Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Street scene, Senegal
Travel is not only about transporting yourself across space, from one set of latitude and longitude coordinates to another. At its most magical, travel simulates movement in other dimensions as well. One of the most intoxicating examples is time. Whether crossing the moat of Angkor Wat, inspecting remnants of a Christian fresco at a Crusader castle in Syria, watching rural life in an ancient Chinese village, walking the alleys of Quebec City’s basse-ville or admiring Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, travel allows us to transport ourselves, if only in our minds, to a different century. Another example is personal freedoms. When an Iranian woman boards a plane to France, or a young lesbian leaves Kansas for the lights of the big city, she sees before herself a world of different possibilities, new horizons unrestrained (see also posts of 6.08 and 11.08).
In this post, I wanted to share some thoughts on another dimension along which people travel: in socioeconomic class and material comfort.
We are by no means rich, but any first world traveler, by going to a poor, developing country, becomes richer, at least relative to his surroundings. I can afford more and better goods and services in, say, Indonesia than I can in the U.S. In Bali, I can easily eat in some of the best restaurants or pay for spa services–every day if I wanted. Even if traveling in more expensive, developed countries, some people, knowing that travel time is a limited resource, may choose to “live it up,” spending what it takes to buy comforts that they might not usually allow themselves at home–eating in top restaurants in Paris or staying at an extravagant resort hotel. All of this, I would term traveling “rich.”
There is also traveling “poor.” No matter how cheap things may be in some countries, that they are less developed will often mean that standards or comforts will not be at the levels a first-world traveler is used to back home. I may be able to hire a car and driver in India, but the vehicle is certain to be much older and in many ways less comfortable than what Avis would give me at LAX. Almost regardless of what one spends, there can be hardship with travel. But budget is also a critical consideration. As a long-term traveler, I am without an income, and have to be careful about expenses. Back in the “real world,” I might enjoy a big evening out, and know that my next paycheck will be able to cover the credit card bill. If I had such special nights frequently while on this extended trip–it’s not like I have to work the next day–I would eat up vast sums of money. Were I on a vacation from my job, I could stay in comfortable hotels, knowing that it’s just a matter of maximizing my enjoyment of limited free time. For 365 nights? I cannot prudently afford it. Every day, I have to pay for a hotel room and two or three meals, in addition to transportation and numerous other expenses. Given the constant choices I have in expenditures, I have to budget wisely, and this sometimes means having less comfort than I would have back home, or even spending less than I can realistically afford, in anticipation of future expenses. Traveling “poor.”
The way we travel, and the way that many others travel these days, involves frequent transitions between traveling rich and traveling poor. We get off business class plane seats (redeemed with miles) to cram into minibuses for the ride into town from the airport. Surprisingly often, we’ll eat a meal that costs more than the hotel room we happen to be staying in that night. We’ll opt for a $15 room instead of a $25 room one night, for sake of cost, to spend hundreds of dollars on an eco-resort the next.
This topic came to my mind because we experienced in the last 48 hours or so a particularly dramatic example of travel in this dimension. Yesterday, we left our Venice inn overlooking the Accademia Bridge to travel by express train to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala for an opera. After the opera? We suffered into the wee hours outside in the cold at Milano Centrale train station waiting for our 4:15 AM bus to Malpensa airport, and after our flight we are now settled into a hotel-cum-brothel in Dakar, Senegal. After such a dramatic shift, from Venice to Dakar, from sitting at a box in La Scala to huddling for heat on top of a subway grate, from a charming Grand Canal-side inn to an African brothel, we could only look at each other and ask what went wrong in the last 48 hours for us to end up where we are. But of course, it was all deliberate, each choice thought out. In the case of Milan, we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see an opera at La Scala, but we also didn’t want to pay for a full night’s lodging (much less at euro-denominated, first world big city rates) for the few hours between our show and our flight. In the case of Dakar, we just found local hotel rooms to be such poor value that we decided to stay in the cheapest acceptable option–which apparently also rents by the hour.
We could be criticized for “slumming.” But it’s not some sort of morbid curiosity that drives us to travel poor sometimes. (As a matter of fact, there are actual “slum tours” that tourists can take–and I must disclose that I’ve been on such a tour, of a Rio de Janeiro favela–but even these I would argue are healthy and valuable, a unique way to see a neighborhood that you could not visit on your own.) Nor do we consider ourselves to be “rough” or “hardcore” travelers on the basis of a few nights at a cheap hotel when we know that we can eventually retreat into a more comfortable one if and when we need it. But just as traveling rich has its obvious advantages–such as comfort–traveling poor often has its advantages. One American tourist (one of few we’ve come across on our trip) suggested to us over a (relatively fancy) hotel breakfast that we “get to meet more people” by traveling poor. But it’s much more than that. If you wake up every day in a comfortable hotel on a hill or in a ritzy suburb, you miss out on a lot of things, including experiencing or sometimes even realizing the hardships of the local people that you see around you. Your air conditioning and sealed windows keep out the swarms of mosquitos and the sweltering heat, or your heater allows you to forget how cold it is outside. You’re more likely to eat bland tourist food with other tourists. You could come to have little idea of how people in the country that you’ve come to see really live, how they get from place to place, what they eat.
But, generally, when we travel rich and when we travel poor, we’re not moving between rich and poor for the sake of doing so, but doing what feels right in the circumstances and what our budget permits. We are just trying to find the best value and make optimal use of our resources while getting as much out of the experience as possible. In some places, that is “rich” travel–one would be a fool to pass up a body scrub in Ubud–in others, lower end.
Travel is not only about the jets that whisk us from the rarefied relics of Venice to the markets of Dakar, within a space of hours. Just as it’s hard to believe that it only takes a few hours to travel from Hong Kong’s frenetic urban lifestyle to the watery floating markets of Vietnam’s Mekong delta, traveling rich and poor in quick succession, experiencing that shift in class and economic development–it brings to the fore the magic of travel. Travel, to us, is a mode of living in which we can seamlessly transition, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, from sitting down in a Venetian restaurant for dinner with wine to eating from a street vendor in Senegal; from sharing a box at the opera at 9 p.m. with a wealthy couple in formal dress to chatting outside the train station at 3 a.m. with African immigrants warning us about drug dealers nearby; from taking vaporettos on the Grand Canal to walking across downtown Dakar, backpacks fully loaded.
La Scala *and* a Dakar brothel? In some sense, it would be surprising that those two experiences were available at all to a particular person over his entire lifetime–but we experience them in a matter of hours, in sequence, almost in the blink of an eye. Seeing the highs and lows of the world, from both high and low vantage points, all of this is afforded to us by travel.