships. Secondly it's been my experience (sadly) that couples who go into business together argue more fiercely than couples whose business interests are separate. In those cases when money gets tight or a business decision goes badly couples tend to confuse what's strictly business and what's strictly personal. (Like in the Mafia. "This is business, Mike! It's not personal.")

Megaera said...

Not sure I would endorse the "stroll through the dangerous neighborhood" trouble-tourism suggestion -- I mean, if things go seriously pear-shaped you have a long and troubling wait for the cavalry, and then there's that problem of explaining just exactly what you were doing in a place like that to begin with, which makes you see, like a total prat -- but if you want to see how pretty much EVERYONE else lives in your area, get some trouble tourism thrown in (often with a police escort!) and learn some useful skills in the process, I suggest qualifying as an EMT-B and joining your local volunteer rescue squad. Eye-opener in every way.

John Constantius said...

Michael, it's still the same. The wife and I did it too -- waiting at the crosswalk in the rain in Kanazawa for the light to turn green with no cars in sight. You do it because it's the rules and in Japan civilized people obey the rules. Other than Singapore, we have never in our lives felt so safe even late at night.

If you learn a few phrases and memorize the hiragana and the katakana, the Japanese will love you - the language is a very tough nut to crack and they appreciate westerners who give it a try. Or at least they appear to - being Japanese maybe they were just being polite.

As for Venice, the secret is to go in February. No one is there but the locals and visitors in the know, and the fog is so thick every plaza is like a little private island of mystery. A few things (not many) are closed but you can get basically any hotel or restaurant you want with ease and for a good price. Plus the canals don't stink - that only happens in summer.

Clyde said...

One other thing about China: It's the very worst place to get involved in a car-pedestrian accident, because if someone gets hit, the driver tries to kill the pedestrian so that he doesn't have to pay expensive medical bills and compensation. It's cheaper under their law to kill someone by running over them repeatedly. I read an article about it a while back, and it definitely took China off the travel menu permanently.

Clyde said...

Matter of fact, that article about the Chinese hit-to-kill drivers was linked here on September 4th...

Barry Dauphin said...

Always good to learn more about Tom Friedman's paradise.

fivewheels said...

Lileks is still around, huh? I used to read him back in the day, and enjoyed the viewpoint of the blog, but I unbookmarked him for what might be a weird reason: I started to fear that the posts about his very young daughter would be embarrassing to her when she was older. In a way, that sounds like a silly reason to me now, but at the time I felt like I should look away.

Crap, that kid's gotta be a teenager now, just the age when she might freak out over an old "I pooped my pants" post.

Iapetus said...

Next year my wife and I have a trip to visit some of the coastal villages and the highlands region of Papua New Guinea. We've been to PNG before, about 20 years ago; it is a fascinating country. At some point during our travels, perhaps during a sing-sing, we expect to be standing next to some comely bare-breasted women or next to some fierce looking men, perhaps former cannibals or the descendants of former cannibals, who might have enjoyed having us FOR dinner. We hope to get back without dying.

Gordon said...

The wife and I like to go to Ireland, when we can afford to. It's inexpensive if you go in the off-season, and sometimes it doesn't rain. Other than one or two planned stops, we don't have an itinerary and if a country lane looks interesting, we'll turn and see where it goes.

One day we were in a small town in the northwest. We had wanted to visit a drum store, but it was closed, and we went into the jewelry store next door. The shopgirl was an artist, a Bulgarian by way of having grown up in London. She had many interesting stories to tell, and we spent the afternoon chatting with her, as no other customers came in. Her insights into Irish culture were fascinating.

She observed that we had come at a good time (early November), as by that time of year they had stopped being an amusement park. The locals would now come out and actually be willing to engage with a stranger who wasn't utterly impolite. The Irish take on Americans is that we're always in a hurry, rude and condescending. Every Irish person, of course, has hordes of American cousins, and the Irish think their cousins are rude, rushed and condescending.

Angeline Acord said...

Don't blame china for this, I think this is a time of modern things and no body care about
the environment.

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