By Rupert Swallow
Something is rotten in the state of travelling. At this very moment people all across the country, reunited after the long summer, are discussing their holidays and suddenly, without any prior warning, the conversation turns from a general discussion to a list of where they went, from ‘I learnt about Renaissance art at the British Institute in Florence’ to ‘Oh yeah, and I did Florence.’
One particularly egregious example of this phenomenon I heard recently came from a close friend, talking about their inter-railing trip, ‘Yes it was great,’ he spewed ‘We did SO much culture!’ I nearly spewed too. The idea of ‘doing’ somewhere is so repugnant, so crass in its reductive laziness, that I am constantly surprised people’s heads don’t explode like the politicians in Kingsman when they utter such inane bilge.
‘Visiting,’ ‘seeing’ or even the rather corporate ‘experiencing’ are all infinitely preferable effective synonyms, not simply for their subtly different semantics but also for the underlying attitudes they imply. Bear Grylls ‘does’ marathons, not countries; you’d never hear him say he’d now ‘done Alaska’ because he’d spent a month filming there. He would recognise that there is so much more to wherever he was that to make such a reductive statement is, put simply, completely ridiculous. This strain of language use, seemingly flowing so naturally from the question ‘What did you do this summer?’ is simultaneously undercutting the very basis of travel and threatening to denigrate travelling to the mere status of a Facebook life event or a line on a CV, a depressingly limited tickbox affair.
This is a far more important issue than simple linguistic pedantry. This lazy language use is in fact slowly but inexorably corrupting our modern method of holidaying. In linguistic theory there is something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is the idea, so menacingly taken up by Orwell in 1984, that the way a language is used affects the thought patterns of those who use it; a German, by the simple fact of speaking German, will have a different way of perceiving the world to an Argentinian speaking Spanish. (This can also be extended further to dialects and registers within a language; a Yorkshireman is linguistically conditioned to respond differently to someone from Cornwall, according to this theory.) Thus how you describe something effectively creates the thing you describe.
With reference to travelling it is not hard to see that the whole semantic load inherent in using the verb ‘to do’ to describe visiting somewhere is wrongly placed. It implies an underlying attitude to travel both startling in its thoughtlessness and totally at odds with the enriching experience that visiting somewhere can be. ‘Doing a place’ arrogantly implies that there is nothing left for you there, that you have taken in everything that was valuable about it, sucked it dry of all its merit. It puts the place remotely into your past, creating a self-enclosed, airless episode which allows no leeway for the individuality of personal experience or the unique nature of the place itself to come through. You are finished with it, in every way possible. This simply isn’t true. In fact the opposite is often the case; tourist attractions become popular precisely because they are noteworthy; they are culturally important or aesthetically stunning, or both.
Many places have been ruined by their popularity – a case in point being the floating villages of the Islas De Los Uros in Lake Titicaca, Peru, which I visited last year having heard tales of raucous weddings from my grandparents who went thirty years ago.
In the event I have never had such an epically disappointing, frankly slightly traumatic hour-long boat ride in my life. Commercial tourism had totally obliterated any traces of local vivacity. The sad irony is that the inhabitants of the islands originally built their floating villages in order to escape the oppressive cultures of the mainland.
While one of the Seven Wonders may, quite justifiably, be the motivation for and central feature of a trip, one should never feel that one has finished with a place simply because one has seen its major attraction.
I understand that this ‘doing’ style of travelling makes sense in the UK’s highly organised modern culture and fits in with our time-poor lifestyles.
However, speaking of places you have been so dismissively and reductively goes completely against the grain of the original purpose of travel: to experience local cultures and to perhaps even participate in, or add to them, in some way. What is so objectionable in this linguistic trope is the purely acquisitive way in which ‘going somewhere’ is so often expressed. Like millions of people each taking a grain of sand off a beach, the foundations of the modern travelling experience are slowly being eroded.
Ticking off World Heritage sights and insta-worthy views like items on a shopping list is not only shallow and unoriginal but it leads to a vapid appreciation of what makes a country unique. It neglects local life in favour of a canon of perceived worthwhile experiences. So go out there, travel and have a great time. Just don’t come back from three weeks in India and tell me that you ‘did Rajasthan and the Punjab.’
Photograph: Rupert Swallow