Neither Here Nor ThereWhen we embark on journeys with translator apps and spaghetti piles of charger cords, where is it that we really go?

Neither Here Nor ThereWhen we embark on journeys with translator apps and spaghetti piles of charger cords, where is it that we really go?

Issue 20

,

Arts & Culture

“Many modern vacationers seek opportunities for profound enrichment—to feel that they have learned and grown through their journeys”

It’s rare to hear anyone say that they’ve traveled too much or that there’s no place they’d like to go. As conversations about dream destinations unfold, it can seem that almost everyone nurtures a fantasy about some far-flung part of the world they’ve yet to see in person. Upon discovering someone in our midst who’s been to that singular spot, we adopt the cross-legged enthusiasm of children at story time and beg them to tell us more. We listen attentively, take mental notes and vow to one day see it for ourselves. With our sense of wonder piqued, we then go home and Google obscure abbeys in Edinburgh or scroll through Instagram geotags in Mauritius, seeking even more insider information. This trading of knowledge can often turn traveling into an international game of capture the flag—our passports littered with stamps that mark off destinations from the constantly expanding itineraries in our minds.

To travel more often and further abroad has been one of the most consistent and widely shared human aspirations since the British began popularizing the Grand Tour of continental Europe in the 1600s. With its list of monuments and ruins to visit, these types of tourist trips became a hallmark of 17th-century bourgeois Western life. The premise behind why so many folks began packing their hatboxes and boarding steamships in the first place is the same that drives our wanderlust today: simply, that travel is thrilling.

When we approach an unknown land, our imaginations go Technicolor with anticipation. On arriving, the sensory overload of processing new surroundings is exhilarating: Days feel longer, details stand out sharply, we think more clearly and we become more energized. By shedding the routines to which we regularly adhere, we can discover sides of ourselves we didn’t know we had.

“Tourists often return home feeling that they’ve captured a more true sense of self,” says Dr. Andrew Alan Johnson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Princeton University. Based on his research (which is focused on the tourism and socio-political development of northern Thailand), Johnson suggests that the goal of obtaining a better understanding of foreign communities is at the very core of our desire to travel—just not in the terms typically defined by the global hospitality industry. This is because the way we travel and conceive of our priorities abroad is now beginning to change: Instead of margaritas by the pool at all-inclusive resorts, many modern vacationers seek opportunities for profound enrichment—to feel that they have learned and grown through their journeys. “Authenticity has become a signifier for value in Western tourism today,” Johnson says.

“Authentic” has become the buzzword for the types of experiences many modern travelers seek. As a 2011 study by the United Nations World Tourism Organization revealed, “The postmodern consumer’s search for experiences that are engaging, personable, memorable—and above all authentic—is especially strong in respect of tourism.” Clusters of fanny pack–toting tourists checking sightseeing boxes by unquestioningly following their tour guide, looking to the left and right in synchronous obedience, are not as common as they were a decade ago.

Instead, today’s travelers overwhelmingly judge the quality of their trips by the cultural and personal enlightenment they find. “Just as our parents’ generation might have competed over the number of monuments seen, the quality of the cruise dinner buffet or the artistry of the luau performance, we now compete over the remoteness of the location and the ‘genuine’ response of the ‘locals,’” Johnson says.

Yet paradoxes are at work within the complex concept of hunting down authenticity. “Some people don’t actually want an authentic experience,” Johnson says. He uses the example of organizing a trip to be “adopted” into a tribal group for a week’s stay in the mountains of Laos: After working into the rhythms of life for a while, the tourist might feel like they’re living like a true local. “But to be adopted— really adopted—in such a society means that you’re a part of a kinship group. And you have obligations to your kin,” he says. If they really had become part of tribal life, the “adopted” tourist would be required to divide their money among their new family and might feel offended at being told who they must marry. “Instead, they want to pick and choose,” Johnson says. By stopping short of this truly local experience, travelers demonstrate the limitations of their interest in genuine authenticity.

Because, if we’re being honest, most travelers don’t actually want to join a new community long-term—we just want a meaningful experience within the context of being a transient visitor and to return home feeling enriched by those encounters. But the question remains of how best to access these experiences. Cruises, resorts and guided excursions lack a certain coveted sense of freedom; it can be tough for us to spontaneously engage with locals and spur new friendships, hear about the area’s up-and-coming musicians or be invited into someone’s kitchen for a home-cooked meal. As a result, many modern travelers are eschewing the printed guidebooks that tourists in the ’80s and ’90s considered indispensable for trip planning. Instead, we’re seeking tips of every stripe from blogs, social media accounts and travel apps to get past the periphery of a new place and catch a glimpse of its core.

The intersection of travel and technology is fertile ground for entrepreneurs seeking to help modern wanderers access the elusive, enriching experiences we crave. When she first visited China in 2007, Stephanie Lawrence developed an interest in exploring the country further, though she admits eventually returning home to San Francisco a little disappointed. “We had a very sterile, one-sided view of the country, and I felt that I hadn’t had a chance to truly experience some of the gems—its incredible food, its warm and hospitable people, its vast history,” she says. “I saw glimpses, but we were mostly confined to buses, hotel rooms and the windowless hotel basement conference rooms where we ate with other tourists.”

