Travelling in search of culture

The Brisbane wheel, similar attractions have popped up all over the world.

The Brisbane wheel, similar attractions have popped up all over the world.

When we travel, one of our goals is always to find a slice of whichever country we’re touring that has been saved the ravages of tourism. As contradictory as it may be, we travel to seek the very thing our search ultimately destroys. Each trip, I fear that the homogenization of cultures across the world will mean that we miss some of the great experiences that make me yearn to travel in the first place. This juxtaposition between global cultural hegemony (that is, the idea that dominant global culture – or at least our urbanised, developed perception of this – through the hegemon of Americanised media) and the cultural imperatives that make many of us travel, cause me concern for the future of travelling. My great fear is that some day in the next many years, I will leave my Netflix remote on my couch at home and fly to some formerly exotic location only to pick up a similar remote and continue to watch where I left off in my lounge room.

Cultural accommodation at it's finest? Bali.

Cultural accommodation at it’s finest? Bali.

Obviously, change is both unavoidable, and vital to the survival of the economies of many of the places we travel. Any culture that refuses to change or becomes inflexible is in great danger of stagnating and becoming out of touch and unviable. On the other hand, when culture becomes indistinguishable from one nation to another, the value of that location’s cultural capital decreases and we can see a similar result.

My partner often uses Australia and The United States of America to illustrate this point, suggesting that we do not appear to have a culture here. While we Australians would vehemently defend our bronzed, barbecue and beach identities, does it really represent a cultural identity, or have we used this popular veneer, as an easy to digest caricature for so long that this country’s culture has been disempowered? The idea that Australia is a ‘Multicultural melting pot’ is all very well, but is this enough to be considered culture? I would like to think so, but where are the recognisable, and universally accepted cultural icons? For us, they seem to be either landscapes (Uluru, The Great Barrier Reef), Wildlife (Koala, Emu, or the ubiquitous kangaroo), or – most concerning – dated stereotypes and caricatures designed to pander to the aforementioned hegemonic behemoth (Crocodile Dundee, prawns on the ‘barbie’ and a damaging acceptance of alcoholism).

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If we look behind two centuries of guilt, we might be able to see some remnants of the kind of culture I travel to experience in the rich and enduring culture that many Indigenous Australians fight to keep from becoming a kitsch motif in gift shops. Similarly our 200 or so years of history show a tendency towards resilience and stubborn resolution against a land upon which it is often difficult to live. Can we call these things culture though if they are not universally celebrated or accepted?

Considering the myriad of elements that make up Australia’s cultural identity, perhaps it is unsurprising that we so readily assimilate to the global cultural hegemonic trends represented by mass media, but does the effect of both media and transport access to developing countries mean this is a future for which we, as globetrotters, will have to settle?

Cultural accommodation at it's finest? Colombo, Sri Lanka

Cultural accommodation at it’s finest? Colombo, Sri Lanka

The fears of many that the iconic images of Havana in Cuba will soon disappear from our itineraries is a popular example cited by those concerned for the fate of global cultural diversity, but even this argument is fraught with uncertainty. When the United States Embassy reopened in Havana in August this year, we heard cries that the Cuba we all wanted to visit would be dead within a year, but for those who were listening, it was apparent that the ravages of time and half a century of economic isolation were doing an equally effective job of robbing us of this ‘must see’ experience. Like Australia, Cuba is really a poor source of analysis to investigate cultural homogenisation thanks to the country’s geographical proximity to the United States (as the default hegemon in this loose notion of global socio-cultural identity, the media culture of which represents the purveyor of a social and cultural imperative).

Cultural immersion? Luang Prabang, Laos

Cultural immersion? Luang Prabang, Laos

Everywhere I have travelled in the past decade – from Laos where brand new Toyota Hiluxes seemed to outnumber tuk-tuks and the highlight was Luang Prabang (a UNESCO Heritage site that felt like one big luxury resort), to Sri Lanka we sometimes found it hard to find an experience that did not feel as manufactured as a Disneyland attraction (there’s plenty to be said about using this comparison when I’m writing about cultural hegemony or cultural capital) – the balance between cultural identity and globalised, media-driven cultural homogenisation seems to be in some form of shift. If I returned to Egypt today, where the dominant cultural icons for travellers are 4000 year old pyramids, and –increasingly – religious and political conflict, I would not be surprised to see a further shift towards the norms I fear are established at home with the conspicuous absence of the increase in wealth and comfort that is perceived to be a hallmark of surrendering to cultural imperialism.

Will we see independent cultures disappear in our lifetimes? Probably not. Is it possible that media connectivity and globalisation will dilute the world’s cultural capital in exchange for a more even distribution of wealth as the developing world continues to ‘modernise’? Probably. Will any of this stop our insatiable urge to get out and see the world? Not a chance!

A mosque built on the ruins of a church built on the ruins of a sacred site in Luxor, Egypt

A mosque built on the ruins of a church built on the ruins of a sacred site in Luxor, Egypt

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