Does travel broaden the mind or just confirm prejudices?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014


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This is an initial starter list for discussing the " Travel " topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome.  




Topic notes from Thor (these notes, like the reading links, will be expanded over time).


1. Travel sold and experienced as a commodity


Here is one dour view of tourism: What is this herd bringing home? Really. They are having a holiday in Paris. Somebody told them that was something they should do. It makes them happy to be doing what they are supposed to do. Then think about the camera photo. The bad photo of the Mona Lisa on their iPhone is not a photo of a piece of art. The camera photo is a receipt to say that they have been where they were supposed to be. It is identical (for example) to the shop receipt for a new iPhone which China’s new rich bring back from some Tokyo electronic store to prove that their iPhone is not a fake from Shenzhen. So this is the quintessential tourist, a brainless creature in some herd, stampeding off to an exotic address, not to grow by new experience, not to challenge their own identity in any way, but to get a passport tattoo on their forehead which says “been there, done that”.

2. Travel as self-discovery (or not)


There are, of course, other kinds of travel experience besides being moved there and back as a brainless commodity. Occasionally very ordinary people are thrown into extraordinary situations and changed forever, for better or for worse. They may be on the Titanic when it sinks. Others, more alert, find the extraordinary in what others see as ordinary. The gods have touched these lucky ones, however lightly, with the magic of storytelling or the genius of art. Later one of these waking travelers will be surprised that the folk at home don’t really want to hear about the game of chess they had with an ancient imam in Surabaya. The folk at home are comfortable in their own ignorance. But in Surabaya this traveler has learned something about his own Australian identity. He now has a different sense of what is important and unimportant – which the folk at home will never understand.

In strange surroundings it is easier to see something extraordinary in what a local person would find quite ordinary. In Istanbul I once came across a whole laneway of little shops which did nothing but repair cigarette lighters. A curious mind will find many a story behind the reasons for things like this. By contrast, the clone-tourist is looking for the familiar, not the unfamiliar. The big deal for them is their own familiar face in a camera photo, with a famous landmark in the background. The least curious of this species travel in groups from their place of origin, have minutely pre-arranged itineraries and barely talk to foreigners. A variation on the theme is to flock together with compatriots in an overseas ghetto, like Australians in Bali or Koh Samui. This is truly tourism for the masses, neither expecting nor demanding any cultural adaptation. Let’s be grateful though. The clone-tourists in every culture are pretty easy to manage and to steer. Tour companies love them, and they add billions to national budgets.  Perhaps, eventually, stray members of this herd can be drawn beyond Facebook selfies.


3. How a quest generates discovery and special experiences


If you wish to travel, have a quest. Travelling with a quest moves the hand of fate. Aimless footsteps, accidental events, bend and find meaning, for a quest is a kind of strange-attractor, creating order from chaos. It doesn’t matter much what the quest is, provided only that it draws you into unexpected encounters and unmapped addresses. Suppose, for example, that Mrs Beard collects bottle tops. Now a bottle top is not an especially romantic, rare or beautiful object. However, Mrs Beard is a connoisseur of bottle tops. She has thousands of them, from Coca Cola to a failed software company in Mexico, from a Moscow tomato sauce bottle and an authentic beer bottle top from Qingdao, China. Of course, she can trade on the Internet, and this has led to a remarkable mix of acquaintances. Yet as her collection grows she seeks rarer finds and becomes a traveler to ever more quixotic locations which travel tour companies have never heard of. From very ordinary beginnings, Mrs Beard has become a rather interesting human being with a priceless fund of experiences.

4. Experience is in the eye of the beholder

It is not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you which is important (Epictitus, 55-135 AD). In our humdrum daily lives we know well enough those acquaintances who still have some curiosity, and those others of fixed views and routines who become disturbed when something in their street changes. Do these types alter when they are packed off to unfamiliar places. No, of course not. In fact, faced with an unpredictable experience in a foreign place, a common reaction is fear and avoidance of risk. There may be a wish therefore for nothing really out of the ordinary to happen to the traveler, so that there is no demand upon this person to adapt their mind. Here is a big reason for travel agents to exist.

Travel agents promise a package of known and predictable events, lightly spiced with exotic contacts who are guaranteed to speak safe English. Nothing, the travel agent seems to assure you, will make you look like a fool. Nobody will challenge your accent or your attitude. Taking that cue, an average person may not put their pre-judgements at risk. For example, travel prejudices begin by avoiding all talk with the person in the plane seat beside you. Each day millions of fearful creatures cringe in their numbered seats hour after hour, hardly daring to look sideways, afraid to be “involved” with some stranger who might turn out to be mad, bad and dangerous to know, but may well be a bank clerk. How strange. The inflight movies and video games they are obsessed with are full of characters who are mad, bad and dangerous to know. Dealing with reality is a step too far. Timid travelers criss-cross the world in the company of video strangers, forever ignorant of who owns the footsteps which tread nearby.  Are they any braver when they step onto foreign soil?

