Not all that long ago, air travel was a clear badge of elite cultural distinction, from the “jet set” to the Sinatra-mangling ad slogan, “Come Fly With Me.” Droit-de-seigneur sexual fantasies of stewardess life were memorialized in that elegantly titled sixties tell-all Coffee, Tea, or Me? People actually used to dress up to take a plane. But that’s all over. Now you need a bulletproof vest when dealing with the cabin crew.
Airlines seem to be competing for Jerk of the Year awards. When they’re not bumping people off, figuratively or literally, they’re frighteningly “reaching out” to the customers they abused, customers with “issues.” (The language is patronizing and predatory.) We’re all sorry United’s planes are so attractive to terrorists. The staff must be under constant strain. But so are the passengers, with whom these tin-pot dictators are increasingly strict, banning leggings on ten-year-olds and bodily removing people from the passenger manifests.
Delta recruited airport police to threaten a couple with jail and the confiscation of their children, all for refusing to give up seats they’d paid for on a flight from Hawaii to LA. An American Airlines flight attendant bullied a tired mother of twin babies over her stroller, and then readied himself to punch a passenger who rose to her defense. These companies seem very exacting about how their customers behave—while apparently giving staff (or airport-based security officials) full license to unleash their inner demons. In airplane disaster movies, the pilot’s always wrestling with the yoke, trying to get full throttle; now these exertions are directed towards throttling the yokels.
Then United killed Simon. Simon was one of the largest rabbits in the world, maybe even a pooka! (United has a high rate of animal deaths, so watch whose hold you’re stuffing your poor pet into.) Rabbits go quietly belly-up, and Spandex-clad girls just sob and slip back into obscurity, taking their improper contours with them. But the sight of the bloodied Dr. Dao being manhandled and dragged along the aisle, on his back, through an “overbooked” United Airlines Chicago to Louisville flight, evoked fascist tactics, and caused United’s CEO to perform some tricky maneuvers to steer the airline out of a self-generated PR nose-dive. It also led to some suggestions for new slogans: Fly the unfriendly skies . . . Red eye and black eye flights available . . . If we can’t seat you we’ll beat you . . . Board as a doctor, leave as a patient . . . United: putting the hospital back into hospitality. Dr. Dao’s plight resonated because it so perfectly encapsulates the now-customary degradation of human dignity, morale, and will-to-live otherwise known as air travel in the twenty-first century.
But, let’s say you aren’t machine-gunned or beheaded or hacked to pieces with a machete just on your way through the airport to (so-called) security. Let’s say you survive the full-body scan as well as the obligatory two-hour, duty-free-spangled dwalm afterwards, searching the departure area for a decent bar. Let’s go crazy and suppose that you make it to your seat on the plane without being publicly shamed, involuntarily ousted, or socked in the jaw by airline staff or a fellow passenger.
A million new reasons to travel are manufactured every moment. Pageants, banquets, fairs, and jamborees. Courses for this, courses for that.
Your reward is that you then must fly. During the airless, comfortless journey that follows (for which you more and more wondrously have to pay), amid air contaminated by engine oil and other toxic substances, you will also be at risk of radiation, congestion, constipation, nausea, dizziness, headaches, hypoxia, jet lag, flatulence, the flatulence of all (and I mean all) the people around you, deep vein thrombosis, fleas, bedbugs, and whooping cough. No one delays a flight because of illness anymore—that would be costly and cowardly. Instead, they leap on board in the service of their microbes, dutifully coughing, sniffing and exuding right next to you for hours. If you’re very unlucky, you may catch Ebola or TB while innocently trying to untangle your gratis audio set; to be capped by Montezuma’s revenge on arrival at your destination.
