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But Will Travelers Still Have Stories To Tell?

What’s the point of traveling when it’s all the same as back home?

PRAGUE, Czech Republic- My mother-in-law has an uncanny memory for things that happened in her childhood. My girls ask her for a story from when she was a kid and she performs as requested.

Her stories usually have something to do with some place in the world that she traveled to with her family. Her father was a famous scientist and would take jobs all over the planet, bringing the family along with him. She tells my kids stories of Africa and Hungary and London — what she ate, what the people wore, what the places looked like. The root of the stories usually revolve around some major cultural difference, around things that stood out to her as being unique — things that we’re unique.

Unique things that often no longer exist today.

It was the experience of these unique points of culture and place that made traveling interesting — that perhaps defined the practice. These unique points are still being banked on today, having indelibly branded their respective locales long ago, but it’s different now because they no longer truly exist. They are just re-productions for tourists who demand what the tourist before them saw, who demanded what the tourists before them saw.

We’re rapidly traveling into a monotonous, diversity-lacking, internationalized world, and there’s not much we can do about it.

When I was an anthroplogy student consuming great doses of ethnography one thing started becoming very clear to me:

The fundamentals of all cultures are essentially the same.

All cultures are the same device, they just have different modules plugged into them based on environment, available technology, systems of education, types of work, and utilization of resources. As put by my friend MRP, “They just paint the walls a different color.”

But when we upgrade these once unique, defining modules, essentially same-paging the technology (smartphones / computers), control of the environment (climate controlled buildings), education (same types of schools), work (similar types of jobs), and resources (money), cultures become very much the same. They look the same, talk the same, and act the same. The differences between them become a mere selection of flavors rather than a change in actual stubstance. There is hardly even a language barrier anymore.

While the world I’m speaking off is still a decade or two off — you could easily counter me with what we see today — I’ve been out here traveling for nearly 20 years. I’ve seen where many places have come from and where they are now and can make projections as to where they are going. I’ve seen Asia mall-ify itself, I’ve watched the mass migration of people from villages to high-rise apartments, I’ve observed the gruesome takeover of the automobile, the changes that came from widespread air conditioning, and the shift in perspectives that comes from an internationalized education.

We’re all becoming the same, and on paper I guess this is a good thing. People are living longer and healthier, infant mortality is nose diving, formal education is prepping generations for city work and city life, as villages — and the social structures and traditions that once churned within them — vanish. Humans are living better now than ever before. So what’s to complain about?

I’m not sure, really. I like my BlackBerry. I like mobile data. I like flying around the world in aluminum cans. I like coffee. I like all the things that everybody seems to like, and that leads back to my main question:

In this incoming world of cultural monotony, will travelers still have stories to tell?

The great new modern shopping mall in a city that’s know for being a global backwater has international intrigue for like a day — after that it’s just another dumb mall.

What are you going to say if you visit? “Yup, Kuala Lumpur has some pretty mean malls. They are just like the ones we have in Omaha.”

“Wow, what great highways, they’re just like the ones we drive on at home.”

“They have the same restaurants here as back home.”

“They use the same technology as we do back home.”

“They work the same jobs as we do back home.”

“They’re apartments look just like ours do back home.”

Back home, back home, back home. It’s all looking like back home. They people are becoming the same as back home.

Back home is the place where everything is the same. Back home is the place where things are safe, ordered, and never pushing your comfort zone.

Back home is the place that you leave if you’re a traveler.

I was in Times Square a little over a month ago. Times F’in Square, one of the cultural epicenters of planet earth, known for being where you could go and experience the sharp end of the Big Apple. Times Square used to be full of dingy bars, peep shows, muggers, dealers, and whores. Now it’s just another monotonous shopping strip, boasting H&M, Zara, and those stupid f’in M&Ms.

It’s all the same as Rochester, New York — and nobody is traveling there for anything.

It’s all the same as everywhere else in the world.

