Talking point – Where do we go from here?

Talking point – Where do we go from here?



(This article was written a few years ago so it’s not about the world’s most over-rated subject “Covid”. I’ve updated it but it’s perhaps a little on the long side, for my understanding these days is that people don’t read much anymore. Perhaps our recently discovered lockdown status will give us more time to do this.)

Not long ago I checked into the Imperial in New Delhi, one of India’s top hotels, and found the following card on the bedroom desk:

Dear Guest

We Care For You

Before you go to sleep we would like to remind you of a few important things…

Did you take your medicines?
Did you put on an alarm?
Did you call home?
Did you schedule your appointments for tomorrow?
Are your clothes ready for tomorrow?
Did you get your shoes polished?
Did you change the currency required?

Did you confirm your flight/book your car?
Did you lock up your valuables and passports?
Did you send a postcard home?
Did you respond to your emails?

Initially, this card made no impression, but later as I showered, settled in, it started to rankle me. I began to see it as insulting. Did the hotel believe that its guests were no longer capable of thinking such basic items out for themselves? I’m no youngster, but I’d like to have faith in my mental acuity that I can work these suggestions out myself for at least another decade.

Then I began to look at it from the hotel’s perspective. Something had motivated them into feeling that assistance of this nature was necessary. There had to be something more to it than mere politeness, or an ingratiating need to appear nice to the customer. And then I realized the hotel was simply pre-empting future problems. The management must have experienced irate customers who had taken umbrage over not having been reminded of some of these basic listed points, a shifting of responsibility for their own mistake over to the hotel. Later, I spoke to the front desk manager, I questioned him about the need for such a card in the room, and he confirmed that they
were there for a good reason. They were tired of the number of disgruntled guests upset by the hotel’s inability to take responsibility for matters such as those listed on the room card. As we parted I jokingly stated that it might be a valuable addition to remind guests of the need for their daily bowel movement, but his impassive, slightly stern face suggested I shouldn’t press the point.

But really, is this a joking matter? And what does it say about the needs of today’s traveller? Are room cards and other pathetic assistances such as this good for us? Doesn’t the fact that we so readily buy into it and allow today’s unusual to become tomorrow’s expected make us look a little sad? And more worryingly still: Where do we go from here?

I have been closely involved with international adventure travel for four decades, and I doubt if there is another industry that offers such a profound microcosm into the state of our species as this one. Serious travel removes people from their comfort zones, and frequently places them in unfamiliar landscapes and foreign cultures. I’ve witnessed natural changing trends in travel, I’ve watched people adapt to them, and seen some emotionally unravel. The people who do best are those who are able to leave home and its representative securities behind and leap into and embrace their new setting.

Fifty years ago travelling outside North America and Europe was never a guaranteed easy ride. It required a certain attitude and input from the individual, an ability to adapt to the aforementioned landscapes and cultures, to swing with the odd punch, calculated hardships, and the surprises they would so often bring. For it was here that the rewards lay. The pleasures involved in overcoming the unforeseen supplied the grit of the future memories from the journey.

Today people remove each impending travel experience of every possible surprise. To venture into the unknown has become the ultimate no-no. An often quoted cliché is that in the travel industry we provide the customer with “the management of expectations”, but is this still the case? Whatever the style of travel, be it soft or serious adventure, by the time the tour operator has been approached the customer has already managed their expectations to the finest detail. Every nook and cranny of the itinerary has been googled, scrutinized, and analysed to remove every surprise. Technology has become the crutch so vitally necessary these days in making the commitment to leave home. The great mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, once stated that unethical climbers who used artificial means like expansion bolts to climb rock faces and mountains, “…carried their courage in their backpacks.” I wonder how many travellers today carry their courage in their devices.

I recently stayed in a boutique hotel in Cochin, southern India. One evening as I was standing by the reception desk a young American couple approached and asked the man at the desk for a recommendation of a nearby place to eat. His suggestion was greeted with silence as an iPhone was hastily removed from a handbag, and the restaurant’s name touched in. “Their website gives it four stars,” the young wife said, “and it looks like a nice location.” Her husband, whom I could imagine in his corporate slim suit, was unimpressed. “See if it’s mentioned on Trip Advisor,” he replied, “they often do restaurants.” A few moments later she said, “People seem to like it, they do seafood…do you want to read some reviews?” His face remained impassive, then… “Go back to their website and see if it has
a sample menu.” This she duly did and in a minute she had found it. He leaned over her shoulder and they proceeded to study it. “Seems okay,” he said, “it has a harbour view, let’s give it a go!” They walked off together through the lobby towards a waiting taxi, relaxed in the knowledge that they had beaten this restaurant to death on their
gadget…now no surprises remained, they were safe, contented. I smiled at the desk clerk and he returned it. He was happy, his customers were satisfied – at least for the present – and he was probably thinking that their phone had caused him a lot less work. I could see how that young couple – and there were many like them in the hotel – would probably appreciate a room card just like the one I’d seen earlier in New Delhi, reminding them to send a postcard home.

