Not that long ago, air travel was a badge of distinction. The jet set prided itself on the habit, and Frank Sinatra sang “Come Fly with Me” to encourage them further. Mile-high sex on a plane was de rigueur. People actually used to dress up to take a plane (before getting naked in the lavatories). Pan Am claimed, “The travail has been taken out of travel.” For some, the excitement still lingers. One blogger, in the rarefied world of airline fandom, flew himself and his wife from Houston to Frankfurt just to try out United Airlines’ new business-class perks. “This flight was also special,” he enthused, “because my wife . . . would become a United Million Miler. I can think of worse ways to celebrate.” I can’t.
You’d think the joy of flying a million miles on a plane would be over by now for most people, especially since the advent of COVID-19, with long plane rides a great way to catch and carry it. But, apparently, people still miss flying. During the early days of the pandemic, some diehard would-be travellers visited Taiwan’s locked-down airport just to experience the sheer thrill of going through security and wandering the departure lounge: fake checking-in, fake passport control, fake luggage screening, fake duty-free shopping, fake airplane, fake flight attendants. They didn’t fly anywhere. Incredibly, these fanatics were really missing the whole airport experience. Nostalgia for trains I can understand. But airplanes?
Airlines ought to have Jerk of the Year awards, not just for the passengers but for their own employees. If they can’t bump you off the manifest just by yelling at you, next thing you know, you’re bodily kicked out of the plane. On a Hawaii-to-LA flight, Delta recruited airport police to threaten a couple with jail and the confiscation of their children merely for refusing to give up a seat they’d booked and paid for.
Airports and airlines seem very exacting about how passengers behave. They make you wander miles of shops, starve you, bore you, intoxicate you, hassle you, despise you, and then pillory you for “air rage.” More and more passengers do threaten to shoot everybody or leave the plane mid-flight. Some complain about sitting next to fat people or start eating their own mobile phones as a form of protest.
But the sight, in 2017, of the tactics used against David Dao on a United Chicago-to-Louisville flight provoked lasting outrage. The airline had apparently overbooked the flight, as they frequently do. A doctor and legitimate ticket holder with patients to see the next day, Dao declined to give up his seat. As a result, he was dragged off the plane by force, bleeding, half conscious, half naked, in front of fellow passengers. He was left with a broken nose, a concussion, and two lost teeth.
Originally from Vietnam, Dao said the experience was more horrifying than the fall of Saigon. United’s CEO, who defined his staff’s violent approach as merely “re-accommodating” people and unconvincingly described Dao as “disruptive and belligerent,” had to perform some pretty tricky manoeuvres to steer the airline out of its self-inflicted PR nosedive. But even he couldn’t censor all the new slogans: “United: putting the hospital back into hospitality”; “Fly the unfriendly skies”; “Red eye and black eye flights available”; “Board as a doctor, leave as a patient”; “If we can’t seat you, we beat you.”
But, okay, let’s say you survive the invasive full-body scan as well as the obligatory two-to-three-hour duty-free dwalm in the departure area. Let’s go crazy and suppose you make it to your seat on the plane without being publicly shamed or socked in the jaw, either by airline staff or the people sitting near you. Your reward is that now you must fly.
During the cramped, airless, comfortless journey that follows (for which more and more wondrously you have to pay), amid air contaminated by engine oil and the pesticides used in fumigating the plane, a martyr to the airline’s idea of water, alcohol, snacks, and movies, you will also be at risk of congestion, constipation, nausea, dizziness, headaches, hypoxia, jet lag, deep vein thrombosis, solar flares, fleas, pandemics, colds, flu, flatulence, and whooping cough. No one ever seems to voluntarily delay a flight because of illness, even if it’s COVID-19. No, they tramp onboard in service to their microbes and cough, sniff, and exude contaminants all over you for hours on end.
I’m not saying your seat is small, but if it were a haystack, you’d find the needle. While the business-class swells chow down on their business-class lunches in their business-class lounges at the airport and, once on board, guzzle their business-class suppers, encased in their big-assed business-class thrones, making big-ass business-class deals and getting business-class grease from their business-class filets mignons all over the business-class upholstery, the economy passengers’ food, if it ever arrives, is a throwback to the TV dinners of the 1960s. I once ordered the kosher meal just to see if it was any more palatable. The stewardess unceremoniously flung a solid block of ice labelled “kosher” on to my tray table. Inside it, you could dimly see some kishkes. It might have thawed by the time we reached Patagonia, but I wasn’t going to Patagonia.
