– Loz K plumbs the dark and desperate depths of travel journalism
I was walking home one sunny afternoon, deep in the following thought:
There are two armies, each with 100 soldiers. All of the soldiers are armed equally and are of equal skill and strength. The battle begins and for every soldier killed on one side, a soldier is killed on the other until only two combatants remain – soldier x and soldier y. If there was a total of 200 soldiers to begin with and soldier x and soldier y both have a 50% chance of defeating the other, how long in minutes until the victorious soldier commits suicide?
Since I was educated in Nottingham, a city where multiplication was illegal until 1995, I was having trouble working out the answer in my head. Distracted, I stepped out into a road just as a wasp somehow managed to fly behind my sunglasses. It was trapped and became angry, a natural reaction for a creature with limited capacity for abstract reasoning. Trapped between a cheap convexity of crappy plastic polymer, probably CR-39, and my lovely smooth, refractive ocular surface. Bad things were about to happen.
The wasp stung me in the eye three times. Let me be clear: it didn’t sting my eyelid; it didn’t sting near my eye; it stung me in the eyeball – the wet bit that I see out of. It really, really, really, really hurt. I instinctively tried to swat the wasp, but being protected behind my glasses I could only punch myself in the face. I was blind and the pain was making me nauseous. I clawed at the glasses, but panic had turned my motor skills into dog slurry and I couldn’t get them off. I just kept punching myself in the face, largely because I didn’t know what else to do.
The wasp stung me two more times. I dropped to my knees and vomited in the middle of the road. This bought an unexpected calm to the scene and I slowly lifted my shaking hands to my face and carefully removed the glasses. The wasp flew away and after a moment, I got to my feet, tears streaming down my face and circular patches of vomit on my knees.
As a product of the 80s, that grim era of Thatcher Britain, back when Mummy was a microwave and Daddy was a television, my first thought was – who should I address my letter of complaint to? Everything is somebody’s fault. “Shit” doesn’t just “happen”. Not now, anyway. Maybe in the old days, but not now that we have organic supermarkets and YouTube comments. User feedback. The local government probably has someone for this. Someone whose job it is to be responsible for stuff that occurs. Yes. An Accountability Clerk, or something like that.
The pain didn’t subside, but I began to accept it and it dawned on me that there would be no Accountability Clerk, because that would be stupid.
Everything is for sale. We are a race bred as consumers; the Chosen Ones, selected by a higher power to buy now and pay later. The roots of capitalism run so deep that simply continuing to exist has become a heavy investment that will never cash out.
Education is a product. Healthcare is a product. War is a product. Poverty is a product. Information is a product. Death is a product. It’s hard to even conceive of a notion that cannot be thought of as a commodity.
As a total arsehole I once met said to me: an idea today is a product tomorrow. Your very thoughts are reduced to the crude parameters of a potential sale.
With all this talk of excess inventory, you would think we lived in an age of prosperity, but of course, the opposite is true. Everyone wants to sell and there is too much crap in the world that no-one will ever buy. And when no-one wants to buy, the benign tumor of inventory goes malignant.
Nevertheless, we are all engaged in implied legal contracts with our vendors. This is business and with great deals comes great responsibility. Certain standards must be met and I know my rights as a consumer!
Which is why I have always struggled in the travel writing game, I think. I always imagined that travel journalism would be fun; a natural progression of words, recounting strange tales of strange lands, freedom of the pen, like the freedom of the open road.
But it isn’t.
Travel journalism is business. Double-loop marketing. A publication must cater to an audience (unless the subject of said publication is fashion or music, in which case it will dictate to an audience) to sell their word product. Mind share – wallet share. The fattest bullseye of today’s travel market is the Objective Based World Plunderer.
The Objective Based World Plunderer takes many forms – gap year students, people who work in “media” or “marketing”, recent divorcees – all ideal consumers. All driven by fear and loneliness into extreme measures to appear more interesting to other people and justify their own existence.
The Objective Based World Plunderer doesn’t take any shit. They are too desperate for that. They aren’t along for the ride either. They are here for the bucket list. The game is to get from A to B in the shortest time possible. And they don’t want to see anything that isn’t featured in their copy of Lonely Planet along the way. Or eat any food that might make them poo too much. Or to see any brown people. And definitely no poor people. Just This Year’s Hottest Destination and a selfie, or worse: a fucking jumping photo.
The Objective Based World Plunderer doesn’t look to travel journalists for ideas or adventure, they want information. A step by step guide, a destination spotlight or the contemporary journalist’s ultimate weapon of moderate destruction: a top 10 list.
Instructions – concise, accurate, effective.
And that just isn’t me.
My second thought as my left eye began to swell to the size of a blue-faced honeyeater, was that I must look totally mental. No bystander could have possibly seen the wasp. They would have just seen a guy punching himself in the face, before collapsing, vomiting and crying in the middle of a road, for no apparent reason.
Which leaves us with a convenient metaphor for travel journalism: repeatedly punching yourself in the face, before collapsing in a pool of your own vomit and tears.
So I picked myself up to continue the walk home. I glanced around to see how many people I had humiliated myself in front of and to my relief, there was no one around to see what had just happened. Which again, is much like travel writing.