Right: to begin with, go and see The Inbetweeners 2. It prompted me to gather a load of things I was already thinking and write this, and more importantly, it’s really, really, really funny. If you’re not convinced that a sequel will be any good, nor was I, and nor were the cast until they saw the script. I’d go as far as saying that The Inbetweeners 2 is an important film. It should make us think about the way we, as young, educated people, travel, and the way we present ourselves to others. It won’t, but it should do.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll know that it takes place in Australia, where Jay is having a ‘mental gap year’. Most of the gang is keen to go to a water park called Splash Planet, but Will wants to ‘travel properly’, by which he means staying in hostels, meeting other travellers, and doing whatever adventure activities a holiday rep he fancies is promoting. Oh, and she’s part of a group of posh backpackers who’ve already travelled halfway round the world. See where this is going?
When Will comes to realise just how stuck-up and pretentious the backpackers are, and he delivers an absolute bodybag of a speech about it during what is supposedly an aboriginal ceremony. What was wonderful about the film for me was how true to life it was, even if it represented everybody who’s been on a gap year or travelled outside of Europe as pompous and irritating. And whilst I came to despise the film’s antagonists, having travelled around China last summer with no knowledge of Mandarin, I also identified with them.
It’s a strange contradiction that in the world we live in, travelling seems to fulfil a psychological need. It’s about more than just relaxing, or learning: it can also make one stand out and give them something to show off. In some cases, it allows people to behave in ways that they can’t get away with at home, whether it’s simply because the beer is cheaper, or something more sinister like ‘tiger temples’ where you can pet a heavily-sedated tiger for the right price. Agencies like STA travel make it far easier than it has ever been to book round-the-world trips or adventure holidays to places that a few decades ago were the realm of adventure stories.
The problem is that this all feeds into a sort of ‘experience industry’ that comprehends voluntourism, homestays and all manner of indigenous ‘experiences’. On the one hand, it can be profitable for both groups: when I ate home-cooked food in China, we provided a source of income to people living in an isolated rural area, and they cooked food for us that was restaurant-standard if not better. The problem, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily give a proper insight into local ways of life. There was a very good article that did the rounds on Facebook recently about the problems of assuming that voluntourism gives back:
Moreover, making tourism a main industry can alter the local ways of life- not necessarily by erasing old customs, but by restoring or maintaining them when they are really no longer needed. Watching a trained cormorant with string around its neck catch fish is fascinating; finding out that nowadays, there are far more efficient methods of catching fish and the birds are made to do it for the amusement of visitors is depressing. A lot of people are genuinely fascinated by foreign cultures, of course, but the best way to get an insight is to stay somewhere for an extended period of time; not by tacking extras onto an adventure holiday, something satirised in The Inbetweeners 2, in which the words ‘authentic’ and, ironically, ‘ethical’ are thrown around like designer labels.
Of course, it’s bordering on racism to say that there a ‘natural’ way for people in a given country or area to behave: what’s natural is to make money, and if that means lugging cans upon cans of pop (and, for some reason, champagne) onto the Great Wall of China to sell, or putting on traditional dress that is really only meant for special occasions or considered old-fashioned and a bit cringeworthy to sell photos to travellers, then people are going to do that- but it’s not necessarily a good thing. Not that that this kind of mercantilisation of local customs is restricted to developing countries- anyone who has been to Edinburgh will have seen pipers standing outside it in kilts (an English invention), and it’s unlikely that anyone takes away the idea that Scots dress that way all the time.
I’ll admit, I’m as prone to a rather superficial desire to “experience indigenous cultures” as anyone else, and more than some; I’ll never forget the Chinese teenage boy who was probably on holiday himself and posed next to me for a photo whilst I was having a Tai Chi lesson. And one of the things I’ve learnt, partly by travelling, but mainly by talking to foreign students in the UK, is that it’s that the desire to experience something new and unique is not one-way. For every Brit doing a Tai Chi lesson (or Taijiquan, if you really want to try too hard) on the banks of the Li River like me, there are hundreds of Chinese people replacing green tea with coffee, listening to Taylor Swift and Pitbull and joining gyms because doing Tai Chi in public in the morning is, as my friend in Nanjing assures me, only for old people.
In the end, my point is not that people shouldn’t travel; it’s a great joy in life. But we need to understand that it isn’t possible to integrate completely into foreign culture in a few days or weeks; you really have to spend more time there, ideally with a job. Looking for the wilder side of a foreign country doesn’t really make one a better traveller than going to the most obvious places; but it should be its own reward.The best experiences I’ve had abroad have been with in Spain, where I lived for nine months, with a mixture of Spaniards and English-speakers. Not exotic, but when my flatmate left, some of his Spanish friends invited us to a big meal and we all got drunk on home-made schnapps. It was great. So if you’re going backpacking, do be conscientious about where you travel and what you take part in, to avoid supporting the dodgier organisations that are around, and if you know someone in-country, visit them, or at least get their advice on where to go.
Oh, and whatever you do, go see the new Inbetweeners, anddon’t give a Big Mac to a dolphin.