I’m not saying your seat is small, but if it were a haystack, you’d find the needle. While the business-class swells chow down in their business lounges at the airport, or in their big Business Class seats on the plane, and make big business deals and get big business grease from their big business filets mignon all over their big business suits and the Business Class upholstery, economy passengers’ food, once it arrives, is a throwback to TV dinners of the 1970s. Or maybe it is a TV dinner from the 1970s? I once ordered the kosher meal, just to see if it was any more tolerable, and got a solid block of ice dumped on my tray table. Inside you could dimly see some kishkes. Shalom. It might have thawed by the time we reached Patagonia, but I wasn’t going to Patagonia.
The famous and not so famous are forever dying in planes and cars, just in order to get someplace—Carrie Fisher, Glenn Miller, Helen E. Hokinson, James Dean, Buddy Holly, Bessie Smith, Albert Camus—yet this seems to deter no one either.
Robert Frost was content with his tricky decision in the woods:
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
How about taking neither road, bub? Ever thought of that?
This condemnation of frivolous travel is not meant to bear any relation to Trump’s illegal travel bans. Quite the contrary: as Teresa Hayter points out in Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls, migration, whether political or economic, is not only a human right, but a necessary response to cruelties inflicted by war, inequality, and climate change. So let the nomads, migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, detainees, and the ethnically cleansed, go wherever they’ve got to go. Essential travel’s okay, in the language of meteorologists (the trouble is, as soon you say that, people leap into their cars and get caught in snow storms).
It’s the leisure travels of the leisured classes that deserve scrutiny. The automatic rush to the computer to book cheap flights—we barely even notice we’re doing it anymore. A long weekend in Guadalajara, a short one in Zagreb, Zimbabwe, or Zeebrugge. The requisite bucket-list prance through a lavender field, a pyramid, a rainforest. A ride on a donkey, dromedary, dolphin, double-decker. . . . We’re such saps! We’ve been fed a bunch of fake reasons to travel by evil geniuses determined to use up all the fossil fuels as fast as possible, so as to coerce us all into accepting nuclear power as soon as possible. We galumph across the earth at their bidding, getting ourselves into all kinds of scrapes. We get lost, we starve, we hang off cliffs, we struggle with unfamiliar plumbing arrangements and foreign currency. But do they care?
People convince themselves that a change of latitude might cure their sexual lassitude.
Travel has always had a sinister side. The Romans really got about. You’d think taking baths and running around on mosaic floors in Rome to the chimes of your tintinnabuli, with the occasional trek south for an orgy in Pompeii, would be enough for anybody. But no, those legions were always on the move, subduing, usurping, exploiting, and enslaving people; transporting wheat, papyrus, and gossip; and building walls to make Rome great again. But the thing is, when you’re away from home too much, things go to pot. If you’re not careful, you come back to find your colosseum’s cracking, and your civilization too.
The movement of people and ideas, grandly called globalization, is not just about the silk trade. It has led to two world wars already, and oceans full of plastic debris. The hope that it might spread wealth and strengthen intellectual bonds is long gone—all we got out of it is a crushing cultural conformism. We’ve adopted the obtusest form of worldliness, whereby we all have to experience the same banalities, the same supposed delights, the same hamburgers, the same terrorist atrocities, and everybody’s got to weight-watch and whale-watch.
Cuisines used to travel generously between countries. English cooking was much improved by French influences, even in the midst of the Napoleonic wars; and the colonization of the Indian subcontinent is arguably all that’s made it possible for today’s British foodies to survive (curry now being the UK’s national dish). But is it necessary for rivalrous epicureans to travel from Australia to England’s Lake District, in order to show off their marmalade at an international marmalade festival? Marmalade. Yes, it’s hard to make a good one. But do we really have to burn fossil fuels in order to prove it can be done in Australia? (I still don’t believe it.) So much for conserve-ation.
This is a world away from Elizabeth Bennet’s hopes for her planned trip to the Lakes in Pride and Prejudice:
Oh! What hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers.
The Great Sprawling Sameness
Travel is killing as much culture as it spreads. Languages, dialects and accents die out whenever Cloaca-Cola, Pizza Hurt, and Brook No Brothers arrive. To ensure this, all major cities now offer the same chain hotels, stores and restaurants, the only acceptable receptacles for the unthinking on the move. But if Prada, Superdry, Nike, and H&M are everywhere, what the hell is the point in city-hopping shopping?
