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Sentimental journey: when travel wasn't tourism

The summer holiday months are upon us, yet I am still in the middle of an extenuated spring-cleaning phase, which started months ago when the world went into lockdown. Since then, I have thoroughly cleaned out of my drawers and closets, tossed away kilos of paperwork, clothing, expired vitamins, and even forgotten sticks of gum wedged into places they shouldn’t have been.

Now I am digitizing old photos and let me just say it’s a time-consuming feat taking pictures of pictures! The plus side is the process gives me ample time to chew on things, such as the nature of change, and especially how much technology changes, leaving humanity stumbling in its wake. My digital camera (which has been gathering dust for years) once seemed futuristic, but now it’s so passé.

Revisiting old photographs has struck me in two major ways. First, I can’t help waxing nostalgic about certain memories from my analogue life—like when 4 pictures (from a roll of 36) turned out. That wasn’t great, but the delicious sense of anticipation waiting for something to happen (in this case, the film to be developed) was. While the final product often led to disappointment (overexposed images), delight (some turned out), self-consciousness (do I really look like that?!), and joy, the process taught me the art of waiting and wondering, letting my imagination fill in the blanks. Now we are used to instant results and seeing manicured, perfected images nonstop. But what makes the world interesting (to me, at least) are its rough edges.

Second, I can’t believe how quiet the streets were before mass tourism plagued the globe. Travel is a rite of passage for the young and it was no different in my day, though in the 1990s cheap travel meant taking slow-moving buses and trains. It took more planning, cunning, sweat, and certainly time and dinero getting from A to B. But now due to low-cost flights, which have enabled hypermobility and a sense of entitlement to it, tourism has mushroomed. From 25 million international arrivals in 1950 and to 1.3 billion in 2017, according to the UN's World Tourism Organization.

There’s no single cause for mass tourism, though the planet’s current population is unprecedented in size, and increasing numbers have the means to travel. Travel has become a disturbing sign of the times and our incessant call for fast results and new options. Just like our ability to manipulate images and remove whatever we deem less than optimal, travel has become a feat of managing unknowns and seeking specific results. More a product than an experience. This is why selfie-filled day trips are more popular than lengthy pilgrimages seeking connection.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Prague, where I lived and worked in 1991. At the time, the city was a poor, undiscovered gem just emerging from bleak communist rule. Few people spoke English, so I walked everywhere with my bulky bilingual dictionary, continually getting lost in its fairytale streets. One day in a secluded square, I discovered the John Lennon Wall, a tribute to the artist, who symbolized the political freedom young Czechs yearned for. There was a large etching of John Lennon wearing NHS glasses in black paint, plus a few other drawings (*black and white photo above) at the foot of the wall. But not much else. It was a simple statement, not the phenomenon it would become later. Today, every centimeter is tagged in multicolored paint, including hearts and peace signs, with musicians busking underneath. The police regularly monitor it to make sure the artistic portion is not defaced.

Of course, nothing ever stays the same, that’s what makes life interesting. But the wall isn’t about Prague anymore, nor its history. What you see are generalized sentiments that could be found in any major capital and an obvious photo opportunity. Like those padlocks stuck on nearly every bridge, individual yet cliched tokens of love. When everyone does it, it loses meaning. When everyone goes there, it also becomes a cliché. To find something truly original, you have to search longer and trust because at its best, travel is a gamble.

I am not writing this to say, “It’s too late. Everywhere’s a tourist trap,” because it’s not true. Just most places worth visiting haven’t been documented a million times. I would instead encourage people to consider what they are looking for when they travel. For me, it’s about experiencing wonder and awe, seeking the unfamiliar and witnessing the fascinating diversity that exists on this planet. It's about surrendering my ideas of the world and growing into new ones. Looking back on old photos, it’s clear I got lucky to see the world before it was trampled by mass tourism—and I’d love for others to experience the same highs.

You just have to make the effort and ignore the well-beaten path.

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