A few months into my three-year stint in India, I returned to New Zealand to celebrate Christmas with my family. I was 24 years old, and I’d been away from home for about 18 months. In that time I’d grown a beard, started smoking cigarettes, gotten involved with a foreign girl, eaten sushi in Tokyo and biryani in Bangalore, and generally found new ways to be insufferable.
My vision was of a triumphant return, however unwarranted. I would regale loved ones with tales of my travels, and they would sit in rapture. I would lead them all in a singalong around the campfire at New Year. I would be the life of any parties I attended. Needless to say, all this was a delusion. Instead, the moment I touched down on New Zealand soil, I regressed to the 'youngest child' mentality I'd had my whole life: quiet, mumbling, wrapped up in myself. I spent a good amount of the trip on the phone to my girlfriend overseas, ignoring what was in front of me.
You'd think I would have learned my lesson from that experience; that I would have understood travel abroad to be just one of life's many possible experiences, not the transformative Rubicon demarcating Before and After I became an Interesting Person. But where humans are concerned, history has a way of repeating itself.
A couple of years later, when I returned to New Zealand for good, I invited my older brother to join me in an early morning yoga-cum-meditation hybrid that I planned to make up as I went along. Having lived in India and practised both yoga and meditation enough times to count them on more than one hand – just – I was as good as an expert. I pronounced meditation to be the source of my obvious inner calm, as if to suggest I had unlocked some elevated state of being that others could reach simply by following my lead.
But I didn't get up early that morning, and I didn't make either yoga or meditation part of my regular routine in the three and half years that followed. A kind person might say I got a little ahead of myself. A realist might call me a fraud.
This sort of thing will be familiar to many who have returned home from abroad. It certainly appears to ring true for travel writer Henry Wismayer, who recently wrote an article entitled 'Has Travel Become Another Exercise in Narcissism?' on Medium. Much of Wismayer's piece is an acerbic screed railing against boring 'travellers' speaking about their 'amazing' or ‘awesome’ experiences as if they were “Marco Polo returning from the court of Kublai Khan. He must write a blog, post endless photos on social media. Everyone must benefit from his remarkable new wisdom!”
But then Wismayer turns his apoplectic gaze inward. As a travel writer, he is intensely aware that his criticism of other 'travellers' – that they waste their experiences on 'narcissistic presentation' and delude themselves into believing there is universal worth in their own particular story – applies more directly to himself than anyone else. “For each hour I spend scribbling notes in some remote Shangri-la, I spend twenty more hunkered in a spine-degrading keyboard hunch, hammering out articles that only contribute to the problem, exhorting people to visit places that may well be better off without them”.
Wismayer's piece is ultimately more a confession than anything else. It offers more insight into its writer than his subject. But it's true that in the age of constant Facebook updates and Instagram streams, travel is losing its bright colours and becoming increasingly grey. You can read a travelogue or photo essay from places as far-flung and unwelcoming as Afghanistan or North Korea at the click of a button, while shots of the Taj Mahal and Empire State Building flow at you unbidden 24 hours a day. Wismayer reserves his greatest scorn for the Expedia motto 'Travel yourself interesting', and it's not hard to see his point there. For many, 'Travel yourself interesting' appears more an invitation to 'Travel your Facebook timeline interesting'.
But if you have Facebook friends like mine, you want to read about their experiences abroad. You want to see their selfies in Shibuya and learn about their volunteer efforts at a dog shelter in Thailand. And yet you roll your eyes in recognition at Wismayer's hypothetical narcissist. You may have met that person, even been that person (*raises hand*). So where's the disconnect? How can you be both interested in travellers' social media streams and repulsed by them?
In the first episode of An Idiot Abroad (which I would argue is the most honest and insightful TV show about 21st Century travel) co-creator Stephen Merchant expresses his faith in travel as a transformative experience, even for a set-in-his-ways curmudgeon like Karl Pilkington. “What we'd like to see is him experience other cultures, other peoples and see if, in any way, we can change his outlook on the world,” says Merchant earnestly. “I genuinely think travel broadens the mind.”
I'm inclined to agree with that latter statement. Surely no harm can come from picturing more of the world in your memory and seeing human faces with names when you hear about a distant country in the news. The most positive travel experiences open up doors in your mind between old connections and new ones, between familiar and fresh sensations, and these links fire imagination faster than you can consciously keep up. That's why people like Wismayer become travel writers: they want to capture that stream of mental inspiration and put it down in words.
But travel doesn't fundamentally change you. It might dramatically divert the course of your life in some way – for example, if you meet a romantic partner and end up riding their coat-tails halfway around the world – and it might cripple you physically or financially. But it won't change you, no matter how much time you spend in an ashram or Vipassana meditation retreat. By the time you have the time and money to go travelling, both nature and nurture have pretty well set your personality in stone. No travel experience can properly shake that up, no matter how earnest or open-minded you are in seeking it out.
My experience of meditation in India was so profound that I immediately assumed it would become a regular part of my life. The fact that it hasn't is testament to the fact that travel did not change who I was: a lazy but lucky dilettante muddling his way through life, by turns follower and followed, happy to bask in the simple wonder of the world as long as it comes to me without too much effort.
That, to me, is the deeper value of travel. It gives you a wider variety of sensory inputs to help you see yourself more clearly. In short, it helps you better understand who you really are and what you're interested in. Japan reinforced my pre-existing distaste for mechanical interactions with other human beings, and India reinforced my need for regular peace and quiet. Japan cemented a greater appreciation for clean and efficient design, and India helped rekindle my obsession with cricket, my first sporting love.
So when I see another Facebook friend photographed with their arm around a mate in front of the Parthenon, and after the envy subsides, I am happy to see them putting themselves out there. Good for you, I think to myself. You’re meeting new people and seeing new sights and making new memories. You are getting to know yourself better in some way, even if it’s only small, even if it takes years for the insights to bed in. Our minds can easily conjure up the image of a dreadlocked dullard boring everyone they meet with stories of pot and pills from Peru to Phuket, but that image is a stereotype rarely glimpsed in the real world. My friends are the true face of travel, and I find my friends – and by extension their travels – interesting.
It’s important to remember, however, that beyond the odd Facebook like, most other people still won't be that interested in hearing about your travels in detail. They don't particularly want a blow-by-blow account of all the fun you had while they were working or studying, and having only seen Machu Picchu in photos, they have few tools with which to imagine your lyrical description of its grandeur. But you were there, and that’s the main thing. Travel isn’t for anyone else, no matter how badly you want to tell them. Travel is for you.