In her best book, The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler deals with the ardent belief of many American travelers that they can remain completely untouched by the places they visit. In Trump’s case, it seems highly possible: he takes his own steak supply everywhere he goes. My uncle from Birmingham, Michigan, would not visit anywhere in Europe that didn’t have a Holiday Inn, and spent his trips to England correcting the pronunciation of Birmingham. There is an American blind spot to other cultures that really gets in the way of deriving any discernible benefit from travel. So why go? Stay home and eat ham in Birmingham. And what’s with the sneakers, the raincoat, the Bermuda shorts, the camera, and the fanny-pack? Is it some kind of Pop Art joke? In this getup, Americans descend on foreign places like boulders, speaking in very loud voices and squashing flat any locals who get in the way.
Either put these wander-losers on a fossil fuel diet, or make them go cold turkey.
They scour Bulgaria for a whiskey sour. They tell everybody America won the Second World War. (Actually, it had a lot of help.) They freak out if their credit cards don’t work, or the shower’s weak, or the bandwidth’s narrow. Having almost single-handedly caused global warming, they still worry inordinately about rain. And they assume everything is or should or must be done the American way; otherwise it’s weird. And that everybody knows English—if they don’t, they’re weird. Everything amazes them, everything comes as a great big surprise. Shock and awe. You mean that was built before the American Revolution?! Gee. You mean I have to put some of these crazy coins into this slot and then the bus will take me where I want to go? Weird.
And the Bucket You Rode In On
Woody Allen’s best work is long past, but his films went further downhill once he started setting bottom-drawer scenarios in “destination cities.” Most European capitals now exist merely as theme parks for cinematic abuse (Jason Bourne leaves them in ruins), romantic assignations, bachelorette parties, or beer binges. Prague, Dublin and Barcelona are now interchangeable.
Edinburgh, where I live, used to be a fine old mirthless town. Twenty-first century marketers have turned it into a fairground. Half the year the city’s few green spaces get trashed by Ferris Wheels, vomit, German Christmas markets, vomit, outdoor exhibitions and exhibitionists, vomit, coffee bars, beer tents, and ice-skating rinks. The sidewalks are falling to pieces, the trash is hardly ever collected, and the homeless die on the streets, while the outlandishly pricey Edinburgh International Festival provides an annual month-long experiment in overpopulation. The fireworks displays are so relentless that there are wee calls from residents for silent fireworks, but their requests can’t be heard over the bangs.
This famous literary city, home to the Scottish Enlightenment (so important to the formation of the USA), is now aflame with fake fun, and writers get short shrift. Burns, Boswell, Henry Cockburn, David Hume, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, and even Irvine Welsh wouldn’t know the place. All we’ve got now is J. K. Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith, the Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse of the literary world. We’re dying over here!
Ambitions of the Ambulant
But you simply must see the Taj Mahal, pussycat, or Machu Picchu, or Outer Mongolia, before you peg out, we’re told again and again and again. All exotic places must be trampled immediately. It torments people to think of leaving a single one in peace. Just mention the Galapagos, or the Faroe Islands, and watch them jump—because they’ve got to get there before everyone else. Before it’s ruined. By people like them. The seagrass meadows of the oceans are disappearing at the rate of two football fields an hour, just so people can soak up the sun or bother a turtle in some unfamiliar hemisphere.
What’s the big deal? Locusts, too, have bucket lists. They, too, want to see the world before they die. The truth is you don’t personally have to survey every spot on earth, no matter what the reams of newspaper and magazine travel porn tell you. What is more important in all of this than reading Dickens? Humankind should be your business, not mass hypnosis.
