Whilst I’m out of the country on a trip to a mysterious undisclosed location, the daily blogging will be achieved through a series of travel-related posts, thanks to the kindness of my friends and family, and the wonders of post-scheduling technology.
This installment of The Travel Diaries is brought to you by Kim Reid. Kim is married to Stephen and they have two sons, Silas and Oisín. Kim has travelled a lot, including living (and marrying, and having a baby) in South Africa, but she now lives back in Australia, and blogs here.
The Long Way Down
In ‘The Long Way Round’ best friends Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, 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’. I watched them in solidarity with my motorbike-riding husand, and although skeptical, I actually find it pretty entertaining.
Both series boast amazing scenery, hardcore camping (at times), skin scraping crashes and of course victory of man over obstacle. There are moments of real hilarity, some homo-erotic skinny dipping in freezing rivers and lots of interesting cross-cultural observations.
But I think there are some serious problems with the ‘Long Way’ series too. My main beef is with the pernicious imperialistic overtones of the trips. The ‘adventure journey in a foreign land with cutesie natives’ motif is laid on pretty thick. In fact it would be laughable, if it wasn’t damaging, how cliched Ewan and Charley’s experiences and interactions with the local people and landscape are.
This particularly grates me in ‘The Long Way Down’. Charley And Ewan (and their sizeable support team) travel south through 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 and say “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’re going home to a multi-story townhouse with a stainless steel kitchen. Almost every black man they meet is quizzed about how many wives he has. They shake their skinny booty with voluptuous black women. They stay at campgrounds lit by Survivor-style torches and eat rustic, but lavish, meals prepared by chef-hat-wearing locals. They cuddle a lot of smiling black children. They give the impression that merely by visiting a 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. 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.
This kind of trip now forms a large niche market of the travel industry. Along with a drunken tour of German cities and Thai beaches any aspiring young traveller should hope for a ‘mercy mission’ style adventure to see the simple and bizarre lives of people different to themselves. Indeed Charley and Ewan’s Round and Down trips are sponsored by exactly this kind of travel company.
This style of travel is reminiscent of the imperialistic journeys of the British or American or Spanish or French colonisers of previous centuries – but it’s 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, paying a pittance for handcarved souvenirs and recording it all on instagram.
These trips can patronise and commodify the lives and lifestyles of people living in these usually very poor countries. Instead of this kind of treatment, people living in poor communities in these countries need real investment in local business, aid assistance that gets down to the little people, support for fledgling governments or persecuted minorities, real solutions for corruption – all through culturally appropriate means. This is what will help. Not cuddles with a white man in front of an SLR.
In summary: the long way down.