The surreptitious traveller: bona fide travel or idle tourism?

My feeling is that Europeans tend to take travel for granted. When one has the option to nip across for a weekend under the Mallorcan sun or a two-day Parisian shopping spree or a fly-by historical excursion to Warsaw’s ghettos, then I would wager that jumping on a one hour easyjet flight to no-matter-where at a whim does not inspire the same sense of frontier-crossing, boundary-pushing, life-changing feeling it does when, for example, Australians venture from their bout-du-monde island home. When Eyjafjallajokull erupted (that’s the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano whose ash cloud last year ground European airspace to a halt), the taken-for-granted nature of European air travel suddenly surfaced. The uproar was as if an arterial road had been closed in a major city, seeing people ‘stranded’ with little but their wallets in their pockets and a change of underwear, having assumed that their day trip across international borders would see them safely home by nightfall. It got me thinking, when travel is so accessible that we can duck across borders or fly over world heritage sights on a whim or a long weekend, how does one qualify bona fide travel from commuting, time-wasting, beach-hopping, or ticking things off one’s tourism tally?

Recently, I was in Italy for a weekend on a post-Masters-thesis celebration at the Rome apartment and Santa Marinella beach house of a good friend. The trip had elements both of “Euro-entitlement” tourism and bona fide travel. On the ‘taken-for-granted’ side, we spent much of the time lounging around our friend’s place, ducking out now and then to tick a tourist trap off our list, but for the most part enjoying each other’s company as we might have done at home or in any other city in the world. The purpose of the trip was to celebrate a milestone in our lives, and so the focus was on eating, drinking, singing and laughing together, despite the fact that some of the greatest wonders of the world were scattered in the immediate vicinity of our bunker in Rome. My Australian friends would have marvelled at the fact that I popped over to Rome for a few days, and many from further afield would probably give an arm and a leg to embark on a similar trip which, for my European friends, was the equivalent of a more civilized United States “Spring Break”. Nonetheless, some might say that it was more of an ‘authentic travel experience’ than many might have in Rome, given that we were staying with a local, we avoided spending hours in godawful peak summer queues to glimpse basilicas and statues, and we even took a weekend excursion to the Roman seaside in Santa Marinella, ordering pizzas and supplí to eat in the sand as Italian mammas chased their sun-bronzed children around.

Just another evening with friends...over the Tiber river
Coming across one of many dramatic statues over the course of an evening stroll
Just another drive around Rome in a friend's car...
Friends chatting over Roman ruins...
Another day at the beach with friends...plus pizzas and supplí
Celebrating an important milestone...Roman Riviera style

The same kind of predicament, I suppose, goes for work travel. Can you say you have really ‘been’ somewhere if you are picked up from the airport in a luxury car, shuttled to a glitzy hotel in the business district, eat international cuisine from the hotel restaurant, crash straight into bed after a day’s meetings and repeat ad infinitum until being shuttled back to the airport a few days later? I guess it’s hard to categorise and define and analyse as, for example, your typical business trip with a multinational corporation will differ greatly from some of the ‘business travel’ excursions that my colleagues at various NGOs undertake, to the mountains of Afghanistan or the deepest darkest jungle in the Philippines or the bush in Africa. Coming back from your business trip with stories of contracting malaria or hearing gunshots in the night or how Philippino street food is possibly the worst in Asia is slightly different to coming back with tales of how the champagne at your business dinner at the Ritz Carlton in Kuala Lumpur was not up to scratch. Likewise, while I felt that I was truly ‘travelling’ and experiencing the ‘real Rome’ when getting boozy every night with my closest friends in a house in Italy, some others might have felt like the beautiful surrounds were being taken for granted, and could have easily been exchanged for any other city in the world or any other generic post-university drunken experience.

I guess the answer is that travel, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and we can no more judge those Contiki-bus-hopping, twenty-cities-in-ten-days crowds than we can call ourselves ‘authentic’ travellers for making a snap decision to jet to a European beach for a weekend, eating seafood and lazily meandering around cobblestoned streets. Ultimately, if you feel like you’ve been and experienced somewhere, no matter how vulgar others might judge the experience to be, then who am I to tell you otherwise? Just make sure you stop and smell the roses, whether in a high rise business suite in a 5-star palatial Asian hotel, or in a backpackers hostel in Bairro Alto in Lisboa. That way, you can say you’ve really been there, no matter the circumstances.

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