📩 Letter #37: The traveler's dilemma

What are the ethics of adventure?

Dear Ali, 

Apologies for my delayed response to your last letter on friendship (which was lovely). My excuse? I’ve been on the road. Really, I’ve been in the air, eating snack mix consisting of mysterious “crunchy pieces” and “sesame bits” and drinking weak coffee, touching down in Nashville and Denver, Phoenix and El Paso, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon. Once again, I’m sitting cross legged on airport floors next to electrical outlets, charging my devices and guzzling water collected from dirty drinking fountains. I had forgotten about Airport Kate. She’s ruthless. A survivor.

It’s the summer of travel, for those who can afford it and those who can’t. Hotel rooms and rental cars are astronomically priced and attractions are crowded, leading some tourists (apparently) to postpone vacations yet again. Airlines, meanwhile, cancel flights and shift reservations with impunity. Passengers turn unruly. But the need to “get out” remains, and the people pack into seats.

Around the country, I gather sounds and smells and tastes like souvenirs. In New Mexico, at a horse race, spectators eat nachos with cheese that’s too yellow to be real and drink margaritas that are mostly sugar. They bet on equines named “Backseat Gary” and “Bananas Foster” and “One Bodacious Eagle,” throwing bills across counters in exchange for paper receipts, watching the odds shift on the board. I stand at the edge of the track, close enough for dust kicked up by steeds to collect on the brim of my cowboy hat.

In Nashville, a woman in sparkles leads a session of square dancing. The participants, clumsy, kick and grapevine into each other. Later, a guitarist for a country band wearing slim blue jeans leans out a large picture window into the crawling street, all cigarette smoke and screams. He smirks, makes eye contact. Bachelorette parties dance atop party buses, shaking it for all who want to watch.

In Virginia, a gun and ammunition store sells its wares across the highway from a white steepled church. Surrounding both: Fields, cows, no cell service. My friend can’t get her car over the ridge we’ve parked on. Wheels spin. Fireflies blink. Later, there’s pie and melt-in-your-mouth brisket. As we return to the city on the backroads, fireworks explode overhead, extravagant patriotism.

Even on the planes, there’s something to see. Maybe too much to see (and hear, and smell). A toddler screams for ice cream. A man orders a diet Coke with ice and talks about the last time he went to Hawaii, on his honeymoon, with a wife who’s now passed away. A small boy behind me braces for takeoff. Once we’re in the air, he offers his feedback. “I am not used to that! I do not do that every day!”

Soon enough, I’m back home. Places and people become stories. I relay them to others, then put pictures on the Internet and give them stupid captions. There’s real joy here, at the multitude of pastimes and diversity of landscapes, even within just one country. Wonder. Empathy.

But travel can also feel like exploitation. I come to a place to have my fun, to marvel at others’ otherness. I turn livelihoods and passions into anecdotes, even jokes. I consume. I put money into the economy — helpfully, I suppose — but also bend that economy to my tourist whims, rely on broken systems of restaurant ranking and false pursuits of authenticity. I contribute to the bad traffic and the plane fumes. The Nashville dancers leave their trash on the side of the road. I spray clouds of DEET into the Virginia mountain air.

Back in April 2020, a hopeful pundit argued that “the coronavirus will change how we travel.” He described his own collection of experiences, more glamorous than mine: a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel, a tiger sighting in India. He bemoaned mass global tourism’s “sordid underbelly,” from pollution to sex trafficking. He encouraged us all to be mindful of these problems when we planned our next vacations — but didn’t offer many concrete ideas about how to do so. If you want to see the Mona Lisa, you have to stand in the sweaty throng. Now, we are back to “gorging,” as another, more recent opinion writer put it: 

In the years before the virus, tourism grew unsustainably and to excess, driven less by sincere wanderlust than preening digital self-regard. Technology hadn’t just made travel very cheap but had also cheapened it.

It’s true. Vacations easily become trips for the ego, all boasting and posting. But treating adventure and beauty and discovery like commodities isn’t an exclusively digital problem. Even if I leave my phone at home, I can find myself “gorging” on sights, consumed by what I’m extracting from them, too ready to gawk.

Don’t litter. Tip well. Keep your voice down. Wait your turn. Don’t use the airport outlets for too long. These are the easy rules. Don’t exploit, or exoticize, give what you can to a place you’re just passing through, even if only the dignity of your careful perception — that’s more difficult. It’s the task of everyone who finds themselves elsewhere this summer, delighting in the variety of human experience, the sheer size of the world.



My book recommendation

The book: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Why you should read it: This may be a pointless recommendation, since it seems everyone but me has already read this book — especially everyone who lives in the Bay Area. But if you, too, have been waiting on a hold at the library for 11 months (!!) do not give up. This anthropology of tech — hoodies, sweatshirts, kombucha, hubris, riches — is worth the wait, funny and damning and worthy of discussion. (Note: Neither Ali nor I liked the end.)

What else should you read? In the New Yorker last month: Does Tech Need a New Narrative?