Hedonists miss the point of travel

'Travel' by Chris Johnston'The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page,' said the wise and worldly St Augustine. Implicit in this metaphor is the exhortation that readers of the great big 'book' in which we live undertake their task with intent, savouring each word, underlining pertinent sentences, revisiting favourite passages and turning the final page having changed for the better.

Today, cheaper airfares, package deals and higher incomes have helped to shrink the world, enabling more Australians than ever to take heed of Augustine's sage advice. School leavers routinely take gap years, striking out to far corners of the globe in search of themselves; increasingly, middle class families eschew Australia's bush and beaches in favour of foreign destinations; retirees indulge in SKI trips — Spending the Kids' Inheritance — discovering while they're at it a world that was once largely off limits to all but the wealthy and the intrepid.

Along with this change has come a devaluation of the slow and wondrous art of travel, with transport itself now little more than the humdrum means to a far more glamorous end. Unwilling to spend two days driving to the North Queensland tropics, people will think nothing of sitting for 24 hours on a tightly-packed plane bound for London. Once the sacred gateways to imagined lands, airports have morphed into flashy bus depots flanked by fast food outlets and chain stores in which tourists can occupy themselves before takeoff.

Where once the journey was the destination, and packing was part of the fun, today a holiday hasn't started until you've sipped your first piña colada.

But there are other, more disturbing consequences wrought by the ubiquity of global pleasure seekers, among them the bad impression they so often leave behind. According to a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald, 'many foreign destinations are cracking down on hard-partying, bawdy behaviour and cultural offences, saying inconsiderate tourists are ruining their image and making life hell for locals and other visitors'.

Spain, Brazil and the Vatican are among the countries fed up with tourists' nakedness, public promiscuity and rampant debauchery.

Australians are said to be generally good at avoiding cultural offence, but they are often guilty of alcohol-related offences. 'When they're not drunk, they're fine; that [alcohol] is when the problem starts,' said Shawn Low, a spokesman for Lonely Planet.

Drunk, libidinous and scantily-clad tourists unleashed on idyllic locales were certainly not what Augustine had in mind when he spoke so eloquently of the virtue of travel. Nor would he have approved of the hedonistic seeking out luxurious resorts moored in a sea of poverty, or the narrow-minded and culturally inept building barriers with careless flicks of the tongue.

Indeed, Augustine's philosophy suggests that travel loses all value when travellers ignore the lessons therein, when their interpretation is shallow, or when they fail to engage with the people whose space they have entered.

I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Fiji when, while visiting a village, I overheard a woman comparing the developing island nation to 'civilised countries, such as Australia'. Later, while waiting to disembark from the plane back home, an Australian couple flinched visibly at the touch of the sweet, boisterous Fijian children waiting in line behind them.

'They've just spent four hours screaming in my ear, and now they're pushing me!' shouted the woman with unconcealed distaste. I had sat not far from these same children, and hadn't heard a peep. The woman's deep tan was evidence of a sun-splashed itinerary, one from which the people of paradise had clearly been excluded.

Whilst travel is supposed to broaden the mind and open the heart, too often both remain imperviously shut.

Thankfully, there are antidotes to such insensitivities, travellers who use their privilege to connect with people they may otherwise never have met, building bridges that span not just individual lives but entire cultures.

People like Ed, who was so touched by what he saw in Cambodia that he set up a foundation which supports local projects; Beth, who raises funds to help empower the poverty-stricken people she befriended in Paraguay; Jay, whose childhood friendship with a Fijian motivated him to move back there and establish a socially responsible tourism venture; and Gemma, who was so overcome by the deprivation she witnessed while travelling through Africa that she started a school in Tanzania for the poorest of students.

Not all of us are able to take such proactive steps on behalf of the people we meet on our journeys. But we can enlarge — and hence improve — our world by opening our eyes, scratching the surface, listening with interest to the stories we are told and leaving behind us enough goodwill to fill a city. We can take Augustine to heart, and make an intensive, fruitful study of this great big book in which we all live.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and freelance travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, St Augustine, travel, fiji, cambodia, hedonistic tourists



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Existing comments

A lovely article, Catherine. Those of us who are fortunate enough to visit other countries can learn so much of the spirit and courage of those less fortunate than ourselves, The inspiration they give us is their gift to us. Surely we owe them our interest and support.
Anne | 13 September 2010

"Drunk, libidinous and scantily-clad tourists were certainly not what Augustine had in mind..." I wouldn't be so sure of that, actually. Augustine was a hearty lad, as I recall, with an active love life. It might well be that this is exactly what he had in mind, musing in Hippo.
Brian Doyle | 14 September 2010

Wel said, Catherine. People who refuse to engage, and who set up a wall between themselves and the societies they visit, are missing out on a rich experience. I am surprised that Brazil, host to the appallingly pornographic mardi gras spectacle every year, should be among the objectors, however.
Peter Downie | 16 September 2010

Well written Catherine - A true traveller is one who begins his travel with respect and end it with dignity.
JRN | 10 February 2011


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