February 18, 2008


From an interview with Tyler Cowen:

My colleague and co-blogger Alex Tabarrok makes an interesting point. If you knew your life were much shorter you would travel to those places you always wanted to see. If you knew your life were to be much longer you would have more time to travel; again you would travel more. So, are you trying to tell me that your expected lifespan is just at that length where you shouldn't travel more? I don't buy it.

In case I haven't solidified my weirdo credentials enough on this blog, I will add more fuel to the fire: I don't really like to travel, and I'm not convinced I'd do more of it if my life were shorter or longer.

Maybe I'm just traveled out; I have been a lot of places. Or maybe I don't like the opportunity costs; I seemed just fine with travel when my parents or my college scholarship were footing the bill. I traveled the world on someone else's dime with nary a peep. But now that it's my money where my mouth is, it's suddenly not so important. I am sure that if we ever have kids, it will become more important to us, to help them see the world. It might be worth the cost then. But for now, we are oh-so-content to spend free moments in our own house.

There's no place like home, right?

I've also never been able to let go of something Paul Theroux said, that "travel is an expensive kind of laziness." You take pictures of stuff you know nothing about, just so you can show other people that you've been somewhere cool. And then speak with authority about the place. God, I hate the authority in travelers' voices. Spending the weekend in Venice does not mean you understand Italians or their way of life. I lived with a Swedish family for two and a half months, and all I can really say is that I understand that particular Swedish family. I don't delude myself that I now grok what it is to be Swedish.

I also know that one bad experience (or conversely, one good one) can change the way you feel about an entire country. I hated every aspect about living in France, but I'm self-aware enough to know that I lived a series of unfortunate events that molded my opinion. If I'd lived somewhere else with different people, like my distant relatives, I might view the entire country differently, and I probably would've continued my French career path. My bad experiences in France contributed enormously to who I am today: I discovered anti-Americanism and spent months defending my country to prejudiced Europeans. The irony is that I wouldn't be as American as I am today if I hadn't spent time in other countries, arguing why the United States is not the Great Satan.

The thing about this "expensive kind of laziness" is that travel is emotional while educating yourself is dry. My feelings about France are gut not brain, and quite separate from any knowledge I gained in my ten years of French study. My husband has never been to Iran, but I'd wager he knows more about Iranian history than many Iranians do. Because he reads books and learns facts. Sure, he doesn't have the glossy tourist photos to prove he knows Iran, but ask him about the Iranian Revolution and he starts a hundred years ago with names and dates. That's more valuable than a picture of us smiling in Tehran ever could be.

All in all, I think travel is overrated as a means of learning about the world. If you want to go see some place that you've studied and explored intellectually, I think that's fabulous. The most rewarding trips I took in Europe were to see things I'd studied: my visit to see the Iceman and my quest through the streets of Paris to find where Jean-Paul Marat was killed. But a picture of me in front of the Sphinx is no substitute for reading a book.

And I guess I'd rather read the books in the comfort of my own home than travel somewhere to get the photo taken.

Posted by Sarah at February 18, 2008 10:28 AM | TrackBack

I travel for a different reason: I want to get first hand knowledge of a place. I don't delude myself that I "know" the place after being there. However I think after being on the ground, and walking the streets of a place, you have a far better idea of how well the average person is doing in a certain country than expert economists could glean from statistics. You also can feel the effects of history on the current situation. So, yes, reading a history book may give you a better idea of what happened to a place before you get there, but there is nothing like going there to actual witness first-hand what the results of this was. Traveling to a place is more than taking the tourist pictures (I know many backpackers who never take a camera with them.)
It's about experiencing the culture, talking to locals, trying local foods, reading a local newspaper, watching local news, going to a local sports event.
I agree with you that there are many people who travel with the "been there, done that, got the t-shirt and picture" mentality. But I think you are comparing apples and oranges when you say a picture of you in front of the Sphinx is no substitute for a book. I would say that a picture of me in front of the Eiffel Tower is no substitute for reading about the French resistance, but reading about the French resistance pales in comparison to hearing about it first hand from a former resistance fighter.
I think a soldier who was deployed to Iraq for a year might not know all the history, but he probably has a better feel for the local culture and customs than someone reading a book on Iraqi culture, and he probably has learned some local history that wouldn't be so easily found in history books.

Posted by: CaliValleyGirl at February 18, 2008 11:52 AM

CVG -- I think we disagree on this...but I also think we are discussing two different types of travel. Yes, there are people who go to a place alone, learn the language, eat the food, live the life. I would never talk smack about someone like Rory Stewart. But I think Rory Stewarts are few and far between. Most people travel with their family or in groups, and when they do, it's not the same thing as Rory Stewart's walk across Afghanistan.

For example, I went to Spain with a Canadian and a Mexican. We went to museums and "saw Spain," but all the while we were chatting with each other in English about crap that had nothing to do with Spain. We didn't hang out with and talk to locals or anything "enlightened" like that -- we even ate at McDonalds once -- and mostly we just walked around and took lots of pictures. OK, so I "saw" Spain, but a picture of me on a Spanish beach is the same as a picture of me on a Florida beach. And if I go there with friends or with my husband, then my memories of vacation are of conversations with people that I could've been talking to at home. Rarely are people actually out in the culture, talking to "resistance fighters."