In 2000 I took a flight from Wuhan to Kunming in SW China, an air distance of 1,300 km. That should have been a couple of hours, but in fact it took most of the day. This could have just been another annoying, wasted day for a package tourist or a businessman. For me it was like a living documentary on modern Chinese culture, and intensely interesting as I watched the spiraling exasperation of passengers in the terminal, and the reactions of ground staff (Wuhan dialect is famous for shouting at the best of times: see May 2000).

Wuhan is a major inland conurbation of three ancient cities, adding up to around 7 million people, stretching across the mighty Changjiang (长江 ; Yangtze) river, and surrounded by lakes. I had just spent two years trying to teach in a couple of its universities, but actually having my identity reshaped. Often I felt like a bit of long-ago cooked sausage being dropped once more into a very unfamiliar frying pan. An utter foreigner, I stumbled absolutely illiterate in an ocean of Chinese signs, unable to predict what would happen next amongst people who minds were shaped by values and assumptions I could scarcely guess at. The city (then) seemed to be one huge rubbish tip of unpainted, stained and decaying concrete. In two years I don't recall seeing much blue sky, and travelling in a rattle-trap bus across the huge Changjiang river bridge, the pollution was often so thick that the muddy waters below were quite invisible.

Why would any sane foreigner put up with the mental and physical chaos of Wuhan? After all, it was often confronting, normal conversation was mostly impossible, and the pay was, well, pathetic. However, it never crossed my mind to doubt the reason for being there. As a fifty-something Australian, here I was once again with the knowledge and skills of a small child. It was the closest thing to being reborn and forced to grow again that a man could hope for. That the urban scenery tended to be bleak, and that the Chinese society around me was deeply confused itself didn't matter (the aftertaste of Mao Zedong's violent dictatorship was still heavy on the land). It added to the piquancy of the experience. 

Oh, and that flight, when it finally got airborne, found me seated next to a middle aged Chinese man with the most amazingly creased palms, as he said himself, like a monkey. Cheng was not one of those paralysed and packaged tourists, afraid to talk to strangers. He was, of all things, an engineer for cigarette making machines, about which with dry and humorous stories he taught me in exquisite detail over the next two hours. Now that is what travel is about (well, for me).  

5. History as a theme park

In 2013 people worldwide put their bums on seats a billion times to travel to another country (AFP 2014). In a world of seven billion souls that is pretty impressive. In 2012 " travel receipts (the travel item in balance of payments) grew to US$1.03 trillion" (Wikipedia 2014). Numbers like this hint at something quite fundamental in the minds and artifacts of human beings. Those people traveled for many reasons, for business, for family and friends, for holidays, and so on. The bulk of them though went to another place because it had something which was different from their daily experience. It couldn't be too different for most of them, or they would be frightened, but it should be different within the range of carefully prepared expecations, as per television shows and Sunday newspaper supplements.

Enter the historical theme park, long progressed beyond a giant plastic dinosaur over the gateway to a few acres of manufactured imitation antiquity, water slides for the kids and a MacDonalds takeaway. Now historical & cultural theme parks are sometimes whole countries, carefully manicured to meet those tourist expectations. Well, this game is hardly new, but in earlier times it tended to be a knockoff of the Potemkin village facades assembled along a chosen route for Catherine II's Russian tour of her subject's villages on the way to Crimea in 1787. With a billion people in the shoes of Catherine II, what we see increasingly is countries reshaping themselves in the image of how a tourist office says it should have been like. The driver, as ever, is money and a Faustian deal for social stability. Tourism, after all, is one of the world's largest employers. The outcome is a different kind of world. It is said that the air surrounding the planet earth co-evolved with the emergence of life, each feeding on the other. You could say that mass human travel is co-evolving with human settlement worldwide, each shaping the other.

A part of the theme park approach to history is assembling collections of artifacts to be "looked at" as something special, and labeling certain buildings, rivers or mountains as objects to be looked at as something special. This pastime itself is an ancient tradition. When the Roman Empire rose to prominence two thousand years ago, the leisured classes of Rome happily plundered and plagiarized the glory that had been classical Greece. As European maritime powers such as Spain and England discovered the booty of old civilizations around the globe from the 16th Century onward, they plundered gold and slaves, then with growing pretensions to respectability, stacked their museums and the mansions of the rich with the stolen artifacts and art from every land their merchants and armies had occupied. This stuff is now the fabulously profitable go-to destination for tens of millions of tourists each year.

Perhaps imitation is a genuine form of flattery. Modern China (where I happen to have spent quite a bit of time), goes one better than the old Western colonial empires who stole "culture" at gunpoint. China having fatally vandalized its own material and intellectual history during the insane Cultural Revolution (1966-76), now invents prefabricated cultural evidence in factories. This fits the spirit of the age. China is not only the land of fake brand name (shanzhai) phones and pretend Italian handbags. Its professors and students plagiarize without embarrassment (I have researched this). Its supermarkets play endless loop tapes of Christmas carols to customers who have no notion of Christmas or carols. Government and industry runs on countless copies of pirated Microsoft Windows XP (Win8 is giving them a headache). The state's version of history is not just a lie (a long tradition with this as each new emperor expunged inconvenient memories), but now a theme park invention for the multitude. There is hardly an historical building in China which has not been either remanufactured in some idealized "ancient" format, or invented entirely from political fiction. Following the same rationale, dotted throughout the Chinese landscape you can find a full sized Eiffel Tower from France, a better than original German traditional village, a full sized Titanic on an inland lake ... and so on.


