How I learned that it’s not where you go or what you do, but what you bring back that makes you interesting.
Travel porn is a thing, and it is a problem. Porn by its very definition is the exploitation of one thing for the benefit of another, whether it’s food, flesh…or travel.
If you travel to the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon, or the Serengeti, solely to say you’ve been there — or worse, to snap a pic and share it on social to get the sweet dopamine rush of “Likes” — you’re not experiencing the place at all. You’re using it. Exploiting it. Yep, just like porn.
No, this isn’t the petty preaching of some shut-in who’d rather drink beer from his couch like Karl Pilkington from An Idiot Abroad. Truth is, I speak from experience.
During a recent trip abroad, I went shark diving. It was in a cage, in an aquarium, in an activity safe enough that you only have to be 10 years old to do it. But I had to appear like I was some Indiana Jones-like adventurer risking life and limb to swim among the ocean’s fiercest predators (and not a grown man from the Midwest wading in a fish tank). I found myself thinking non-stop what I would post before I even did it — before I even left home! It had to be clever and nonchalant, like this was just another day in the life of the globetrotting daredevil I wanted to look like.
Was I doing this solely for social media glorification? Not exclusively, but more than I would have liked. It made the moment shallower than the 20-foot tank I was in. And when the post didn’t get enough “Likes” (what is “enough”, even?), it forced me to take a step back and reassess: why am I doing this? Why do I travel anywhere and do anything? For the experience? Or for what I think it says about me?
Whether natural or made by human hands, the wonders of the world are to be appreciated, not exploited to solidify our social status or “cool factor.”
Look at it like this: if I were to snap a pic of my seven-figure check, or my 10,000-square foot mansion in the palisades (neither of which I have), people wouldn’t be impressed by how interesting I am; they’d see me as a shallow show-off. How is showing off a status symbol like money or mansions any different than doing the same thing with a travel experience?
Is taking a pic and sharing it automatically a bad thing? Absolutely not. Ultimately it comes down to what’s in your head and your heart, and only you can know that. But if you risk death and dismemberment to get the cliche “arms spread pose” picture on a cliff side in Tibet, you’re not doing it for the right reasons. Or if you’re staging what should be a meaningful moment in Manila solely for the shallow hit you get from social media. Or if you go to Thailand, and continue to post pictures weeks, months, even years later, each time with #takemeback, as if this normal, humdrum life (which the rest of us are living too, btw) can’t compare to your past experience.
Is there really a right way to travel?
So you might be saying: “Hey jerk, who are you to be saying there’s a right reason to travel?” Fair enough. I am well within my right to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to travel to a far away place for a selfie-photo shoot…but that doesn’t make me a more interesting person. It makes me the modern equivalent of the guy in the 1960s who made his next-door neighbors sit through his slideshow of his family trip to Yosemite. All I’m missing is an avocado green polo and polyester pants (both of which I already own…don’t judge).
It’s even worse when you travel to a sacred space. Whether it’s the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Sistine Chapel in Rome, or any number of places adored and glorified by others, it’s disrespectful to use a sacred space to boost your social status and spiritual credibility. The place may mean nothing to you, but it means life and death, and whatever comes after, to the people who worship there. And you’re not fooling anyone.
Nobody thinks you’re Mother Teresa just because you post “Spread love wherever you go” with a pic of you standing outside a coffee shop in Calcutta.
So how can we all be better travelers?
Put simply, don’t steal enjoyment from others. Don’t barge in front of an elderly man who has waited his entire life to return to Normandy just so you can get a pic of your 5-year old pretending he’s storming the beaches, with the hashtag #neverforget. Take pics, share them even, but be present in the moment, not glued to your phone making sure you get just the right amount of “Likes.” And when you come home, don’t rub your adventures in other people’s faces.
But really, all the tangible things come down to mindset. With the cost of airfare going down, and this generation’s noble desire to buy experiences, not things, international travel is more common than ever. But “buying experiences, not things” only benefits you personally and spiritually if it’s done for the right reasons. If I travel to distant lands simply to appear more cultured and interesting, I’m no better than the dude who neglects his faith and family to satisfy his obsession with sports cars. Both of us are being possessed by our possessions, whether that possession is experiential or material.
If your journey truly made you a more well-rounded, interesting person, you’d realize what a privilege it is to travel, and want to help others experience it as well.
You wouldn’t show off for others or worse, get a tinge of jealousy when you find out they’re going to a place you’ve already visited, as if experiencing a culture, country or continent belongs to you and you alone.
So go West, young man. Or East, North or South. But keep yourself rooted in the moment. Take plenty of pictures, but be present. Respect the places and people around you. Genuinely experience the cultures with an open mind and heart, don’t pretend like other people’s lives are a play for you act in. And when you return, be mindful of the privilege of travel, one many people don’t get to experience. Don’t rub it in your friends’ faces, but instead help them find ways to visit the places they want to go. This will not only make you a more interesting person, but a more kind and compassionate one too.