A few years back dozens of tourists descended the track from Everest base camp down the valley towards Thyangboche monastery. Their hopes – and $60,000 hand outs – which might have taken them to the summit of Everest, had been dashed by an avalanche tragedy when sixteen sherpas who had been paid to secure their route, and shepherded them to the top, had lost their lives. Many of these tourists were disgruntled over the fact that a subsequent Sherpa strike had closed down the mountain, and therefore their chances of being successfully hauled up to the summit. I wonder however, what truly lay behind their peevishness, and I suspect in most cases it wasn’t
about the wasted money, and diminished egos that no longer had a story to expound to neighbours and co-workers back home. It’s more likely to be about this contemptible “unforeseen” which had got in their way, which they hadn’t been warned about; this “unknown” that hadn’t been hinted at during all those lost hours of homework on-line.

We live in a world dominated by the media and technological appliances, where we are brainwashed into dependency. Look at the way we so avidly study weather news and the increasing popularity of the Weather Channel. Can’t we let the weather be? It is quite nice to have a few uncertainties left out there. We’ve managed quite well for
hundreds of years. We really don’t need to know what the temperature is in Novosibirsk.

When I look at the adventure traveller today with their honed gym bodies and their propensity to scrutinize everything they eat and drink; their infatuation over which clothes work better than others and the general paranoia over meeting the standards of modern healthy living. What I see is a far softer generation to those of thirty years ago, who didn’t work out, ate what they felt like, smoked more (well okay, that was pretty silly), drank more for fun, and dressed simply (“Back then we wore what we had on.” Neil Young, Greendale). But here is the point I’m trying to make: These people did just as well out there in the bush as our modern hikers do today.

In short, thirty years ago we knew less, we weren’t as afraid of the unknown, didn’t feel the need to study the minutiae of every undertaking, and didn’t complain when the unexpected took place. We have now become obsessed by personal security to the point where we can barely function. For example, if we ate a decent breakfast, and drank a glass of orange juice or water with our coffee before we left home, we could probably make that journey to the mall
without our water bottle and energy bar. We might even survive until lunchtime. I often see clients of mine today about to embark upon a ten mile hike in the bush, stuffing themselves with a full breakfast at 7.00am, then frantically grasping at the last slices of toast to make a peanut butter sandwich to stash in their backpacks for when their “energy levels” crash at 11.00am. Thirty years ago if I’d mentioned to my friends before a long hike, or at the bottom of a rock face we were about to climb, that I had concerns over my diminishing energy level later in the morning, I’d have been laughed out of the district.

What is really behind all this? Do we endlessly suck on that water bottle, or eat our mid-morning sandwich because Outside Magazine and Mens Journal have told us to? Is it fair to heap all the blame on a dumbed down media, the superficiality of our gadgetry, and the endless streams of unnecessary information it provides us? Should we blame the Patagonias, North Faces and other outdoor clothing businesses, who complain about environmental damage, yet are primarily responsible for making this same environment accessible and comfortable to the mainstream masses? Or is the damage being caused earlier than this, perhaps by “helicopter” mothers who hover over their offspring, smothering them with irrational concerns and fears, exposing them at increasingly earlier ages to inconsequential
information (Fisher Price recently produced a baby stroller with an iPad attachment)?

As a species we, by nature, lean towards the roads most travelled, and if these roads pamper us to the point where we accept everything unquestioningly (over-parenting, over-attentive schools, sterility of the PC workplaces), we can begin to see the emerging robotic forms, and the increasing softening of each new generation. There is an odious
side to pampering because we too readily buy into it. It isn’t easy to turn back from it because pampering breeds constant pampering, it quickly becomes the normal. We then find ourselves – and not, alas unwittingly – denied the encumbrance of personal responsibility. When we travel (both before and during), do we require glowing gadgets, eager hotel staff and guides, to run our lives for us and diminish every possible unknown? Do we really need the hotels to remind us to send a postcard home, or take our medicines?

Perhaps this present world crisis will force us to grow some spine as a species, toughen up a little, and start having fun!

Iain Allan

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