Times Square is the world that we’re traveling into. It’s clean. It’s safe. It’s boring as fuck.

Stories are the currency of the traveler … a currency that’s depreciating fast.

Filed under: Culture and Society, Czech Republic, Globalization, The Future

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3533 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

4 comments… add one

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  • Trevor June 21, 2019, 8:59 pm

    you gotta go to Africa man…. it’s never boring there…… they do have malls but they do raw, uncomfortable, beauty, natural, and F ed up so much better..

    they , thats the locals, dont go abroad and say, wow, this is like home… except when south africans go to england.. they say “they stab people here too…. theres no free wifi… THIS IS SO MUCH LIKE HOME”

    as Paul Theroux open Dark Star Safari, with: all news out of Africa is bad..

    least ull have a story…

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    • Wade Shepard June 21, 2019, 11:55 pm

      Haha right on! I’m just kind of messing around. I know that the world will probably break apart again before this monotonous dystopia really happens … or maybe I’m just trying to convince myself of this!

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  • Ryk Sink-Zinckh June 22, 2019, 8:42 pm

    As you elucidate, ‘uniqueness’, in this case, cultural uniqueness is the interesting part of travel. In some ways, a compelling story for leaving the cultures alone, and let them adapt within themselves. Yet, as you have experienced 20 years of observation, the isolation of a group or land mass from outside interference grows rarer by the year. …corporations (and the governments they own) are fueling the drive in a search for cheaper labor. As you also note, better and more accessible health care, schools, and a ‘relative’ higher standard of living are arguably worth the trade-off for the social ills and homogeneity accompanying social/cultural shifts. In the early 90’s, I took an anthropology class from a well-known, well-traveled scholar/writer at U. of Fl. . The debate among the grad students at that time centered on whether it was better long-term, to leave a culture alone, and let them retain their uniqueness and unadulterated trajectory (including the disadvantages asso. with their traditions), or give them the option of inclusion into the changes/advancements (?) of the larger social systems forging rapid social/cultural change. I argued against it. In my naive way, I argued for preservation of cultural uniqueness as it is in some ways a value judgment on what ‘progress’ really means in a philosophical sort of way. The genius professor in the room showed all of us a (one) rather practical answer to what seems a confusing question….”ask them”. Dr. Lowen asserted they would always choose the changes/conveniences of a modern world over their own traditions. It’s hard to argue against propositions coming from the elite in anthropology, yet it still seems a toss-up to introduce elements resulting in upheaval of a culture as we ‘assume’ the overall good will outweigh the bad, and that freedom of choice (globally) should dictate decision-making. The question is academic of course, as nothing appears capable of stopping the force of capitalism (cheap labor/new markets) and greed from invading any/every thing available for corporate ‘profit’.

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    • Wade Shepard June 23, 2019, 4:08 pm

      Exactly! Few people who are living their “genuine” culture really values it. Everything is normal to them / us and is nothing special. Your professor was right, ask them and they will want to change. They generally view their culture as backwards and poor. They want the things of the modern world, money, a better education for their kids. Globalisation was the most wanted social / economic movement in history (perhaps). While us in the west talk about cultural reservation and cultural uniqueness, we are really just selfish and want the ideas of diversity for ourselves. We like traveling in a world that is unique, we want people to live traditionally, we view their lifestyles as somewhat superior and more natural than ours. We are selfish. I came across this quote the other day that’s relevant here: “Only intellectuals appreciate poverty.” HOWEVER, when cultures do change, when they do internationalize, the next generation (or the one after that) often realizes what was lost. They suddenly value their culture that their parents or grandparents left behind. They suddenly take pride in being from that culture and try to define themselves by it. But it’s too late, as soon as a culture becomes an abstract concept — as soon as it can be visualized and identified by the people who are a part of it — it is already dead. I did a project nearly 15 years ago in the west of China with these Tibetan young adults who were trying to recreate their culture. But it was already gone.

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