A global pandemic could reasonably be an opportunity to reconsider the whole crazy business of zooming about the globe like this, but instead, loads of people are itching to jump on board again as soon as it’s allowed—and daring others to do the same. Less for the pleasure of flying or even vacationing, perhaps, than for that of exciting the customary envy in friends and colleagues by temporarily depositing one’s pallid frame on a foreign beach.
Travel is now such a habit that people just can’t imagine life without these regular culture-shocking transplantations. They risk death, disease, penury, language barriers, and bedbugs to not exactly “find themselves” but at least find themselves in a new time zone. Do they think it’s actual time travel?
As COVID-19 has proven, most people don’t really need to go on business trips or see every friend or enemy in person all the time. We have Zoom, and Zoom backgrounds, and Zoom cat filters, for that. We have books too. Books on travel, which could save you a trip. You don’t have to see the seven wonders of the world or visit geographically distant family members. No need to fly around the globe to attend football matches either—cardboard fans can do that for you now. So, why all this dumb transporting of our vulnerable bodies from place to place at the expense of our nerves, our sanity, our health, our time, our bank balances, and the environment?
I have no objection to purposeful uses of travel, of course, as in the cases of emergency workers, international election monitors, refugees, or political, economic, or environmental migrants. Seeking a safe haven is a human right and unavoidable amid war, injustice, and climate change. It’s also beneficial to the host society: as Fran Lebowitz said about New York City, “Immigrants make the culture and tourists ruin it.” So, though travel’s no picnic, let the nomads, grape harvesters, sheep shearers, job seekers, asylum seekers, detainees, adventurers, artists, earthquake sniffer dogs, and St. Bernards with their little casks of brandy go wherever they need to go. My beef is with frivolous travel of the selfish kind, the act of inflicting yourself, uninvited, on other cultures, this constant movement to and fro of the chronically rich, with their taster menus of destinations to which they’re attracted purely due to their own lack of direction, humility, and self-knowledge.
Because all anyone gets out of this passing acquaintance with foreign lands is a crushing conformism, an expensive revitalization of arrogance, and the obtusest form of worldliness, wherein the same banalities are repeated the world over: the same slang, same pop music, same video games, same crummy hotel decor, same fast food, same views of Notre Dame, same big wheels, same terrorist atrocities, same jogging trails. Travel kills as much knowledge, taste, and culture as it purportedly spreads. The compulsion for sameness has an insidious effect: languages, dialects, accents, and national costumes start to die out as soon as the Coke and jeans and T-shirts arrive. To ensure uniformity and reduce the chance that the traveller will actually experience something new, major cities now offer exactly the same chain hotels, restaurants, and designer stores—ideal receptacles for morons on the move. But, if Prada, Superdry, and H&M are everywhere, what’s the point of city-hopping shopping? Prague, Dublin, London, and Barcelona are now completely interchangeable.
Edinburgh, where I live, used to be a fine old mirthless town, grim, austere, dirty, and dignified. Twenty-first-century marketers have turned it into a fairground. Whenever possible, the city’s few green spaces get trashed by amusement arcades, Glühwein, vomit, festivals, fringe festivals, markets, fringe markets, outdoor exhibitions and exhibitionists, coffee bars, beer tents, merry-go-rounds, tat stalls, and ice-skating rinks. The pavements are falling to pieces, the parks and trees are in a state of collapse, the trash is never collected, and the lockdown puppy poop is never scooped. Homeless people died on the streets while the Edinburgh International Festival conducted its annual month-long experiment in overpopulation and overpricing. The fireworks displays alone used to be relentless, daily in August. Occasionally there were wee calls from residents for silent fireworks, but their requests couldn’t be heard over the din.
This historic city, once home to the Scottish Enlightenment, has been intentionally emptied of thought and refilled with fake fun. Edinburgh has reinvented itself by obliterating its own inventiveness.
