I love photographs. Though one thing I notice about long-term travel is that taking photographs becomes less common and the subjects frequently become more obscure. What were once unique are now variations in a repeating theme. I realised this recently whilst observing some tourists photographing buildings and a fountain in a small town. “Why are they taking pictures of that?” I thought. But really, I know I once would have as well, having never seen something apparently so mesmerising before. Or somehow, shamefully, I would deem it necessary to take a picture, as if the moment should really not be forgotten. Now when I pass such things I try to admire them for what they are, if anything, and rarely take a snap. Another reason being my camera is now nestled deeply in my pannier instead of strapped to my back; a consequence of travelling around Morocco that hasn’t worn off yet. And for it to be worthy of the effort of stopping and removing my camera, it must be something worthwhile and ergo, new. I don’t need an endless photo collection of alternate interpretations of the same building.
Alas, I do have an endless photo collection, and for a large portion of them I couldn’t tell you where the pictures were taken, other than the country. Like this one:
On the internet, people often ask me “How are you?” commonly proceeded and sometimes preceded with “Where are you?” The latter is a question which has become increasingly more difficult to answer. It’s not that I don’t care where I am, recklessly and aimlessly cycling around from place to place, it’s just that it doesn’t matter. When I arrive in a town, which is currently several times a day, I have little reason to check the name, itself passing on a metal plate to my right for only a few seconds as I roll by. After a while you realise amazing things happen irrespective of location. It would take something pretty special for me to remember, or willing to remember, the name of a place I’m only stopping at for a few hours, if at all. Perhaps a scenic bridge over a tranquil river, a social interaction or a building out the ordinary might be enough. Or, on occasion, the size alone; or it may even be a goal for the day to reach such a place. Or it could be that all the signs on the road are pointing there, and thus I have the name firmly hammered into my head when I finally arrive.
It can be quite amusing imagining what a place may look like, given only the name on a map or a road sign, and then often being sorely disappointed or shockingly surprised when whatever you have imagined doesn’t match the reality. Of course travelling in Europe, there are plenty of places I have heard of which have been described to me before; and it’s quite fun visiting these places with prior expectations and still having them utterly smashed.
Expectations are everywhere when travelling. They cloud our judgements and feed our fears. They decide if we go to a place or not. On a bicycle the story is somewhat different, because in order to get to a place—any place—you have to go through another on the way. So I find myself visiting places I otherwise, using more typical means of travel, would not bother going to. And I discover more often than not that our preconceptions are more misconceptions than anything. It’s easy to see why when I think about it. When I visited Paris, it was raining. I was cycling for hours, tired, and by bicycle had to cross exactly half the entire city to reach the centre, or about twenty-five kilometres of urban greyness. Did I like Paris? Not really. Will I recommend Paris to anyone in future? Probably not. But if I had flown in, and was driven to my five-star hotel by a fluent-in-English Frenchman in a limousine, and it was sunny, I might have had a different opinion. Even though I’m conscious that a continually rainy Paris is quite unlikely, it still affected my impression of it. For the record, I’m also fairly sure a fluent-in-English Frenchman or myself being in a limousine are quite unlikely too.
Such things as the weather can really make or break people’s opinions of a place when visiting for the first time. And that’s important because we usually ask other people about a place to help us decide if we would like to go too. Other factors play significant roles in shaping our opinions too—the people you meet and interact with I find is the next most prevalent. Spoke to a couple of rude locals? Probably didn’t like it. Felt lonely? Probably didn’t like it. Or on the other hand, it could be there were too many people. If you head to the mountains to be alone, and find the photograph you saw of lush green forest with a backdrop of snowy peaks is actually a car park brimming full of people, you would probably be disappointed too. Especially when they start asking you to take their pictures. And thus our preconceptions are shaped by various things; a main one being the subjective opinions of people who have previously been there. Another, a dubious photograph.
Our preconceptions of a place however, especially if we have not met anyone who has been there, will likely already be skewed, warped, spat out and destroyed by television and press. Other than perhaps where you were born on this planet, I believe there is no bigger hindrance to travel and all the enjoyment, adventure and insight that it can provide, than the mainstream media. This is especially true when mass media is referring to whole countries. The cumulative effects of writers wanting a good story, editors wanting to sell papers and news channels getting viewers—to serve their own selfish interests; namely, making money—is all to the detriment to the would-be traveller. It keeps a lot of us locked up in a hole. So that when we do escape the rat race it’s for two weeks in a confinement abroad, but not abroad. Do yourself a favour and remove it from your life. There is myriad information out there and we are subjecting ourselves most often to the type that doesn’t have our best interests at heart. In all my days I don’t think the mainstream media ever gave me any news actually worth receiving.
Another obvious deterrent to travel is government websites which give travel advice. Somewhat contradictory to actual advice, in order to cover their backs they push up the risk level to the highest they can get away with. Thus if you check the British government’s website, commonly visited countries have a “High or General Threat Of Terrorism.” Whether you perceive this as an actual danger, will depend on A: whether you, or anyone you have met has been there, B: how much mainstream media you have previously swallowed, and C: how much you have hitherto travelled. Want to visit France? Germany? Spain? The beach in your own country? Forget it. According to the government, you may as well stay inside your home for the rest of your life.
Though just as dangerous a preconception, and more worrying for the future, is the coverage of travel on the now uneven playing field of the internet. As the travel writers of the world grow in number and in skill, it seems many have the same selfish desires as the mainstream media to an effect: making money. It only recently dawned on me, through (mistakenly) partaking in some such activities, that people go out their way to artificially grow audiences on Facebook and Instagram, or worse, pay people to follow them. Why on earth would anyone pay for “likes?”
There are groups on Facebook (like “Instagram Posse” and “Blogging Network” for example) who like and comment on each other’s Instagram photos in the hundreds to boost their rankings in searches and feeds. There are two results of this: more fake followers (from the posses), but in turn, more real followers. Because social proof is a big motivating factor, if seemingly 10,000 (fake) people like a page, it must be good, so I’ll like it too. They know in the end that more visibility means more followers means more money and more freebies. What better proof could you have but to show a company the thousands of people that “view” your content, and say “Look at my profile, if you let me stay at your hotel for free I’ll take lots of pictures and you’ll get great exposure…” It works.
Thankfully, there is a way to check some of the fakers. If you find the number of likes on an account on Instagram and the number of likes on a picture from that account is massively disproportionate, something probably isn’t right. And further to prove this point, a friend of mine recently conducted an experiment whereby doing none other than take pictures on his phone and gain fake followers on Instagram for free, was sent several items, including an expensive watch, for free, and in only a few weeks working only a few minutes a day.
And so what’s the price of a photograph? A good photo, can actually make the difference between staying in a five star hotel for free, or returning home to mum and dad. It can make places look better than they actually are. It can sell papers. It can sell holidays. And it can leave millions of people disappointed.
Also, please don’t stop asking me “Where are you?”—I actually like checking once in a while 🙂