I was recently seeing off a good friend in Kiev’s international airport. As I was exiting the newly built terminal, I stopped for a moment to think how much I enjoy airports. I’ve probably been to over 50 airports around the world, but one of the most memorable experiences I had was back in 2005 when I was getting ready to board a Mexico City – Bogotá flight. After spending a year living in the great megapolis called Mexico City, I decided to visit a new country: Colombia.
Today, Colombia is considered to be a relatively safe country (as opposed to its chaos-ridden eastern neighbor, Venezuela). It’s a country where things just work, and one can easily live there and open a business.
But, back then, Colombia wasn’t a country that many tourists visited. The common knowledge was that you’d get kidnapped the second you landed and exited the international airport. It didn’t help that a nice chunk of the country was carved out by FARC (a Marxist revolutionary group that, for many years, wanted to overthrow the government. In 2017, FARC has been mostly disbanded.) Days leading to my flight, I was already imagining that I would step out of the airport, a white or black van would pull up curbside, some big guys would jump out, shove me into the van and drive off.
But nothing even close to that happened. I landed, cleared immigration, and took an official airport taxi to Candelaria, a charming colonial neighborhood. There, I checked into some grubby hostel, left my bags and began exploring the city.
Back in 2005, fewer people traveled (or at least wrote about it) as compared with today. Travel blogs weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. iPhones didn’t exist. The people that I met in that hostel and, later, in the bars and clubs were what I would call “true road junkies.” Most of them had been traveling the South American continent for many months, stopping in random places along the way. They were also very hardened individuals. Travel for them was an end to a means, not a means to an end as it’s for many people now.
Visiting a place like Bogotá entailed a certain level of risk, as opposed to say London. Nowadays, it’s super simple. You book a place on AirBnB, preferably a place that was previously vetted by lots of travelers much like yourself. Book an airline ticket on some reputable airline. After landing, you grab an Uber (driven by driver with decent rating) and safely head to your destination.
I like to joke that my iPhone is like an extension of my brain. I fucking love the thing. And I use it for pretty much everything. I don’t leave my house without it. I book taxis, flights, apartments, send/receive money (and bitcoin). And that’s just scratching the surface. In fact, there’re few things that can’t be done on a smartphone nowadays. As the famous saying goes, “there’s an app for that.”
Thanks to online services such as Uber and AirBnB (and others), which have succeeded by commoditizing trust, most of the previous risk with travel has been greatly minimized. Spending your vacation in Bogotá or Cali is now as easy as spending your vacation in Paris or Madrid.
There are some interesting consequences of all of this. When travel to the developing world was riskier, few people traveled, and those that did, it for the adventure. As travel became more accessible and less risky, thanks in part to the online testimonials of others who’ve been there, more people started to travel and write about it.
A decade ago blogs were pretty rudimentary. They were more like journals authored by hard-core travel junkies. They were more of an afterthought after traveling. Guys traveled first and wrote about it second. Sometimes they went traveling to some remote corners of the planet and didn’t write about it for a long time probably because they didn’t have a laptop, Internet or both. That was fine. After all, they were traveling and that’s all that mattered.
Now, the process is reversed. It’s no longer about travel; it’s about the blog, the presentation, the pictures, the text. It’s more important to document your experiences via all means possible than to actually travel for travel’s sake without—God forbid—telling anyone. It’s all about the marketing. (In fact, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that have blogged about cities and countries that they’ve never stepped a foot in. It’s truly surreal.)
During my travels, I’ve met guys who’ve had some incredible experiences, living in some remote jungles and getting involved with some “interesting” characters. But nobody has heard about these guys because they didn’t have a blog. They didn’t exist online. On the other hand, everyone knows about some random dude who went to Medellín and got robbed after partying in the clubs because he wrote it on a fancy WordPress blog with a custom theme.
Unique experiences are becoming rarer. When I started traveling, I used to carry a fancy camera with me so that I could take pictures of anything interesting that I found along the way. But at some point, I realized it was pointless. I think I was in Mexico City at the time, hanging out in the center.
“Okay, so I take a picture of Mexico City’s Centro Historico. Then I post it on the Internet,” I thought to myself.
But how many other pictures of it are online already? How many pictures already exist with the same exact angle? What’s the point of taking yet another picture when I could just tell someone I was there and then pull a random image from the Internet to show them what it looks like? (Nevertheless, I recently decided to setup an IG account to keep track of some nice things I’ve seen along the way. You can follow me here.)
One thing that has always kept on always while roaming around Latin America was the thought of getting out of the airport, taking some random taxi (even if it’s an official taxi) and then sitting there helplessly as the driver drove via some random street, stopped the car and robbed me. I’ve heard countless stories of this in places such as Mexico and Honduras.
Nowadays, that kind of risk is greatly minimized. There’s Uber (or some other service) with its registered drivers. But, most importantly, there’s your smartphone with integrated GPS. You can view exactly where you’re heading. So, if you notice something fishy, you can alert the driver or someone else. Moreover, the drivers know you’re tracking them so they’re less likely to deviate from their fixed route.
