by Simon Parker, The Telegraph, June 7, 2018
On each of my four visits to Paris I’ve struggled to find the place remotely romantic. Instead, “the city of love” has always struck me as something of an overpriced, surly and sprawling mess. Undeniably picturesque, in parts, but worth the hype? From my personal experience, no – a few tacky red roses or heart-shaped chocolates won’t pull the wool over my eyes.
Equally, the month I spent driving 2,500 miles through India, from the Himalayas to Kerala, didn’t result in a “spiritual” awakening, as almost every guidebook lazily predicts, but an unfathomably chaotic journey, forever illustrated in my memory with piles of stinking human filth and the rotting carcases of dead dogs. On the flipside, “unfriendly Sydney” has only ever been good to me, and I didn’t find New Yorkers to be remotely rude.
The point is that travel stereotypes and generalisations are now used as flippantly as hashtags, and if we’re not careful, we’ll drift worryingly deeper into regurgitated flimflam. Our perception of the planet, and the countries and societies within, won’t be shaped and reshaped by our on-going, individual experiences, but remain typecast in response of our shared fear of bucking the trend. We risk cultural appropriation on an epic scale.
I started pondering this thought a fortnight ago, following the seething consternation from some friends and readers that I dared to have a different opinion on the subject of children in pubs. It was a topic that certainly hit a nerve, but it got me thinking about how going against the grain, especially when it comes to travel and destinations, almost always raises eyebrows. Why are we so scared to just tell it how we see it? We are all individuals, after all – and short of barefaced bigotry, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
A constantly shifting narrative as complex and diverse as Planet Earth deserves a continuous rewrite, based on each of our seven billion, equally valid perspectives. In the modern echo chamber of social media, however, I fear our pack mentality is now very much the norm – egging us on to recycle the same generic dross. Furthermore, government funded tourist boards have got their carefully constructed brands on tight lockdown, like chief whips. In the past 12 months I’ve received dressings down from two, for seeing their destinations through a pair of my not so rose-tinted glasses.
We live in a deceitful era in which our newsfeeds have been corrupted by algorithms – serving up more of what we like, and less of what we don’t. This sees our opinions challenged on fewer and fewer occasions. Equally, most of us only ever read the same newspaper or watch the same television news bulletin – is it any wonder that our ideas of the world are becoming homogenised, perpetuated with lackadaisical platitudes. Hopefully as travel writers we can do our part, but I think we’d all confess to veering into cliché at one point or another.
Despite their critics, I found last year’s The Ganges with Sue Perkins, and the BBC’s latest celeb-fronted travelogue, Frankie Goes to Russia, with Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, brilliantly blunt and candid. Having previously travelled in, and reported from, both countries, I thought the presenters provided refreshingly unpolished, warts and all analysis. As Perkins pointed out, there is a lot of visible human excrement in India, but that doesn’t detract from it being an unbelievable place to visit, meanwhile Boyle found there to be some hooliganism in Russia – but sensationalist (mostly) red top generalisations appear to be way off the mark.
I think that sometimes we forget that it’s OK to think differently about a place or subject – be that positive or negative. If you thought Los Angeles was a pretentions, smoggy dump – amazing. I’d certainly find that significantly more interesting and insightful than listening to you reel off a bunch of hackneyed La La Land banalities.
We should be searching for a collective truth and tell it how it is, rather than simply going with the flow. As tourists that dialogue will, in my opinion, serve to make travelling a richer and significantly more genuine experience – and in our glossy, airbrushed modern age there’s certainly a growing appetite for authenticity.