We could just stay home and listen to Scarlatti, but no, people are bombarded with bucket lists of faraway things they must accomplish, and they fall for it! Lambing in Maine; prancing through Croatian lavender fields; pottering round the Pyramids; personally inspecting the coral reefs and rainforests before they are no more (thanks to all the people who flew out to see them); riding on a donkey, a dromedary, a double-decker; trotting through Central Park in an anachronistic open carriage. A hot dog here, couscous there, sashimi up, tortellini down, Figaro su, Figaro giu, always seeking some remnant—any will do—of uniqueness and authenticity in a world the human race is racing to destroy.
Aviation accounts for 3.5 percent of global warming. The effects of cement production are far worse, I’m told. But 3.5 percent is not nothing. And cement is probably more lastingly useful than the obligatory Mediterranean swim, New Zealand cider tasting, or yet another Thanksgiving with the aging parents. But we continue to prioritize human mobility and interaction over all other considerations, even plague. Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef dies for us. It’s lost half its corals in the last twenty-five years and is 80 percent bleached already, cooked alive.
Animals bear the brunt of our allegiance to travel, and not just in the effects of global warming on wildlife. We now inflict travel on animals themselves, from the meat industry’s cruel live-animal transport operation to the way day-old chicks and exotic pets are mailed around the world. Then there are the doomed personal encounters with animals when on holiday. A young sniffer dog was shot dead at Auckland Airport, in New Zealand, in 2017, just for capering around loose and delaying a few flights. Birds, being a danger to airplane engines, are routinely shot or poisoned in the vicinity of airports. Donkeys get the worst of it. In Santorini, waves of Americans pour off cruise ships in hopes of finding a horse or donkey to take them up the hill. Many animals have been injured coping with this onslaught.
But you simply must see the Taj Mahal, or Machu Picchu, or Outer Mongolia, before you peg out, we’re told again and again and again. All exotic places must be trampled. Immediately. It torments people to think of leaving a single foreign banquette unwarmed. Just mention the Galapagos or the Faroe Islands and watch them jump—because they’ve got to get there before everyone else. Before it’s ruined. The seagrass meadows of the oceans are disappearing at the rate of two football fields an hour just so people can boast about having bothered a turtle in some distant clime.
The truth is you don’t personally have to survey every square inch on earth, no matter what your so-called friends tell you or what you read in newspaper and magazine travel porn. After all, the only really interesting thing about travel is seeing new flora and fauna, and we’ve killed off most of that. What is more important, in the end, than listening to Bach or reading Dickens? Humankind should be your business, not this hypnotic globe-trotting.
The full COVID-19 lockdown in the UK in the spring of 2020 did have one heartening effect: an almost instantaneous burst of wildlife. Birds sang more—for once, they could hear one another. Plants seemed to grow more vigorously, with better air and no one outside to trim or trample them. Weeds blossomed boisterously. Streets were calm and quiet.
In Hong Kong, within a week of the cancellation of the usual 200 express ferries to Macau, native dolphins returned in great numbers. They played in the water and apparently had lots of sex. Dolphins really know how to live—if only we’d let them. There is beauty in less activity, less financial transaction, less mayhem, less frenzy, less movement.
The virus likes cars, restaurants, concerts, parties, airports, globalism, poverty, superspreader get-togethers, close contact, coughing, panting, yelling, physical contretemps, and a catastrophically diminished environment. COVID-19 loves travel and really gets around. It thrives on apathy—ours and that of our lethargic and asinine leaders. Let’s thwart it by beefing up what the virus hates: community, quiet, carefulness, consideration, stasis, solitude, clean air, masks, peace, conservation, the common good, and individual commitment to a single locale. Staying put. Maybe what we need is an intervention: just put travel addicts on a low-mileage diet or make them go cold turkey. If they need ongoing support, they can join Carboniferous Anonymous, a twelve-step program I just made up for people stuck on burning up all the fossil fuels.
It will be hard to stick to your resolve at first, especially when you see your friends scoring their usual peregrination points. You may even be shunned for not putting yourself through several long-haul flights a year, not catching the usual half a dozen colds, and not knowing the best coastal bus route in Honolulu (Number 55). Don’t listen to them. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but travel buffs will never hurt you. And donkeys will be grateful.
Adapted with permission from Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann (Biblioasis, September 2021).