If only people would stay home and read about foreign lands—that’s what books are for! But now every single work break, school break, birthday, divorce, death, bicycle accident, and basketball game have to be acknowledged (and drained of meaning) by a long, hazardous flight or drive somewhere. There are a million family occasions that require your presence—as if we all still lived in villages and the bris or graduation ceremony were only a block away. One blogger in the sad world of online airline fetishism flew with his wife from Houston to Frankfurt on his own nickel, just to try out United’s new Business Class perks. They probably flew straight back again afterward. “This flight was also special,” he claimed, “because my wife—who is an entrepreneurial coach—would become a United Million Miler. I can think of worse ways to celebrate.” I can’t.
A million new reasons to travel are manufactured every moment. Pageants, banquets, fairs, and jamborees. Courses for this, courses for that. You can, you must, attend a week of weaving, and maybe weeping, in Wales—or for the more myopic, a five-day dolls’-house furniture-making workshop. Or you might do a writing cruise; a hill-walking, pottery, juggling and watercolor course; a yoga, Pilates or karate retreat; a crash course in straw-hat manufacture, the I Ching, sock-knitting, croissant twisting; wildflower and mushroom differentiation; or even scything. Scything! What they need is a creative writhing course.
You can do a restaurant crawl through Sub-Saharan Africa or ride upon a pony all over Iceland, or why not both? And if, say, you’re tired of dating Londoners, you can fly all the way to Montana on an unsuccessful “man-hunt” and write a wholly unnecessary article about it for the Spectator, as the English columnist Candida Crewe did last year. Yes, you too can turn distant strangers into props for your overdramatized libidinal life, through travel. Sex isn’t called a “drive” for nothing.
You can spark up your plastic surgery experimentation by getting it done somewhere else—lipo on the lido. Or you can visit chateaux, wineries, cattle farms, waterfalls, roller coasters, bullfights, and Cézanne’s studio. (If you’d turned up when he was alive he’d have killed you.) There are also roughly a billion academic conferences to attend. Academics never sit still—they’re constantly in the air over our heads, deconstructing something. And then there are all the gun shows, pedigree cockapoo contests, computer fairs, horse races, guru reunions, nirvana assignments and big pally gangster get-togethers to plot assassinations, offload stolen jewelry or swap nuclear materials.
If none of that has you up and flying, how about a nice artist residency? Do artists really have to travel in order to produce art? Most would rather be paid to stay home, you’d think, where they’re all set up with studio assistants and paint-bomb machines, and can get more done. But no, the whole world’s going places and it’s hard to resist the pressure, the prizes, the prestige: you’re nothing these days as an artist if you don’t have Venice, the Arctic, Trinidad, Tibet, and South Korea under your belt. They forget that reality is wherever you are—because though has been criminally downgraded.
People are rewarded with large financial bonuses and promotions for academic and business trips, and therefore learn to crave them, and to crow about how many they’ve been on. The assumption is that travel is automatically fun, worthwhile, and enviable: a status symbol. But really all that’s happened is that these questionably important people (more lemmings than locusts, and therefore to be pitied) spent twenty-eight hours in airplanes and airports, twelve hours drinking, an hour or two at a dull meeting or under-attended talk, and a few hours playing golf or fucking a drunk business colleague, assistant professor, or total stranger.
Who are we kidding anyway? Do people really believe a change of latitude might cure their sexual lassitude? Can’t you just put on a French accent and pretend? No. The more blatant sex tourists, with nothing to declare but their immorality, are always in impatient transit across the globe. The Grand Tours of Europe, too, were open excuses for debauchery, nicely mocked by Laurence Sterne in A Sentimental Journey. Sterne may well be the only novelist ever to put travel to good use. And Joyce—it’s always been essential for Irish writers to leave Ireland.
Invasion of the Shoddy Snatchers
Eco-tourism is a nebulous concept, whereby the deteriorating environment is further eroded, so that people who really understand nature can go enjoy its last gasps by surfing it, scuba-diving it, climbing, caressing, coddling, or cruising it. The world’s tiniest begonia, newly discovered in Peru, is now at risk of being squished by amateur botanists stampeding up the hill to see it, selfie cameras aloft. Or there’s a minefield of alternative health tourism, ashrams, hot spring spas to spar in, and ley lines to lie on, a million curative spots that are supposed to heal you in some vague way—but making sick people feel almost duty-bound to go and soak up whatever’s on offer, whether it’s in Lourdes, Baden Baden, the Grand Canyon, the Dead Sea, or the Alps, is one hell of a despicable idea.
