Bragging Rights

Travel is a relentless game of one-upmanship

Words: Lee Tulloch

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the very definition of an exotic holiday was a mid-winter trip to Thailand. Everyone you left behind would grumble enviously, ‘Oh, you lucky thing! I wish you would pack me in your suitcase.’ And you were lucky, because having the time and wherewithal to travel for leisure is a wondrous thing, denied billions of people.

But now lovely Thailand doesn’t cut it. Nor does London. New York. Nor some of the emerging travel hot spots like Istanbul or Croatia.Think Ulaanbaatar. Nanchong. Chisinau. Nuuk. Or, if you can find it, a place ending in ‘stan’ that even Vladimir Putin hasn’t heard of.

These days, travel is all about the bragging rights.

Recently, I was chatting to a friend about how I was packing for Shanghai.  She was singularly unmoved. ‘How interesting,’ she sniffed. ‘I’m off to Geneva for a private tour of the CERN Large Hadron Collider.’

Shanghai is predictable but visiting a Black Hole is truly impressive.  The only way I could have matched her was to say I was taking a side trip to North Korea to play demonstration basketball for Kim Jong Un.

When did leisure travel stop being something you did for your own pleasure and become an episode of The Great Race?

Travel is now a competition, wherein the objective is to reach an obscure, untrammelled, possibly dangerous, destination before your friends get there, or even think of going there, and return home with a cache of Instagrams (digitally modified to look like they were taken on Kodachrome in 1937) of you hunting reindeer with the Nganasan tribe in Northern Siberia, cosily sipping coca tea with a Tucano shaman in Amazonian Colombia, or sunning yourself on the beach at Mogadishu, which, when shared on Facebook, Pinterest and so forth, will have those laggardly friends, who have just booked flights to been-there-done-that Sarajevo, broiling with fury at being so resoundingly trumped.

The prize, of course, is being able to bring a look of grudging admiration to the eyes of your friends, workmates and acquaintances, which, if you’re lucky, you may be able to do ad nauseum for years, spinning out the story until Siberia is overrun with Chanel shops and Amazonian tribes start renting out rooms on Airbnb.

When did leisure travel stop being something you did for your own pleasure and become an episode of the Great Race?

In truth, travellers have always bragged, ever since Petrach wrote boastfully about his ascent of Mount Ventoux. When I was growing up in suburban Melbourne, the ‘slide night’ was the medium. If a family friend had returned from ‘overseas’, the white sheet would go up and we’d be subjected to hours of entertaining images of the backsides of donkeys and people in clogs. When we went away, sometimes as far as Tewantin, we sent everyone modest little postcards, too, which were hardly in the same league as Herodotus, but it was all that was expected.

How quaint that all seems! Now, one is obliged to tweet to the world about every Mongolian hotpot, post Facebook galleries of how to render yak fat, set up a Pinterest board of yurt interiors and make an eBook of the Naadam Festival, which you’ll also print off on Blurb if you fail to get a book deal with Taschen.

I’m not sure why we’re in this cycle of relentless one-upmanship. Is it because of the competitive nature of social media, where exhibitionists rule? Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is shouting Look at Moi!  That funny Mandjani dance you did with the Bambara in Mali going viral on You Tube is certainly one way to make a noise.

But the competition is tough. Once, you could dine out for years on stories of getting mugged in New York. Now that Australians travel so much and something similar has happened to just every one of us (although getting mugged in Mosman is more likely these days) we’re on the hunt for more novel personal dramas. I don’t recommend getting banged up abroad, but there’s a friendly film crew waiting if you do.

Of course, if you’re genuinely a seeker of the road less travelled, none of this applies to you. You’re too engrossed in breathing in the Saharan air to tweet about the colours of the sand dunes.

If, on the other hand, you’re hoping to outshine your smug best friend’s climb to Everest summit, I’ve got a tip: San Pedro Sula in Honduras is the most dangerous city in the world. I guarantee none of your friends have heard of it.

First one there gets the bragging rights.

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