In 2009, Lawrence returned to Beijing for a six-month stay. During this time, she studied Mandarin and hoped to learn how to make jiaozi, one of China’s traditional dumplings. She felt doing so would deepen her understanding of local food culture, but she couldn’t find anyone to teach her. “That was my first light bulb,” Lawrence says. This moment inspired her to cofound Traveling Spoon, an online service that connects travelers with local home cooks for informal culinary lessons. (Its slogan isTravel off the Eaten Path.) “It seemed strange that in a time when exceptional technology let me communicate with my family while I was living half a world away, there was no way to connect with the food and travel experiences I sought right where I already was.”

Traveling Spoon now works with culinary hosts in 17 countries and counting—all of whom are vetted in-person by the company’s team through a selection process that emphasizes their interest in sharing stories of their culture as much as their skills in the kitchen. “We have hosts outside of Kyoto, Japan, who will take you foraging for wild Japanese vegetables, and a mother in Kochi, India, who will teach you how to make appams, a delectable specialty from South India made with rice flour and coconut milk,” Lawrence says.

“Our hope is that we can bring cultures together and connect people over the kitchen table by sharing recipes passed down to them through generations.”

Lawrence’s culinary company is one of a growing number of mobile or online communities offering travelers variations of sharing economy–based dining options that allow for direct interaction with locals in the communities they visit. For example, EatWith works with professional chefs in 30 countries who host pop-up dinners in their homes, and the US-oriented Feastly caters to travelers and locals alike. Both recall the sentiment expressed by American journalist and food writer Mark Kurlansky, who once said, “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.” These technology companies seek to encourage strangers to connect over the nourishing ritual of a home-cooked meal, anywhere in the world.

But it’s far from being just about foodies. Start-ups like Vayable allow locals who are passionate about a certain subject—say, architecture—to offer their services as independent tour guides, and Travelfy helps groups roving together stay organized and on top of mutual expenses. Online communities have also formed around sharing experiences—there’s even an active “Stranded at an Airport, Tango Meet-up” Facebook group that exists for those who prefer to spend their layovers dancing.

Then there’s the case of accommodation: The now-ubiquitous Airbnb provides an alternative to hotel chains (not to mention a chance to practice your Croatian with a Dalmatian family under their grape-vined trellis), and infinite niche sites allow even further personalization. In 2014, an Airbnb survey found that 85 percent of their guests wanted to “live like locals,” and that’s exactly what these services can offer in contrast to a stale list of hotels in an outdated Lonely Planet guide. The majority of the housing options offered on these websites are company-vetted and peer-reviewed in an effort to keep users safe and the quality high. Because while a dash of the unexpected can add interest to a trip, danger and disappointment are still thoroughly undesirable.

When the nature of how to even define “authenticity” is so fraught with complication, it seems wise to stay mindful of our own preconceived illusions of how we “should” experience new places in the first place; after all, enlightenment isn’t always found in expected places. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton describes finding a purity of feeling in a location nobody would cite as a dream destination: a cafeteria on the side of a highway. Something about its isolation, its lack of pretense and the way it belonged solely to weary travelers pulling off the road to stretch their legs and eat inspired an introspective existential episode. “Its appeal made me think of certain other equally and unexpectedly poetic traveling places—airport terminals, harbors, train stations and motels…” he writes.

Alain de Botton was not the first writer to note this: When fed up with the monotony of daily life, poet Charles Baudelaire would “leave for the leaving’s sake” and journey to a harbor or train station to watch the arrivals and departures. Poet T.S. Eliot hence referred to Baudelaire as the creator of the “poésie des stations-service” and the “poésie des aéroports”—the “poetry of service stations” and the “poetry of airports.” These in-between spaces gain energy and character from their association with travel but remain untouched by its glamour—and they are all the more poignant for it.

But what is at the root of this philosophical search for authenticity? Two influential demographics in particular are shifting the travel paradigm.

First, there are millennials. As young adults emerge from universities into an insecure job market, many of the lucky ones are opting for an alternate route to further their growth through forays abroad. Travel apps and sites, which are often geared toward these budget-conscious travelers, promote rented rooms and home-cooked meals over big-name hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants. Recently, the World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation polled more than 34,000 people from 137 countries to find that young travelers are simply less interested in the “traditional sun, sea and sand holidays” and instead prefer to immerse themselves in their destination’s flow of life. On top of that, an additional 22 percent even aimed to pick up a new language while traveling. By virtue of treating travel as a life experience rather than a quick diversion from reality, younger travelers have championed the idea that mindful, immersive travel is the way forward.

