Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Excess Baggage

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Vital stats:
Format: talk with travelers, and talk while traveling
Episode duration: ~28m
Frequency: not a going concern, but 85 episodes exist

Cultural England seems to have always loved a traveler. Perhaps this affinity lingers from the days of Empire, or maybe an island people instinctively understand wanderlust. Just behold the gallery of luminaries that is Wikipedia’s English travel writers page. If its seemingly broad definition of “travel writer” bothers you, any designation that encompasses the likes of Geoff Dyer, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Pico Iyer, Michael Palin, and Evelyn Waugh can’t go far wrong. None of them seem freighted with the same burdens which Sisyphize many of the unfortunates we regard as travel writers in America, haphazardly collecting a third of the information they need in half the time they need so as to make the word count for an “If You Go...” box. Something tells me Colin Thubron never put up with that.

A traveler like Thubron, of course, deals with challenges all his own, and you can hear about them on BBC Radio 4’s Excess Baggage [RSS] [iTunes]. He shows up to discuss his journey up a Tibetan mountain so sacred that the truly faithful can never ascend; they just sort of go around and around the base. [MP3] Such a story could almost have come ripped from the diary of any of the Empire’s finest, but Excess Baggage as a whole attempts to cover a width of the traveling spectrum between these forcefully soul-searching Thubronic adventures to, say, the lure of moonlight [MP3], or knitting in Iceland [MP3].

That’s the traveling spectrum, mind you, as opposed to the tourism spectrum. And yes, rarely has a jerkier-sounding sentence appeared onscreen, but this gets into a genuinely substantial philosophical, or at least terminological, question. What counts as tourism, and what counts as travel? Does there come a point when the farrago of simulacra that is tourism ends and the genuinely experiential travel begins, or do the two occupy entirely separate psychological spaces? I feel as if every trip I’ve heard the hosts and guests of Excess Baggage discuss counts as proper travel: writing thriller novels about the Philippines after visiting the country [MP3], digging through Europe to expose your own grandfather’s Nazi past [MP3], running tours of North Korea [MP3]. Even a two-part [MP3] [MP3] guided exploration through Istanbul struck me as safely out of the utilitarian, two-weeks-of-time-off touristic zone — even as I listened to it, in a somewhat utilitiarian fasion, as preparation for a possible couple of weeks there myself.

So perhaps the difference between travel and tourism actually comes to nothing, and the BBC accents on a show like this simply cut straight to the supplicating colonial at my core? But given the extent to which we tend to view standard tourism — scrape together accrued vacation days, flip through a phrase book on the flght, eat a crêpe, take pictures of your partially focused self standing before similarly focused monuments, maybe ride a boat — the smoke must lead to some kind of fire. I think back to an old David Sedaris piece remembering a childhood neighbor recently returned from a midcentury middle-class European tour: “‘It changes people!’ our neighbor had said. Following a visit to Saint-Tropez, she had marked her garden with a series of tissue-sized international flags. A once discreet and modest woman, she now paraded about her yard wearing nothing but clogs and a flame-stitched bikini.”

But does tourism change people? I’ve begun to suspect that change is exactly what tourism doesn’t effect — rarely a change more substantive, in any case, than tissue flags and flame-stitched bikinis. We might thus define travel as acts of self-displacement that do, by whatever means, change people. In this we have at least one sound reason to call Excess Baggage a travel program, though I should make it clear that it isn’t a currently running program. Though it boasts an easily accessible archive of 85 episodes, the show ended its run in April of this year. It did so with a special broadcast on “the point and pleasure of travel” [MP3], which addresses all these issues and more. So you might consider listening to that one first, not last.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]