Scary stories from a lovely place
Lately Stephen and I have been watching Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s ‘The Long Way’ series.
In ‘The Long Way Round’ they ride heavy as sin BMW motorbikes from London to New York, through Europe, China, Mongolia, Russia, Canada and the US. It was such a success they decided to do it again, still on the heavy bikes, this time from Scotland to Cape Town, through Europe and Africa. This expedition is named, you got it, ‘The Long Way Down’. Stephen is pretty wildly in love with motorbikes at the moment (at least it’s not cars right?) and so he enjoys all the bike action.
I must admit though, it’s all pretty entertaining. Amazing scenery, funny, petty arguments, hardcore camping (at times), skin scraping crashes and of course victory of man over obstacle. I’m no robot, I got misty eyed when they crossed the bridge and arrived in New York with Lady Liberty watching from her island. But there’s also something pretty wrong about the whole thing.
My main beef is with the pernicious imperialistic overtones of the trip. The ‘adventure journey in a foreign land’ motif is laid on pretty thick. In fact it would be laughable, if it wasn’t damaging, how cliched their experiences and interactions with the local people and landscape are. It particularly grates me in ‘The Long Way Down’. Charley And Ewan (and their sizeable support team) travel through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and finally South Africa, exploring, purveying, discovering and laughing all the way down. They see cool animals and spectacular desert sunsets. Their hearts are wrenched by poverty and history. They test the clockwise/anticlockwise spinning of water at the Equator. They even have dinner with President Paul Kagame, the spoiler or saviour of Rwanda, depending on who you ask.
The whole trip is marked by imperialistic cliches. They visit locals in their stick and mud huts, marveling at how wonderfully simple their lives are. They ask almost every black man they meet how many wives he has. They shake their skinny booty with voluptuous black women. They jump left and right of the equator in Kenya (“how is it there in the northern hemisphere Charley?” “Oh it’s okay Ewan, but I might come and join you in the southern hemisphere.”) They watch elephants and gorillas from close proximity. They arrive at campgrounds lit by Survivor-style bamboo torches and eat rustic, but lavish, meals prepared by chef-hat-donned locals. They cuddle a lot of smiling black children. They give you the impression that by visiting a poor village and chatting awkwardly with the locals they are making a difference, just by virtue of being from the West. They bemoan the inefficiency and poverty of border crossings. They say things like “I love the way they live, it’s so simple! I wish my life was more like this”, all the while knowing full well they are going home to a townhouse with stainless steel kitchen appliances. And I think worst of all, the trip is rounded off with this – “I truly found myself in Africa” – as they board the plane to go back to their normal lives.
A fair chunk of the West’s travel industry seems to be about pursuing this kind of trip. Along with a drunken tour of German breweries and Thai beaches any aspiring young traveler should hope for a ‘mercy mission’ style adventure to see the simple and bizarre lives of people different to themselves. This patronises and commodifies the very normal, for them, lives and lifestyles of people living in these usually very poor countries. Indeed Charley and Ewan’s round and down trips are sponsored by exactly this kind of travel company.
This style of travel is similar to the imperisalistic journeys of the British or American or Spanish or French colonisers of the previous centuries – it’s just dressed up differently. Now instead of racing to carve out lines on a map or gain control of resources and industries, it’s about mapping the individual’s soul and taking whatever experience, souvenir or photograph from the locals. These countries actually need much, much more than this from the tourists and the rich countries they are from. It’s a high price to pay for a cool story to tell, a cute photograph to show or an enriched understanding of yourself brought about by a finite experience.