The Unbearable Darkness of Tourism

Out our window I see them — exhausted and disoriented tourists, their rolling luggage clack-clack-clacking on the stone calçadas. They stop at the corner, staring at their phone, then glancing up at the placard on the side of the building that tells them the street name, then back at their phone. They look up and down the street, trying to get their bearings, trying to figure out where their short-term rental apartment or hotel may be located in this labyrinth of narrow roads and passages. Their expressions betray their lack of sleep, or even rest, in the packed airplane on the way here. Crowds of other tourists, mixed with locals, shove past them. They take a deep breath and carry on.

Is this how they imagined their vacation?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen vacationing couples arguing about where to turn, where to eat, what to do next. I’ve seen cranky toddlers, bored and anxious after being tethered into their strollers for hours in the hot sun, screaming for relief.

Are they having fun yet?

When we were preparing to move here, a few friends commented on how great it would be for us to be able to “hop on a plane any time” and jet off for the weekend to Paris, London, Rome, Barcelona. We have been admonished that we haven’t done that. In fact, some friends are downright dismayed that, after a year, we haven’t travel outside Portugal*, and have barely left Lisbon.

We don’t feel we have missed out. During the week, we stay low-key at home. Having pretty much given up on television, I’ve managed to burn through books like never before. Still, we manage to get together for dinner out with friends at least once or twice a week. We use our weekends to explore neighborhoods, attend events, visit museums, take long and lazy Sunday lunches in new restaurants. On a couple of occasions, we have rented a car to leave town, to visit different parts of the country.

What if, every weekend, you took a little vacation at or near home?

I love exploring new places, learning things about other cultures, food, history and languages. But other than the deep urge to seek wild, natural environments outside the city, I haven’t felt the wanderlust of exploring all of Europe and beyond. I certainly don’t feel the need to fight my way through an airport, going through the indignity of the security checkpoint, crossing my fingers against potential delays, fighting for overhead stowage, cramming into a claustrophobic seat, suspecting the taxi driver of ripping us off, and hauling luggage up three flights of stairs because the “charming” AirBnB has no elevator.

In an article about the great disappointments of travel, the author reminds us that “The lovely mental pictures that get us to travel are – in essence – hugely edited versions of what we actually encounter in any destination.”

Perhaps that arguing couple was trying to “get away from all it all.” But they brought their dynamic with them, and whatever tensions they felt at home were exacerbated by the stress of travel. And admit it, travel is stressful, no matter what you tell yourself. How often have you arrived home after vacation, exhausted and frayed, and collapsed into your own wonderful, lovely bed?

We ruin our trips by a fateful habit of taking ourselves along on them.

Why go? What is it that you really seek?

We leave the top of the Ascensor da Bica, an impossibly steep hill with a quaint little tram that takes people — pretty much only tourists, since there is never room for actual residents — up and down like an amusement park ride. Crowds gather at the top to take photo — a photo they can find thousands of online.

Tuktuk drivers promise to show the “hidden secrets” of Lisbon, proudly displayed on their laminated tour menus. Many of them aren’t even from here. Here’s the “hidden secret”: there aren’t any. Instagram ensured a stop to that. You’re taken to the same, tired spots as the 20 tourists before you that day. And if it’s really a “gem” that “only locals know,” I assure you…you won’t go there.

What is the mystical, mythical “authentic” experience everyone is in search of? Were you not living authentically at home?

Why go? What is it you seek?

It’s amazing to me how many people go to all the trouble, time and expense of travel, only to spend most of their time on their devices. Texting friends at home. Posting on social media. Reading news from home. Binge-watching movies or television shows they’ve loaded. Have they really left home?

What are you leaving, really?

What are you seeking, really?


Further reading:

Travel is Not the Answer

We’ve constructed an identity of the traveler based on what travel bloggers and social media feeds show us: bikinis, islands, and views from the top of a mountain, when in actuality many full-time travelers struggle to navigate the challenges of life and gain the satisfaction they set out looking for. Satisfaction, it turns out, that can be hacked and brought into daily life, no matter where on the planet you are.


*other than business travel, and one weekend trip to the north of Spain to see friends traveling through

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