“Shanghai is just another city that’s exactly like every other city. All there is here is shopping,” spoke a Dutch student at a hostel in Shanghai. His compatriot, who was sitting nearby, nodded and agreed.
I stumbled on my rebuttal, choked on my words, and shut up: if these two guys could not find the character of city as unique and distinct as Shanghai they probably were immune to such observations all together. Poor suckers.
I’ve heard this over and over again before: “Oh, Bogota/ Mexico City/ Bangkok/ Belgrade is just another city, the same as every other city” from travelers hell bent on either having a crappy time or artificially trying to separate themselves from the herd. I am unsure if the people making these statements are trying to show off their intellect, making a play to appear worldly — as though they’ve seen it all before — or if they are seriously unimpressed with what they find.
Whatever is the case, I’m not sure what the disappointed traveler expected when going abroad, but it’s certainly not the reality of the world we live in. They seem spoiled to me. And like all spoiled people they don’t really know what they have in front of them.
Too many people travel this world taking it all for granted. Travel is a privilege. I don’t mean a privilege as in something that’s only for the wealthiest or luckiest people of earth — everyone from a class A passport country has the option to travel the world if they choose — but privilege as in being able to engage a succession of places that are terminally ephemeral: what you see today as you travel will never be the same again.
The gift of travel is un-graspable: what you see, feel, think, live can never be had again, but these experiences can be assembled together into a jagged and fragmented menagerie of your impressions of planet earth. The act of travel is taking mnemonic snapshots of the various places in the world in serial succession. The art of travel is knowing how to set yourself up for these shots and then knowing what to do with them afterward.
You can’t just show up.
This is a major myth of travel: you don’t have Discovery channel experiences just by hopping off a jet and saying, “I’m here, impress me.” No, do this and you will go home empty handed. You need to dig into places, ask questions, make friends, grab places by the balls and figure out what they’re made of. This takes effort, it takes preparation, and it takes guts. Nobody is going to do it for you, experience and learning doesn’t come from flipping on a switch, clicking the “buy now” button on a webpage, or ordering from a menu.
The patterns of the world are changing fast, and the travelers who understand these changes — who know what they mean, and the effect they have — are watching a show like no other in human history. The world is calibrating before our eyes, the same technology, professions, entertainment, and lifestyles are being cultivating around a planet that has never before been so whole. Cultural elements are being blended together, the globalization paradigm is being uniquely interpreted everywhere, the foreign is being absorbed into the local, as cultures, people, places, and landscapes experience mass metamorphosis.
The same battle between the modern and the traditional, between development and preservation are being fought the world over. The countries who’ve peaked early on are now leveling off, while those who were previously lagging behind have jumped to the fore. Children are growing up into worlds vastly different than their parents, and cultures are forced to readjust, adapt, and accept that fact that the landscape is in motion. To observe this phenomenon occurring from viewing stations positioned all over the globe is to be able to begin connecting the dots and seeing a small part of the Big Picture. This is the privilege of modern travel.
A few decades ago China was a very poor country, now it is becoming one of the world’s richest. There is a story in this if you care to read it. Shanghai is a city of towering skyscrapers that have guys peddling poached animal hides in the street right below them. Shanghai is a city of uber-modern architecture rising up right next to centuries-old communities of winding alleys and lopsided buildings. This is a city of duality, a city at the cross roads of cultures, economics, and time. It is a city in motion. To say that Shanghai is just like every other city isn’t just incorrect, it’s an admission that you haven’t really looked at it very closely. If you don’t find places like Shanghai amazing there’s probably a better place for you: home.
It is too easy to coast through places thinking that you know all about what you see in front of you. It is easy to take a small lens of perspective and use it to see everything around you. It is difficult to question your assumptions, poke through the veneer, and see what lies on the inside of the complex realities that have enveloped the globe.
I’ve been there, I’ve coasted through places thinking I’ve seen it all before. I’ve missed many shows in my travels. Then something fortunate happened to me. In my mid-twenties I heard a professor in India say these words:
“Allow yourself to be surprised.”
These words hit me like a brick: Maybe I’m not seeing this place clearly? Maybe my things are not exactly as I think they are? Maybe my perspective has made me a frog in a well: looking up through a small tunnel thinking I’m seeing the entire planet. Maybe there’s more here than what I think?
False bearings are easy to find when floating in a foreign sea. I was constructing artificial realities in India based mainly the assumption that I’d already knew all about the forces of globalization and what they do to culture. I projected this perspective onto the scene around me and I couldn’t see beyond it. I had to cut my lines of logic and meaning and realize that I didn’t know it all. I was properly humbled, realizing how much I had to learn, and became comfortable being lost at sea — floating in questions.
