by Richard Farr
Part one: A mere analogy
You’ve always dreamed of foreign travel and you’re aware that there’s a long history of people doing it, and benefiting from it. But you live under a regime that closed the borders a couple of generations ago, at the same time criminalizing the act of researching potential destinations. (Many countries were dangerous, they said, and some tourists were coming home with tie-dyed shirts and peculiar ideas.) To protect the vulnerable, a War on Travel was announced. In the years since, you have grown up with little more than rumors of other cultures, climates, cuisines.
Change is afoot, however: members of a professional group, the globiatrists, are pushing back. They have looked into the history of travel and they agree it’s fraught with peril. But there’s evidence that some destinations may be the best way to treat Immobility Syndrome (IS), a condition involving chronic inability to be happy with never going anywhere. Drugs have been developed that sometimes help IS sufferers think about something else, but more and more globiatrists say that “for treatment-resistant patients travel may be a risk worth taking, so long as they are chaperoned. By one of us.”
In due course things do loosen up. Amid concern that unwise people might attempt to travel alone (or are already doing so illegally), permits are issued for some IS patients to take “trips.”
Unfortunately, even seeing a globiatrist and being tested for IS is too expensive for many people. Also the diagnosis may be negative, in which case you have to go to a different globiatrist and try again.
Let’s say you get the IS designation. You then discover that the hundreds you’ve spent so far is nothing compared to the thousands a trip will cost. So forget it. Or ask your health insurance company, and then forget it. Or be wealthy, put down the deposit, and discover a different snag.
Your dream was to travel. You wanted to spend a month wandering through Europe by train, say, or perhaps renting an RV and seeing a dozen US National Parks, or hiking the length of Chile. But that’s not what the globiatrists are offering. Quote:
All trips will be preceded by five prep sessions, during which your globiatrist will quiz you in minute detail about your plans, advise you to take your own toilet paper, and teach you three different ways to build an emergency shelter using only a penknife.
All trips will last exactly one week. Choose ONE of the following: (1) A hotel in the heart of Tokyo, (2) A fishing cabin on a remote Scottish loch, (3) A luxury cruise ship in the middle of nowhere. (Note: approximately 33% of all applicants will instead be assigned at random to (a) a B- trailer park outside Des Moines, (b) a rat-infested shack in a dangerous slum in Bogotá, or (c) a prison for opponents of the regime in one of several dozen countries run by lizard-blooded psychopaths.)
As you make your selection, remember that your chaperone will be with you at all times.
After your return there will be several ‘reintegration’ sessions, during which your globiatrist will ply you with chamomile tea while questioning you closely again to make sure that you have not picked up any distasteful foreign habits. Enjoy your trip! Future chaperoned travel may be possible after additional testing, on payment of additional fees.
You’re not even sure whether you’ll like Japan, or fishing in the rain, or being fed too much while trapped in a giant steel can. So you make the mistake of trying to be honest. “I faked the IS testing!” you cry. “I just wanted the freedom to travel! But I’m not interested in a whole chaperoned week in one place. My idea is to discover what I might like — and discover more about what I might be like — through self-directed, experimental exploration. Sampling different places. Maybe writing a diary of my experiences, for future reference. And doing it privately, or possibly with a friend.”
The globiatrists shake their heads at your naïveté. Travel is serious business: a miraculous medicine for treating a terrible disease. Also, though medically exciting it is (unlike owning a gun, drinking alcohol, eating butter, or riding a bike) far too dangerous not to be under the control of experts. As for wanting to explore, expand your horizons, and learn to better understand yourself by better understanding the wider world, those are signs of the most morbid frivolity.
Indeed — they can’t resist warming to their theme here — that kind of talk strongly suggests that you may be suffering from Frivolity Syndrome (FS). Leading globiatric theorists have concluded that FS is dangerous, but can be eradicated through a rigorously scientific, carefully evidence-based and above all expert program in which globiatrists employ — to mention just a few of the techniques they have perfected — enforced bed rest, liquid diets, several years spent lying on a staggeringly expensive couch, morphine overdoses, insulin-induced comas, incarceration, straightjackets, deliberate infection with malaria, massive seizures induced by electric shocks, radical abdominal and oral surgeries in hot pursuit of mystery infections that must surely have something to do with something, lobotomies, and of course sterilization of the recalcitrant. The regime backs the globiatrists all the way on this, and has already put you on a watch-list of malcontents, anarchists, and suspected Jackson Pollock enthusiasts.
But back to travel: unlike the rest of us, the well-heeled and well-connected are already out there exploring, because they can simply pay to go on all available trips. That may explain why we’re drowning in a flood of books and podcasts in which these people always seem torn between bragging about their transformative experiences (Kathmandu! The Atacama!) and complaining that the coolest places have all been overrun by shallow, Moleskine-notebook-toting Western arrivistes. Even here though, notice the catch: most of these charmers had to take whole trips, every time, and put up with the chaperone, every time. Choosing to stop in Buenos Aires for a couple of nights on your own, and only then deciding whether to stay longer, or go home, or take that ferry you’ve had your eye on that goes across to Montevideo? The only way to do this sort of thing is to buy from a friend’s friend’s friend or — worse — from a seedy street-corner ‘travel agent.’ Not good: either of them will gladly take your money in return for a ticket that might be to anywhere or nowhere, for any length of time, with no guarantee of safe return.
Aha, say the globiatrists, exactly our point. And this much you have to concede: some destinations really do sound terrifying, at least for some people some of the time; some destinations may be associated with long-term health problems — not much research there, but the regime is beginning to permit it; finally, some destinations are so gob-smackingly gob-smacking that they mesmerize visitors into abandoning their families and taking to crime to pay for the next trip.
Speaking of which: one of the strangest features of the War on Travel’s cultural history is your belated discovery that hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens have been taking one sort of trip already, on the promise that it’s cheap, easy, risk-free and peaceful — and that they have then been dying in vast numbers, often by their own hand, on discovering that return is impossible. Weirder still, the regime has for decades done nothing to rein in the individuals and corporations who amassed Croesean fortunes by actively encouraging people to travel to that particular destination — claiming enigmatically that this kind of travel isn’t, you know, travel.
Leaving that aside, there are more and more commentators claiming sunnily that attitudes to travel-in-general are changing fast. Even some globiatrists want to encourage this — though they also seem to be holding back, perhaps because they too fear being diagnosed with FS? At all events there are thousands of people with IS, and many more without, for whom things still seem to be moving far, far too slowly.
Imagine, if you can, a world in which:
Research on travel is encouraged and even subsidized by the regime, not only for medical reasons but also because a happier population is
more pliant more docile more productive happier. Research results are published in a form designed to help ordinary people make informed decisions. There is limited government regulation of where individual adults can go, combined with strict laws to discourage travel industry scams. The option of taking a chaperone is kept open, with the option of this being a person in a white coat or bow tie waving a credential. Ticket prices are standardized. Where possible, accommodations are standardized. Buyers have control over both destinations and trip length. There are numerous detailed trip reports by actual travelers. There’s even a website where you can marvel over the uselessness of knowing that 4,253 reviewers gave Hotel X in City Y an average of 3.7 stars. One good consequence of this new dispensation, among many, is a precipitous drop in the number of people dying as a result of travel that “isn’t, you know, travel.”
With attitudes changing so glacially, all this remains a dream for most of us. I confidently expect to die long before it comes about. But you have to start somewhere. A world is a terrible thing to waste.