Saturday, 8 March 2008

Real versus ersatz experience

An article in the Daily Telegraph asks whether tourists on organised tours are missing the real experience of the places they visit.

The answer has to be yet. Tourists are taken to an 'approved' mall. They miss the 'touts' and 'gypsies' - that is, people who are not approved of by the cruise line.
They miss the street markets. They get a slice of life served up in 45 minutes. They see the city through the windows of a coach.

They see India without poverty.

And there seems to be a slight paranoia encouraged by the cruise line. All the locals are seen as scroungers, touts, thieves. No matter that in fact, like my friendly old ladies in St Petersburg and my beer drinking train driver friends in Milan,  they just want to practise their English and get a feel for the world outside their own boundaries.

So the answer to the question posed in the article header is obviously; yes, you are travelling in a vaccuum. You're letting someone else's views determine your own experience.

Now obviously as a provider of audio tours, I'm in some way imposing my own views  on whoever is taking the tour. I've been subjective in deciding what to see, what to omit; how long to spend on a particular church or artwork; what to say about it.

On one level I embrace that subjectivity. My tours are about art and architecture, about deepening your experience of art, about history, about finding a direct relationship with the past through eyewitness accounts of past events. If you're after a quick tour of clubs in Bangkok, Podtours is not the right medium.

I've just taken on someone to write tours of the WWI and WWII battlefields. And I've done that because he has the same values - he's not a tank buff or a battle statistics nerd, but someone who cares deeply about the real human beings who fought in Flanders fields. And I'm sure his tours will do the same.

On another level, I'm deeply suspicious about the way audio tours can try to replace the reality that you ought to be experiencing for yourself. I don't generally use sound effects - because the audio ought to supplement what you're seeing, not replace it. I like the Independent's travel podcasts a lot, and they use plenty of sounds from a Marrakech souk to traffic noise in Marseille - but  they do something different; they try to bring a place alive when you're not there.

Ultimately, if someone is moved nearly to tears by Caravaggio's martyrdom of St Peter, or experiences a little nirvana looking at the geometry and purity of the Pisa Baptistery, and they turn the audio tour off to explore those feelings on their own - I'm pleased.

Because ultimately, the only real travel is the travel you do alone. The travel you do in your mind. All an audio tour can do is help.

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