“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
I read one of those time-wasting internet listicles once, a compilation of bad reviews on TripAdvisor of popular tourist attractions. Most of the reviews were people whinging about the long queues and disappointing views: Some of the zingers included, “it’s just a bunch of rocks” (on Stonehenge), “more like the Awful Tower” (on the Eiffel Tower) and “too many falafel carts” (Central Park).
While some of these comments might have been left by trolls, I can see why such must-see attractions have left many a tourist disgruntled.
My trip to see the Taj Mahal might have been the most harrowing journey of my life. I endured atrocious price gouging, deceit, blatant sexism, and long lines in the sweltering heat to get there, only to be slammed against a sea of bodies inside the main complex.
Visitors are expected to keep a steady flow of movement – no stopping, no photo-taking – but in the age of smart phones, everyone wanted a selfie with the final resting place of Shah Jahan and his queen. The guards would yell and blow their whistles at these offenders, the piercing sound ricocheting off the walls. At the same time the crowd jostled uncomfortably around me. Chaos.
Apparently the line to enter Vatican City could grow up to a mile in length, snaking all around St Peter’s square, so we got there 15 minutes before entry started at 8:30am. Inside, the gilded opulence of the Church made me feel sick to my stomach and truth be told, Michelangelo’s renown Sistine Chapel fresco, The Creation of Adam, pales in comparison to those of his students.
He didn’t even want that job, and had been forced into it by the church. Or rather, by a very salty guy Bramante, who resented Michelangelo’s work for the Pope’s tomb and convinced the Pope to commission him a medium he was unfamiliar with so, he might fail at the task.
I heard that the Mona Lisa in real life was underwhelming, small, and crowded with tourists. I’d heard right, but I went regardless. I could’ve gotten a better view of her on the internet. The rest of the Louvre was great, of course, but gallery fatigue swiftly set in. With over 35,000 pieces of art, it would take roughly 72 eight-hour days to spend at least a minute viewing each object, not counting the time spent walking between each of them, or toilet breaks.
So why even bother with these places? Why do tourists insist on seeing the same attractions everyone else visits?
“But it’s one of the seven wonders of the world.”
“Since I’m already here, I might as well go see it.”
“It draws a large crowd, so there must be something to it.”
“I mean, sure why not, what else is there to do in this place, right?”
“My friend said it was really cool.”
All of these reasons are super lame.
The tourism industry makes money off your lack of imagination. The industry exploits tourists who – at the heart of it all – legitimately do want to experience something new, but somehow are unwilling to completely leave their comfort zones, or be creative enough to do some proper exploring. So you go with something that’s new enough to be exciting, yet familiar enough for you to feel safe. You pick an itinerary that’s been done many times before, trusting that other people’s choices ensure you will have a decent enough vacation.
But what about authenticity? What about doing things that make your soul ignite? What about the magic of finding something that speaks directly to you?
As you flip through your holiday photos – the same photos everyone else has; of the Eiffel Tower, of the Colosseum, of the Sagrada Familia, Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, Angkor Wat, Taj Mahal, The Great Wall, and so on – you feel like you’ve accomplished something by ticking these big names off your bucket list. You feel well-travelled and cultured.
But would you really want to see the Mona Lisa if no-one else did? Someone else created this misguided list. For most tourists, the painting means nothing to them otherwise. It doesn’t make them feel anything more profound than a fleeting satisfaction at having caught a brief glimpse of her smile.
The difference between being a tourist and a traveller is resonance.
One of the things on my list when I came to Paris the first time was to see Montparnasse cemetery. The cemetery had become a bit of an attraction due to a number of French intellectual elite buried there. At that time, I was a second-year liberal arts student in university and had read a bit of philosophy. The graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – the intellectual power couple of the 20th century – were littered with tributes. There were a great many flowers, love notes scribbled on Metro tickets, pebbles, and lipstick mark kisses all over the tombstone.
Later I learnt that the Metro tickets left on their graves held a deeper symbolism: It was a nod to Sartre’s support of Socialist movements in the ’60s and ’70s – in particular the French Maoists – whose newspaper he took over after their leadership got arrested. In response to a price hike for the Paris Metro, the group stole Metro tickets and gave them away to workers directly affected by the hike. The lipstick marks – although they don’t have an official story – make for a fitting tribute from women, in honour of Beauvoir’s significant influence in the feminist revolution of the 70s.
I was truly moved, seeing this. These visits were by real people who – like me – read, loved and were impacted by the works of Sartre and Beauvoir. For me, travel is a way to see myself in other people and other places. It is this resonance that I seek when I travel, this special connection between humans that transcend time and space.
Nations and borders give the illusion of separation, but travel allows a person to engage with the unfamiliar and find that we have more in common after all.