For those who have it all and want less, there are staycations (or stagnations), where you spend a lot of money on yourself but stay within a few hundred miles of home, patting yourself on the back for “saving the planet” (though the planet will survive us, even if we leave the whole place in ruins). Or how about a starvation vacation? Go to Bavaria for a toxins purge, releasing more toxins into the atmosphere in your wake for the rest of us to purge. It’s a capitalist dream come true, a self-perpetuating contamination cycle: pollute the whole world by detoxing yourself. Thanks.
Then there are the slightly abashed vacation-repeaters who conduct “groundhog holidays” in the same spot in Florida year after year, or Cancun, or Majorca, or the Black Sea. Or Denver. Well, you part-own some hideous condo somewhere so you’ve got to go make sure those ash trays are where you left them a year ago. I know of someone who heads for Utrecht every February. February in Utrecht—to paraphrase Neil Simon, one cheapskate in an empty hotel.
These scaredy-cats are a world away from the daredevil, risk-taking hotheads, skiers for instance, who traipse across the globe just to put themselves in traction. The idea is to test yourself and return home proud and euphoric for having survived—if you return home. Could the real purpose of all travel be to scare yourself a bit, first on the plane or other speeding vehicle, and later at your tsunami-prone destination?
In the wonderfully anti-skiing, anti-clubbing, anti-bourgeois movie Force Majeure, a humdrum nuclear family from Sweden in a ski resort unexpectedly confront the destructive power of avalanches, and suffer the indignity of being changed by the experience. What is Las Vegas for, too, but to frighten yourself by drinking, whoring, and gambling? The birds do it, the bees do it, even holier-than-thou jihadist terrorists do it—and everybody likes Tom Jones.
The boasting is perhaps travel’s worst crime. Did people get sick of Marco Polo’s reminiscences too, or Vasco da Gama’s, and greet Amerigo Vespucci’s cocktail party chat with heavy sighs and glares? Guy’s been to Rio twice and he never shuts up!
But at least travel involved some effort then. Now everybody’s been everywhere and it’s hard to take all the gloating. We’ve been to China, they coo, or (the lesser claim), we haven’t been to China yet but we’re going to go. China’s old hat! Everybody’s been to China, even vegetarians, who then complain about the food. (So why didn’t you just stay home and eat your own bean sprouts?) And once they’ve done China, they’re off to Nepal, Guatemala, and Micronesia. But why so proud, when they should be ashamed? You don’t actually have to circumnavigate the globe, you know. It’s not the law.
And they’re all so bossy, these modern-day explorers. Having been somewhere once for about a week, they’re bursting with superior knowledge of the place. They order you to eat bouillabaisse in Marseille, or tramp you all over Moscow without pausing for a vodka. They know every hidden delight of Lagos or Lisbon, supposedly, and consider themselves the experts on where to zone out or find a dentist, anywhere from Clapham to Cape Town.
The utter needlessness of most travel is never touched upon by these advisers. We’re all just supposed to jump on the Timbuktoo bandwagon, nicely described by Padgett Powell in You & Me, as his two characters consider a trip to the desert which actually fills them with dread:
Our tiny growing familiarity alone, as we sit there or walk around parched and frightened, will convince us we now know more than we did before the onset of the fear and the disgust, and we will feel better about the desert.
Veterans of an hour in the desert, we will like it, a little bit.
Your Conscience At Rest
Then there’s charitable or political-action tourism. It was really nice of all those women to march on Washington last January. But it would have been even better if they’d walked all the way, instead of flying. And why leave, once they got there? They should still be camping out on the White House lawn.
