Did the Great Depression instigate commercialized travel? I won’t bother reading up on the history of it, but the themes Erskine Caldwell discusses in her short piece “Advertisement” ring painfully reminiscent of the hollow commercialization of present-day travel. “See America First” might not be a national slogan any longer, but only because our priorities have changed; and it isn’t just companies in the good ol’ USA trying to make a few hundred bucks off us every spring break, summer break, fall break, winter break, weekend, random day off in the middle of the week, whatever fits in our “travel schedule.” It’s gone internationally commercial.
I have been lucky enough to travel a fair amount throughout my life, to more countries than I have years in me (though only one more). This means, though, that I have come into contact with, unfortunately, a lot of airlines, a lot of hotels, a lot of websites, a lot of people trying to sell me things, lot of gift shops, and perhaps worst of all, a fair number of travelers (though how deliciously ironic that I say so).
So my dissatisfaction is, I suppose, a combination of an overall dissatisfaction with the commercialization of travel, and a vaguer, as-yet-unexplored dissatisfaction with the ways in which that commercialization has influenced the ways in which people travel today.
I met, for instance, an Israeli man in a bus headed to the gorges of Ethiopia. He had been journeying from the tip of South Africa and flying from capital city to capital city over a several month period, heading gradually north. Having reached Ethiopia, he clearly thought himself quite the traveler, and quite capable of advising me on where to travel—I was interested, despite myself, so settled in to listen and ask questions, seeking inspiration. I found myself quickly turned off when the only thing he had to say about Nairobi was that it was “really dirty,” and another capital city (I can’t recall which) “even dirtier. He rolled his eyes at the number of churches and mosques he had seen.
I have caught myself doing the same—caught my eyes glazing over as I walked through yet another temple. I cannot say I am blameless in having spent some time “confusing travel with sheer motion.” (p.3) But Caldwell says concisely something I have been trying to wrap my head around for a while: that what is worth traveling all that time and distance to see might not in the end be the local house of religion, the local mountain, and going and seeing and doing those things in order to feel “that the trip is worth the time and money spent” is a fallacy of the highest degree.
I come from a large country full of mountains, waterfalls, great plains, gorges, deserts, icy mountains, great views, beaches by oceans and even beaches by landlocked lakes. I could stay even within the contiguous 48, you know, “See America First,” and see a lot of interesting things, if I continued to make my destination the purpose, and let the Man of commercialization get me down. Commercialization is why I went to Bali three years ago with a group of friends and spent the last two or three days bored shitless in an expensive beach club, or why I had to walk through a mall and pay USD15 to get to Shaolin Temple.
There are other arguments to be made about the privilege I enjoy in my search for greater “authenticity” in the places I go, but that is a separate conversation from the one that Caldwell started in me: emphasizing, rather, that authenticity is to be found in the people, not the places. I do not, frankly, understand Cairo better for having gone to its great, beautiful mosques (magnificent though they were)—but I do understand it better for having experienced “people and their activity”—for having stayed with Egyptians, and spoken with them about Egypt. I’ll seek not to make another trip “of inconsequential value”—many thanks to Erskine Caldwell!