Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Does travel make the world bigger or smaller?

When I was a child in the Netherlands the world was huge. This was not only because I was small, but also because in that time and place travel was out of the reach of most ordinary people. 

This was the world view of a 10 year old child, in love with maps and stories, in 1953. It all changed within a decade. 

The colonial times, when people went back and forth between Holland and what had been the Dutch East Indies, were over. Emigrants to  Canada or Australia still went by boat and did not expect to see their loved ones in the old country any time soon. They certainly did not anticipate the almost-yearly visits back and forth we enjoyed later, made possible by affordable air travel and my mother's renewed career.

Back then vacations for most families meant a few weeks either at the Dutch coast or in one of the wooded areas in the Eastern half of the country. We were a beach family.  I always pitied the poor kids whose parents thought walks in the woods could hold a candle to the joys of sea, sand, and tides.

I imagined the regions in the interior and Southern provinces as fairy tale places where wolves and wood cutters would not be out of place. I pictured woods and small mixed farms with thatched roofs interspersed with endless moors where the heather was always purple. Children don't worry about economic realities. Classes in geography, my favourite subject apart from history, emphasised the things that made each region unique,  thus reinforcing the stereotypes. 

When I saw the places in question during bicycle/youth hostel trips in my teens I was disappointed by how ordinary they looked. The maps had shown yellow for sandy soil, but the land was just boring green. These intriguing places were never more than a few hours by car away from our home in Amsterdam. But few people owned cars and our family all lived in the West.

Travel outside the country was reserved for the more upper classes or the very adventurous. Not necessarily the super-rich, let's say the top 20%, or whatever percentage holds professionals like engineers and doctors.
The most likely destination for such a family in the early fifties would be the Alps or France. Maybe Italy, certainly not Spain. Spain, under the dictatorship of Franco, was already in the realm of the exotic. They used to say that Africa started behind the Pyrenees and back then it was true. 

These days places that used to be reserved for serious adventurers offer package tours. Tourists go to Thailand for a sunny beach. There is a line-up for climbing Mount Everest.

And I wonder: is the world larger, because more people have access to more of it? Or has it shrunk, because all of it is at most a few days away? I believe it is the latter. 

In the times to come, what with peak oil, climate weirding and economic collapse, travel may once again become the luxury it used to be. We may have to think twice before hopping into the car. If we are not rich, we may have to stay home, save up for a bus ticket, or use our bodies to get from here to there on foot or bicycle. 

One side effect may be that regional differences will loom larger, in a nice way. These days people from Nakusp casually hop across the Monashee mountains to the Okanagan towns for a day of shopping. It takes between 3 and 4 hours. Now imagine having to save up for the bus trip, or spend 2 long days of grueling cycling to get there. The Okanagan with its ponderosa pines and vineyards would feel like an exotic country instead of just the valley next door.

Also, let's not forget arm chair travel. I am with Bill McKibben on that one: we have to dial consumption way down, but we get to keep the internet! 

When it comes to travel, perhaps less can be more.

1 comment:

troutbirder said...

I do love to travel but then the more I see of the world the more I appreciate home here in our little woods....:)