And it's not just about other countries. When we went to D.C., we raced to find the lunar module. I wanted to see the thing I had read about and learned about. But other people think it's worthwhile to go places like Chicago or Myrtle Beach, just to be in places worth talking about. "We walked around shopping and like went to bars and experienced Chicago nightlife, man"...that concept has zero appeal for me whatsoever.

As for Iraq...perhaps. But there are plenty of soldiers who go to Iraq, drive their HETs during the day, play Nintendo and watch DVDs in their cormexes at night, and don't really take the time (or don't really care) to learn about Iraqi people or customs. I would say that there are book-learned people out there who do know more about Iraq than some soldiers do.

Also I disagree that walking around and seeing how people live is more valuable than an economist's perspective. I have in mind a recent website I saw about what people around the globe eat in a week. I might think Ecuador's offerings seem paltry, but only someone with an economist's perspective can know for sure how lifestyle matches earnings, etc. And remember that "poor" Americans live at the standard of living of average Europeans, but I doubt many Europeans would agree that they'd be better off as poor Americans.

But anyway, I'm opinionated about this topic :)

Posted by: Sarah at February 18, 2008 12:46 PM

Also, I need to point out to CVG that you does not have the attitude about travel that I dislike. You lived in both France and Germany for extended periods of time, and you try to approach as close to Rory Stewart-hood in your travels as you can. Your family is super-cosmopolitan, so you're not exactly the Tourist Bumpkin that grates on my nerves.

That said, I still insist that travel to is not a substitute for knowledge of. Rory Stewart (to beat a dead horse) went to Afghanistan to enhance his already-deep knowledge of the country, to grok it in fullness. I think that's what travel should be about. Instead I think many people see it as a checklist, to tick off countries as they visit them so they can feel cultured and intelligent.

Posted by: Sarah at February 18, 2008 01:09 PM

I think I might be coming at this from a different place, too. I love to travel, but my travel is not a week or ten days here or there - it is going to live somewhere else for a year or more.

And part of the reason that I love it is because I no longer feel like anywhere is "home" to me. I don't want to stay anywhere, I don't feel comfortable with the thought that I might live somewhere and never move again. I don't like anywhere enough for that. I think I'm really jaded in that respect.

So, I do lots of reading and researching before and during the time we move somewhere, and then I back that up with actually going to the places we've read about. It brings me so much closer to the things I've read about.

I love meeting all sorts of different people who do and believe and live different sorts of ways. I'm lucky that I meet new people very easily. I love the memories in each and every thing that decorates our house - not just things that I've bought at Sears or far more likely with my taste) World Market. Everything on our walls or on our mantel reminds us of something we've done, or some special time we had somewhere.

And I love the fact that every time I take my kids somewhere, the realize how lucky they are to have what they have, eat what they eat, know what they know, and see what they see.

Some people collect stamps, some people collect guitars, we collect memories. And our moving around and traveling is a big part of creating those memories.

Posted by: airforcewife at February 18, 2008 01:12 PM

I just realized that I almost come off as a jacka$$ in my comment...I need to write nicer...

Anyhoo...when I was writing the thing about the soldiers in Iraq, I was like: man there are some who come back not knowing anything more than hot weather and dust. BUUUUUT, it irks me when some people read articles in the newspaper and think they know more about certain situations in Iraq than someone who has been there and seen things firsthand.

Posted by: CaliValleyGirl at February 18, 2008 02:50 PM

CVG: Crappy AP articles in a paper, forgetaboutit. But Bernard Lewis books, then we might talk.
I mean, my husband checks out the most dense, awful books on Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran out of the library -- stuff I wouldn't even want to read if you paid me -- and synthesizes all of it. He and his other buddy in his class were gently correcting an Iranian teacher on his Persian history.
Shoot, I also bet Joern knows more about the Civil War than I do... :)

Posted by: Sarah at February 18, 2008 03:12 PM

I don't really agree with you in regards to myself, but I can see your point. We spent 12 days in Hawaii last November and only for about two hours were we at the beach when we found Turtle Beach, checked out the turtles and then watched the sunset. We hiked, kayaked, ate, hiked some more, and visited the memorials. We also attended a Veteran's Day ceremony at Punchbowl. Not exactly a tourist attraction, but a ceremony I wouldn't have missed for the world.

I am fascinated with WWII history and have recetly started researching Vietnam. The Veterans at Hale Koa were a wealth of information and loved sharing their stories. My husband and I were in heaven.

We do have children, and we try to expose them to so many cultural things as well as travel. Granted my kids chose Washington DC over Disneyworld so they might not be "typical" kids. They might not remember that we went up in the Washington Monument other than for the pictures, but they were amazed that Washington wasn't buried there and then wanted to find out and visit where he was. Hopefully it will all have some effect on them down the road.

I'm glad you know what you enjoy though, as there is no sense in partaking in something just because it is considered the "norm".

Posted by: Army Blogger Wife at February 18, 2008 08:28 PM

I don't like to travel much either. I find it to be a big headache and I always feel out of place anyway. All this moving around with the Army is bad enough, haha, who needs travel on top of that? :)

Posted by: Kasey at February 18, 2008 10:19 PM