I looked again at the call centers, the morphing middle class, the new social dynamics, what was going on, and I realized that she was right: India was a lot more than its history and tradition, something big was happening there as I watched and observed.
A few years ago I worked in a hotel way out in the jungle of Guatemala. There were no roads that went to this place, the only way to get there was by boat. 20 years ago this area was pretty much sealed off from the outside world, but now the floodgates have been opened a little. Next to the wooden huts that the people there have been building for centuries there are now restaurants and marinas. Kids who were raised in the jungle fishing out of hand made wooden canoes with a hook and line wrapped around an empty soda bottle were now using smart phones and moving away to the capital city. Rather than learning the jungle trades of their parents, these kids received a ledgers and letters style education delivered by an American NGO. Needless to say, this place was changing fast, and a way of life that was once the omnipresent norm has now something defined as “traditional.” The traditional is always in opposition to the modern, and this dichotomy defines the transitional era we now live in.
This place in the jungle was fascinating, but the backpackers and tourists who went there truly didn’t give a shit. The Maya ladies in the flowery dresses were just the people who cooked them food, the river was just a fun place to kayak, the jungle just a place to go hiking, and the villagers were something they labeled as “poor.” It was incredibly rare for anyone to ask any questions, though there was plenty all around that none of us understood. In point, there was a show taking place there that very few travelers cared enough to tune in to — and I found this to be startling.
How to more deeply engage places when traveling?
I understand that the majority of travelers are looking for something very different than myself, and this is alright. But if you are driven to use travel as a means of self-education rather than just a recreation binge, then here is way to do so.
Gain background knowledge
This is probably the most important thing to do while traveling: learn about the places you’re going to. Just walking around a place collecting observations without any background information is a good way to draw off-base conclusions or miss the little things that would otherwise tell a story. Again, false bearings are easy to find when floating in a foreign sea.
Gaining background information about a place is easy: read the enthnologies, the news, the history, travelogues, stories etc . . . of the places you plan to visit. Use this knowledge to guide your travels and direct your questions. Know what you’re looking at. If you don’t, then figure it out. The more you know about a place the better you can connect its dots. But be prepared to compare what you read against what you observe and experience.
It is amazing how many people try traveling in countries long term who can’t say anything in the local language. While I know that learning the language of every place you go to is not possible, learning basics is rather easy an doesn’t take much time. While it’s certainly possible to travel as a deaf mute, I have no idea why anyone would want to. Simply being able to ask, “What is this?” or “Why are you doing that?” or “Can I come too?” is enough to have the doors opened up unto another world. If you can’t verbally communicate at all with the people who live where you travel you will always be shut out of the show.
(Find out what the 11 most important things to be able to say in a foreign language are.)
Knowing what to look for
To put it simply, look at the places you’re traveling through. I mean, really look at where you are. Try to get invited into houses, look into purses, see what people are buying in the grocery store, watch how the community interacts with itself, find out about the public meeting places and go to them, be on the lookout for your peer group and introduce yourself, find the pulse of the place your walking through and track it back to its source.
Study the place that’s in front of you no matter how banal, normal, or boring it may appear. Don’t just turn a place off because it appears “modern,” or “Western,” don’t shut down your observational faculties just because a place seems run of the mill, podunk, or run down. Rather, engage these places, observe how they come together, and how they function. Make friends and open doors. You’ve put yourself in front of the stage, so you may as well watch the show.
Curiosity fuels travel, so keep your tank full. Treat each opportunity as a provocation to see more. Ask yourself questions about what’s around the next corner, in the next room, in the next town and go seek the answers.
Shed unrealistic expectations
Look for what is there, not what you hope is there, and revel in it. Do this no matter if you’re in an indigenous village, a big city, a tourist trap, some backwater highway town, a place that does not live up to its hype, or the most beautiful place on earth. Readjust your mindset to be happy with what you get — because it’s all a part of the same incredible planet.
Allow yourself to be surprised.
Travel is about appreciating the landscape, the people, and the places you’re able to observe and experience. Each locations is a one off opportunity to take a mnemonic snapshot of a certain place at a certain point in time. Each impression, observation, or experience is a small piece of the colossal global puzzle. Go after these pieces like a brat child on an ice cream and hoard them for life.
All places can be engaged, and all places can arouse intrigue. While I may not like or purely enjoy all the places I travel through, such value judgement are often rendered impertinent when weighed against how interesting each location on the map proves to be. Like or dislike are often irrelevant in travel, it’s what you learn and observe along the way that’s important. It is my impression that all places on this earth have a lesson to teach and a story to share, the trick is learning how to listen.
There is no such thing as a city exactly like every other city.