At the other end of the spectrum, more mature and typically wealthier travelers are looking to diversify their experiences from the homogenous vacations they’ve already found at resorts. A study by luxury travel firm Virtuoso found that one of 2014’s fastest-growing types of travel was in the luxury adventure sector: With a median age of 48, these are wayfarers who want active, fulfilling vacations that go beyond the norm—while still being prepared to pay for creature comforts. In this way, the pursuit of authenticity is a reflection of a growing urge to forge our own paths and fulfill our ideals, at any stage of life.

Most modern travelers seek experiences of personal significance and want to be enlightened as individuals. Yet many of us seem to consider documenting our journeys to be almost as important as making them. A 2014 survey by British travel company Sunshine revealed one of the top reasons respondents used technology while abroad was “to brag about my holiday.” A Chase Card Services survey from the same year discovered that, despite having “a desire to unplug” while traveling, 97 percent of millennial respondents shared experiences via social media while vacationing, and 73 percent updated their feeds daily. The irony of consistently documenting our travel experiences on social media is that it removes us from the moment we are ostensibly enjoying.

“When a person is focused on their device, they aren’t paying attention to the environment they’re in,” says Nancy Colier, a psychotherapist and author of the upcoming book The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World. “Downtime is important to have. For example, long train rides are like wombs for creativity—just sitting in them and thinking without entertainment.” In Colier’s view, we benefit from consciously committing to being present where we are and using technology not out of idle habit, but only when necessary.

Social media and travel apps that provide information on the go have not only changed how we act while on vacation, but also how we prepare for trips. When planning our itineraries, many of us now look to Instagram feeds and travel blogs for inspiration. In fact, a 2015 PRSA Travel and Tourism poll found 84 percent of Facebook users say vacation images posted by their friends influence their travel decisions, and the ITB World Travel Trends Report 2014/2015 issued by ITB Berlin revealed 92 percent of social media users are influenced by travel blogs, with up to 72 percent willing to change their destination choice based on the opinions of friends and bloggers. “Discovering things once had to be organic—you would meet someone at a bar who would suggest you visit their friend who might know of a great place to stay,” Colier says. While we used to seek these tips from our networks face-to-face, we’ve now removed the personal element of fact-finding in favor of having a veritable library of experiences to mine at our fingertips. “It’s tricky,” she says, “because although technology provides many interesting advantages, you also have to wonder if we’re manufacturing authentic experiences.”

And here’s where the spiral begins: It’s easy to be miffed when your favorite little bakery in Paris with its incredible kouign-amann is geotagged by an influential travel blogger and suddenly catapulted to fame when The New York Times’ travel section picks up on it a week later. Closer to home, we see the same thing happen to our secret swimming holes, the elusive queue-less brunch spots and the best dive bars on the outskirts of town. We have a tendency to feel protective of the places we love, and revealing those admirations only puts those special spots in the sightlines of travelers eager to appear “in the loop.” By sharing our under-the-radar favorites, we unintentionally set them on their path to popularity. And as technology makes it easier to be influenced by a web-wide consensus of what constitutes “cool,” we now must work harder than ever to find places truly off the beaten path.

In order to preserve their niche appeal, more vacation destinations are consciously attempting to stay under the radar. Susan and John Johnson, who run the low-key luxe Harmony Hotel in Nosara, Costa Rica, are intent on enriching rather than disrupting their surrounding small community. While they welcome guests and neighbors to their grounds, they actively discourage some of the free promotion and exposure other businesses would delight in—John has even asked certain high-profile individuals staying with them not to hashtag the hotel or the town in their Instagram or Twitter feeds. “Guests have told us, ‘This is my new favorite hotel—I’m going to tell all my friends!’” Susan says. “And we’ve said, ‘Just tell your best friend!’”

When a place becomes of keen interest to tourists, its local community is directly affected. Jennie Germann Molz, a professor of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, agrees with the Johnsons’ social media policy for that reason. She has written at length on the intersection of technology, travel and togetherness, and adds that if tourists are conflicted about sharing a destination—and truly care about how their actions will impact the place—they should communicate with the local residents to figure out the most ethical approach to documentation. “I would ask travelers to consider who will benefit and who will suffer from them sharing a destination on social media,” she says. “Would the traveler benefit more than the local community? Are they just doing it to enhance their own reputation and get some likes on Facebook or Instagram, or would the local community benefit from more publicity and a potential increase in tourist visits?” Because while it might be annoying to have your favorite local brewery inundated by culinary tourists thanks to aTime Out tip-off, having your entire community’s way of life interrupted by stampedes of snap-happy visitors could be truly destabilizing.

Travel deepens our sense of connection to others and links us to a global community with whom to share and learn from. It enhances our ability to understand ourselves within a broader context and allows us to discover firsthand that which we could’ve only previously imagined. Modern travel technology can help us realize the types of adventures to which we aspire—everything from cooking with locals to dancing between boarding gates—but it can also distract us from our initial aspirations just as easily. Despite their power and usefulness, technologies are merely tools—how they influence our journeys is contingent only on us.

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