There are many ways to experience the wide world and recently I read an article extolling the virtues of virtual traveling through this old technology called books. The author reasoned that it was less expensive and that such a method of ‘travel’ permitted one to experience a more culturally diverse globe. There is truth to the author’s assertions as it’s certainly less expensive to read a book about a place than to get there but there remains the difficulty of matching learned knowledge and experiential knowledge. Morton’s account of staying in Rome in the 1950s is a different sort of experience that one will have today but that doesn’t discount reading Morton or any other work – scholarly or literary – on a particular destination.
Still, and without disparaging one of the great loves of my life, reading about a place can only get one so far. To stand in that place and breathe in the actuality of the location is not something replicable, however detailed the account, however gifted the writer. To experience via all the senses, really, is to become part of that place and to have that place become part of you.
The other matter raised above is the the wide world is less culturally diverse. I wonder about that. Its certainly the case that one can eat a Big Mac in China. Domino’s just opened a franchise store in Milan. When I lived in China in 1997, the middle school next door to the college where I taught English to Chinese students, played Celine Dion’s song My Heart will Go On every. single. morning. Levi’s jeans are at epidemic levels everywhere. It is indeed quite easy to see how the author has a point.
Early Western travel books extolled many virtues of travel, one among them being that the traveller was a “true agent of civilization”. In the 19th century the traveller was conceived of as a white Westerner bringing civilization to the poor savage races in Africa, India, Asia, Oceana. Bringing their civilization with them and imposing it upon others (for their benefit, of course) was the goal. It was hardly the common expectation that a traveler would find useful ways of doing or being outside of the ‘civilized’ world.
Travelers today go to experience a different culture, to find themselves among the equally viable cultures, to learn about other people and other ways of doing things and thereby to learn about themselves. It is a bit ironic then to think that perhaps greater cultural diversity was available in the past when Western travelers weren’t interested in it and now that our express purposes for travel are to experience different cultures there is less cultural diversity around. But really I think the author is too pessimistic.
Firstly, culture evolves and changes over time. This inevitability is clear from even the most superficial evaluation of history. The 19th century European travelers saw themselves, and indeed acted, as agents of change, but to think that change occurred only as the result of Europeans showing up on the doorstep is a bit naive. Change occurs and the reasons are myriad. It is pretty easy still to find cultural diversity and a variety of unique experiences when traveling out in the world. As with most endeavors, intent, purpose and open-mindedness will yield beneficial, if rather unpredictable, results.