Travel and its opposites

If, as we’re told, the point of exotic travel is to ‘create memories’, and if, as I would insist, our memories consist fundamentally of good stories, and if what makes a good story is some element of unexpectedness, it follows that the point of travelling is to be surprised.

Jonathon Franzen, from the essay Postcards from East Africa, in The End of the End of the Earth pg 181

In 2010 I was staying in the seaside village of Taganga, Colombia when I realised that my cash supply was running dangerously low and I would need to travel to the nearby town of Santa Marta to withdraw more. I passed over the last of my coins to the bus driver for the short trip and was soon wandering through the outskirts of the town. Finally locating a cash machine, I discovered that my bank card had been blocked due to a recent online purchase. Without any backups (lesson learned), or mobile phone, I was reliant on my own ‘smarts’ to dig myself out of the mess. Faintly recalling the details of a nearby hostel, I navigated my way and promptly asked to make use of the wifi. Connected, with a thick Aussie accent filling the headphones I was dismayed to realise that the microphone didn’t work.

A last resort, I asked if I could borrow some cash to call from a local payphone. To which the attendant replied that they would need to check with the manager. Shortly the manager arrived and… ‘Evan?!’. The manager, it turned out, was a Californian I had studied with in Sydney back in 2005, both of us as exchange students. He, of course, happily lent me the money and within 30 minutes I’d spoken with the bank, had the hold on my card lifted, withdrawn cash and returned the borrowed money with a wild sense of wonder at the smallness of the world.

My eleven year old memory emphasises that travel is not manufactured experience, as rampant tourism and the plethora of City Guides might have us believe. Real adventure exposes you to the elements, to learn something surprising about a new place, or possibly even yourself. Conversely, a form of overly planned travel that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years is one that serves an entirely different purpose – one of rest. Both are totally valid, and necessary, in balance. And both are a privilege, though neither require travelling far from home to experience.


Reverie in l’Orangerie

Monet’s Water Lilies are one of very few works of art that have physically overwhelmed me on viewing. The life-sized canvases are entirely mesmerising, ‘no sky, no horizon, hardly any perspective or stable points of reference enabling the viewer to orient himself…’.

The first room in 1930 © Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet, via the Museum

The intimacy is heightened further by their 360 degree installation in the two sequential oval rooms of Musée de l’Orangerie. On entering the second room, we found ourselves entirely alone – due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. The deserted room was an unexpected gift and truer to the artist’s original intent for the viewer:

Those with nerves exhausted by work would relax there, following the restful example of those still waters, and, to whoever entered it, the room would provide a refuge of peaceful meditation in the middle of a flowering aquarium.

Claude Monet, 1909


No Logo, by Naomi Klein

I was re-shelving returns during my first shift at the library, earlier in the year, when a particular dewey decimal code led me to the location of Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Feeling compelled, I duly swapped one book for another.

It’s been twenty years since this book was first published, so it doesn’t shock in the way I imagine it once did. Yet its basic tenets are still relevant – the rise of corporate branding since the 80s has seen the hijacking of the public domain, co-optation of culture and community, the duplicity of ‘choice’ as conglomerates dominate, and the outsourcing of employment and along with it risk, responsibility and rights – no space, no choice, no jobs.

In response to the book, The Economist titled its September 8th, 2001, issue ‘Pro Logo: Why brands are good for you’ and ran its lead story ‘Who’s wearing the trousers?’. As its title suggests, the article argues that in our increasingly competitive brandscape consumers hold the power, “Brands fall from grace and newer, nimbler ones replace them”.

While it is true that we ‘vote’ through our purchases, it can be difficult to align our ‘vote’ with our values, without the full picture. ‘Brand’ is always an edited narrative, which can be as much about concealment as it is about articulation. From the context of lockdown, it has been a relief to escape the noise. In the Brave New World we have the opportunity to rebuild when we emerge, I would hope for two things:

  • greater respect for physical spaces in the public domain, where educational institutions, parks, public transport and infrastructure would remain free of advertising or product placement
  • consumer demand for transparency ensures that only ethical brands survive