Lately, my Facebook feed has been filled with reports from enthusiastic travelers on countries visited, monuments seen, and foreign food consumed. Long posts wax nostalgically about the planet’s many beautiful places, and it seems almost criminal not to post hundreds of photos from the trip.
I’ve been asking myself, in recent weeks, what distinguishes a journey from a vacation? The latter—travel for its own sake—is an inherently privileged activity, and it’s clear that our privileged society places an implicit premium on “well-traveled” as a personal descriptor. Given his or her experience in a foreign country, the “world-traveler” is perceived to have a superior understanding of culture and a heightened sense of international identity. In short, the well-traveled among us are better educated global citizens.
But how do we operationalize the process of ‘experiencing’ another culture? You’ll agree, I’m sure, that a four-hour layover in Heathrow does not count as the ‘experience’ of London. But what about an afternoon in the city? Or a week? What about a semester?
Last month, I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Despite the sublime, inspirational spirit of the Dutch master’s prolific collection of art, I found myself distracted by the hordes of visitors snapping iPhone photos of the paintings. As I wandered through the exhibit, I was consumed by one thought: why does this bother me so much?
This snapshot attitude toward travel—which can be observed at any major cultural attraction—flattens not only the image but also the experience of the image. By approaching novel visual stimuli through the lens of a camera, visitors allow the device to mediate their experience, distancing themselves from the actual object of focus. With photo editing (or, nowadays, filter-adding) the idiosyncrasies that define the original object disappear and the image is made the photographer’s own. The subtle textures emerging from the frame of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, the effect of the exhibit’s juxtaposition of paintings, the smell and feel of the museum—are all lost.
Van Gogh’s body of work becomes a personal achievement, a token added to a sensory pocketbook. This ‘Gotta’ Catch ‘Em All’ mentality fuels a collector’s notion of travel. Coupled with the “Like” apparatus of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, this drives a commodification of experience. New places are no longer inhabited and experienced; they are accomplished, subdued, and archived to a hoarder’s trophy shelf. When someone approaches a scene—whether a city street, monument, or painting—with an eye toward its subsequent success on social media, one negates their presence in the place. With an increasing reliance on our virtual appendages (smart phones, tablets, GPS) we disappear, in degrees, from reality. While this phenomenon is also true of our use of consumer electronics and social media in general, it’s particularly conspicuous in travelers. When a tourist spends more time live-tweeting their visit, checking the number of likes on an Instagram photo, Google Mapping directions, and translating difficult phrases, they embody their digital avatars more than their actual person. Their presence, for all intents and purposes, is determined by its virtual representations.
Situated in the center of Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was conceived as an interactive monument by architect Peter Eisenman. In order to honor the memory of the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, he devised an austere labyrinth defined by hundreds of rectilinear stone columns. Visitors should presumably lose themselves in the stone maze, proprioceptively immersing themselves in the memory of the tragedy to which it alludes. While I’m sure that this is the case for some, the exhibit also lends itself to play: when I visited in September, laughing teenagers were happily hopping from pillar to pillar, enjoying the maze from the view above. A clever blog, aptly titled “Grindr Remembers,” features a series of men on the gay meet-up app using photos of themselves in the memorial as profile pictures. In the context of this social media platform, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews is stripped of its memory, appropriated instead for its aesthetic appeal on that application.
I find that many students traveling abroad bring a similar mentality to the places they visit. For many, cultural attractions are relegated to convenient backdrops for photos. While the taste of Japanese sushi and the sight of Versailles are valuable in their own right, they remain at the level of mere visual and gustatory sensations. Mired in their one-dimensionality, these sensory snapshots fail to cross into the realm of true ‘experience.’
The key is interactivity, or experience that is constituted by multi-dimensional sensory engagement. Visual and gustatory, sure, but also olfactory, haptic, kinesthetic, magnetoceptic—the list goes on. The synthesis of these sensations allows for abstraction of sensory information. On physical, cognitive, and emotional levels, these impressions collect and build an experience, and are consequently integrated into a greater narrative. This is the process of discovery.
One morning last January when I was touring Israel, my dear travel companion and I woke up early to hike the cliffs of Masada, an ancient Judean fortress near the shores of the Dead Sea. After a beautiful mountaintop view of the sunrise, we returned to the base and turned our attention to the salty sand canyons below. We couldn’t find any discernable path and soon discovered that the cascading sand cliffs were surprisingly safe. With no pre-determined ‘script’ to our experience—no one and nothing telling how to perceive or navigate this phenomenal new space—we abandoned our shoes and phones and spent the afternoon playing in the sand. The endless canyons were visually exciting, but so too was the smell of the salty sea, the grains of sand exfoliating my dry skin, and the feeling of ludic buoyancy while skidding down fragile cliff walls. I’d never been anywhere like it and it’s likely that I’ll never return, but I experienced this place it in a way that was just my own. It remains, today, one of my fondest memories.
The process of discovery allows one to unmoor him or herself from the scripted memory and passive spectatorship that our socially mediated, hyper-visual culture encourages. When you are critical of your experience beyond the few facts spat at you by a museum exhibit, beyond photos of a monument or natural wonder that every other person who’s been there before you has also taken, you open yourself to a plurality of possibilities. With this genuine freedom of choice, your experience becomes your own. You cease to be a spectator and instead become a participant.
Interactivity implies interaction, some kind of exchange. When we take pictures, souvenirs, and culture from a foreign land, we must furnish something in return. Since we don’t have much else to offer, we should give our utmost attention, respect, and gratitude for the experience, for the awesome dizziness of being there.