6. Travel as a finishing school for young adults: the rite of passage


7. Travel for formal education: the fight for talent and dollars


8. Sub-species of the international worker


9. The oldest travel of all: exile, refugees and migration


10. The second oldest form of travel: a pilgrim's journey to meet his God


11. The machinery of travel: stage coach to fly-by-wire


12. Status forever: ensuite, business caste or cattle class?


[more to come]



Reading list (note that the writers in these links are expressing their own views. We don't necessarily share them. Further suggestions for links are welcome – send to  


Agence France Press (January 30, 2013) "Lonely planet no more: tourist numbers hit one billion". Brisbane Times online @

Althouse, Ann (August 28, 2013) "The philosophy of travel... the psychology of travel...". Althouse blog, online @

Bird, Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy), (1831-1904) "Korea and her neighbors; a narrative of travel, with an account of the recent vicissitudes and present position of the country (1898)". Archive copy online @

Butcher, Tim (March 25, 2011) "In the Footsteps of Graham Greene". The New York Times, online @

Chaucer, Geoffrey(1342 - 1400) edited by Sinan Kökbugur. "The Canterbury Tales". Librarius website, online @  

De Botton, Alain (2004) The Art of Travel. pub. Vintage. Available from Amazon (see the reader reviews), online @

Groundwater, Ben (Oct 13 2014) "The five questions travel writers always get asked". Sydney Morning Herald online @    

Gussow, Mel (January 30, 1991) "Travel Plus Writing Plus Reflection Equals V.S. Naipaul". New York Times online @

Huffington Post (2014) "Best Travel Blogs". Huffington Post online @

Iyer, Pico (Mar 19, 2000) "Why we travel". Salon magazine, online @

Kork, Yuri (December 2013) "The Influence of Film Genres on the Tourist’s Decision Making Process". Dissertation, University of Exeter. Online @

Lawson, Henry (1892) "The Lights of Cobb & Co". Cobb & Co Heritage Trail website, online at . Also, recited by Thor May, online @

Lonely Planet (2014) Lonely Planet blog, online @ McCrum, Robert (17 August 2014) "A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924) - EM Forster's most successful work is eerily prescient on the subject of empire". The Guardian online @

May, Thor (1972) "Memories of Afghanistan". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (1996) "Cambodia Snippet". The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (1 November 1998)"Two Thousand Steps to the Mountain". Thor's China Diary, online @

May, Thor (2000) "The Dialects of Wuhan". online @

May, Thor (5 September 2001) "Traveler on a Leash, or a Free Spirit ? - notes from Thor May on some questions by Rolf Potts". The Passionate Skeptic website online @

May, Thor (January 1, 2009) "The Cigarette". Thor's New China Diary, online @

May, Thor (January 19, 2008) "The Iron Rooster and The White Dragon". Thor's New China Diary, online @

Nomadic Matt (2014) Nomadic Matt travel advice blog, online @

Olivier (14th August 2014) "How to influence Chinese tourist? ". MarketingToChina blog, online @

Potts, Rolf (October 2006) "The tourist who influenced the terrorists: How one egyptian’s bad haircut from a greeley, colorado, barber in 1949 provided the ideological fuel for 9/11".

Santayana, George (1863-1952)“The Philosophy of Travel.” LettersFromThePorch blog, online @

Skelton, Jess (January 8, 2014) "15 Must-Read Travel Blogs for 2014". Tripit website, online @   

Spears, Daniel L.; Josiam, Dharath M.; Kinley, Tammy; and Pookulangara, Sanjukta (2013) "Tourist See Tourist Do: The Influence of Hollywood Movies and Television on Tourism Motivation and Activity Behavior," Hospitality Review: Vol. 30: Iss. 1, Article 4.Online @

Stabile, Matt (July 27, 2014) "Top 50 Travel Blogs (Q2: 2014)". The Expeditioner website online @

Stavans, Ilan and Joshua Ellison (July 7, 2012 ) "Reclaiming Travel". The New York Times online @

Steves, Rick (2014) "Cash and Currency Tips". RickSteves blog, online @  

The Economist (Aug 12th 2014) "Holiday experiences - No really, we had a great time". The Economist online @

Theroux, Paul (July 30, 1989) "Travel Writing: Why I Bother". New York Times online @

Travel Blog (2014) A collection of travel blogs, online @

TravelPod (2014) Create a free travel blog, online @

Wetfeet (December 3, 2012) "Industry Overview: Hospitality and Tourism". [United States only]. Wetfeet website, online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Potemkin village". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Tourism". Wikipedia online @


Does travel broaden the mind or just confirm prejudices?(c) Thor May 2014


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