The New York Times, hopelessly behind on the ethical travel fad, continues to pedal the wonders of Cornwall or India. But The Nation’s now offering $6,000 trips to Cuba, as if there’s something extra responsible or heartfelt involved in gadding about a country America tried to boycott out of existence. These do-gooding olive-branchers would presumably never dream of sacrificing six thousand bucks each to help Cuba.
Another popular destination for the conscience-stricken tourist is the European concentration-camp circuit. What a great day out for all the family! Sergei Loznitsa has covered this new leisure pursuit in his new movie, Austerlitz. The Nazis themselves put fossil fuels to previously unimaginable uses, and you too can use some up by (voluntarily) transporting yourself to Auschwitz to gawp at gas chambers in a Hawaiian shirt.
World-saving travel is one realm in which the means almost always defeat the ends. Apart from the opthalmologists who fly around Africa fixing cataracts (hoorah), and maybe a few UN or Peace Corps employees here and there (hard to verify), it’s time to consider the real possibility that there is no altruistic travel. Ever tried to save a stray cat or mistreated donkey in some foreign country? It’s not easy. They don’t have passports. No, your trip is much more likely to damage an animal. A young sniffer dog was shot dead at Auckland airport in New Zealand, for capering around loose on the runway, delaying flights. This is what you unwittingly commit to when boarding a plane: the diktat that all animals that threaten flight schedules will be executed (and not just to make beef medallions).
Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef dies for us. It’s eighty percent bleached already, cooked alive. You’d do more good if you would just stay put and use the cash to help somebody who hasn’t got any disposable income. In 1999, a friend of mine took his fiancée to Istanbul for a romantic tryst. They arrived just in time for the earthquake. He was moved to help dig people out; she wasn’t, and when they got home she dumped him. She hadn’t enjoyed twiddling her thumbs in the hotel while he was out being noble. That’s amore.
The wealthy-and-mobile 20 percent are causing most of the environmental damage in the world. As Bob Hughes observes in The Bleeding Edge, his book about the ways in which technological liberation has failed to liberate anybody, bikes and even horses are not only cleaner forms of transport, but quicker, if you calculate the actual time and energy invested. Airlines claim that ever-bigger aircraft are more egalitarian and environmentally friendly, but they never add in the costs of enlarging runways, building the damn things, and hiring enough goons to flatten all those passengers—I mean, to protect passenger safety.
They’re all so bossy, these modern-day explorers.
So there’s nothing admirable about getting your ass on an Airbus. In Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, George Monbiot says long-distance travel should be accomplished slowly, if at all. We should all try walking those love miles.
The Nature Cure
What we need is an intervention. Either put these wander-losers on a low-mileage diet, or make them go cold turkey. If they need support, they can join Carboniferous Anonymous, a 12-step program for fossil fuel addiction. First step, instead of getting god, as most AA people seem to do, recovering carbon addicts will be steered toward nature. (At home. It’s right outside the door, if not inside.) Nature is clearly what everybody originally worshipped anyway. We experimented with other objects of veneration, all dead ends. We tied ourselves in theological knots and wound up with a grouchy god of war! What goofballs.
Next step, write to all your descendants apologizing for the environmental catastrophe you’ve left for them. Say you’re sorry for ruining the air, the land and the water, and for killing off half the animals on the planet (so far). Next, ditch your computer—the “cloud” uses more electricity than whole countries. Buy local—containerization is one of the dirtiest practices ever invented. Stop supporting war—according to Bob Hughes, a fifth of all environmental deterioration is caused by militarism. And for god’s sake, quit booking those flights.
It will be hard to stick to your resolve at first, especially when you see your friends scoring peregrination points off each other. You may of course be coldly ostracized for not putting yourself through several long-haul flights a year, and not knowing where to get the best cous cous in Marakesh, or the best coastal bus route in Hawaii (No. 55, Honolulu—Ala Moana). Don’t listen. Throw out your fanny-pack and malaria pills and read a book instead. Take a walk with your CA sponsor and smell the flowers (but leave the mini-begonias alone). Have sex with people who live nearby.