To be sure, there’s always a possibility that something bad might happen to you; Uber drivers are like any other taxi drivers, and, given the right incentive, you might still get robbed Still, though, the risks are much lower before these networks ever existed.
What companies like Uber (and other on-demand taxi apps) and AirBnB have done is made traveling and living abroad exponentially easier and safer by commoditizing trust. There’s an app for each distinct part of the travel experience. It also bridges national and cultural barriers like never before. This means that grabbing a taxi in Rio de Janeiro doesn’t require you to communicate to the driver your address in Leblon or even speak in Portuguese; booking an AirBnB in Kiev doesn’t require you to speak in Russian or Ukrainian.
But along with commoditizing trust, they’ve also commoditized the resulting experience.
Commodity trust, commodity experience
One of the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years was The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin. The author’s main argument is that we don’t actually want to experience the real thing—whatever that may be—we’re perfectly fine with its simpler representation: its image. In the chapter on travel, he talks about how someone can fly to another country, check into the familiar Hilton hotel, stay there the entire time, return home, and then proudly claim that they’ve visited and experienced a brand new country.
Airbnb has recently begun selling “experiences” in addition to accommodations. What this means is that you can pay some local to essentially become a local for a certain amount of time. That means you can fly to Rio de Janeiro and become a Brazilian surfer or samba dancer or fly to Bordeaux and become a French wine connoisseur, or fly to Bali and become a Balinese rice farmer if only for a day or so.
Obviously, these experiences come as close to being a true experience as when you “experience” Jamaica when your mega cruise ship docks there for a day. Compare this to an experience I had while backpacking in Guatemala. I’ve always wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle. So, I stopped in some small village and paid some money to a local guy with a beat up bike to teach me. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say that was quite an experience which is why I still remember it to this day. It was certainly a far cry from one of these modern package experiences where one can purchase an “experience.”
Airbnb itself rose to prominence by promising you cheap accommodation and cultural experiencing by connecting directly with the local instead of staying at some hotel. But out of all my recent travels, where I’ve exclusively used Airbnb, I’ve never met the actual owner of the apartment. Usually, it was one of the employees who’d give me the keys or I’d hunt for the keys under the door mattress. So much for the “experience” aspect of connecting with a local.
The easier travel gets, and the more people travel (and write about it), the less “special” various destinations around the world will become. When I lived in Rio in 2010, finding an apartment was tricky and confusing. Assuming you wanted the best deal (and why wouldn’t you?), you’d want to rent from a local and that meant speaking Portuguese. (I found my first apartment after spending an entire day walking door to door and asking the doormen if he knew someone who was renting.)
Now, it’s a lot simpler. You hop on the Internet, book an AirBnB (or some other site) and then, after arriving, you simply renegotiate the rent for a longer term. The market is consolidating in ways that weren’t possible even a decade ago.
And besides, everyone has heard of Rio de Janeiro. While I love the city with all my heart and soul, it wouldn’t be my first choice if and when I return to Brazil. No offense to fellow Cariocas, but I feel the city is a bit overrated. I’d probably want to settle somewhere else. For beaches, there’s a cool city called “Buzios” not far from Rio. It’s not only much safer but also isn’t overflowing with tourists as its more famous neighbor.
Another city that I really liked when I was there was “Belo Horizonte.” There was a time not so long ago when nobody knew much about the city except for a long road junkie. Nowadays, however, all you have to do is head to Google and you’ll quickly discover all kinds of “niche” sites dedicated to the city that’ll tell you absolutely everything you need to know. Or if you’re too lazy to travel, you can just head to Instagram and see the whole thing.
After leaving the airport and getting home, one of the first things I did was to brainstorm my next destination. I’ve been itching to return to Latin America, perhaps Colombia or Peru.
After much deliberation, I narrowed down to a cool city. I started researching my options. Cheap Airline tickets, check. Uber, check. AirBnB, check. Niche travel blog dedicated to this city, check. A plethora of hipster restaurants catering to foreigners, check. A thriving Facebook community, check. Countless city-based Instagram accounts with thousands of followers, check. AirBnB experiences so I can become a local in a day or less, check. Suddenly, I had a feeling that I would be speaking more English than Spanish. I began having second thoughts.
In many ways, I consider myself fortunate that I’ve gotten a true taste of travel while wandering around Latin America a decade ago before Facebooks, Instagrams, and iPhones were as ubiquitous as they are now. It was awesome meeting people and not have them ask me for my social media account; a simple email sufficed. And, don’t get me started on Tinder…
Fortunately, all hope is not lost. Visiting a new place still feels special even in this connected era. Last year, I had a good friend from NYC visit me here in Kiev. Like myself, he’s also originally in Ukraine, and, like myself, he’d mostly grew up in New York, in the sprawling Russian-speaking community. He enjoyed his time in Kiev very much. And, really, on paper there really isn’t a huge difference between Kiev and the Russian-speaking community in New York, where lots of people are from Ukraine. So, naturally, I thought that when he returns to NYC, he’d feel as though he didn’t leave NYC in the first place.
You can only imagine my surprise when, a day after landing, he called and told me, “I can’t believe what a difference a 9-hour flight makes. I feel like I’m in a completely different world.” This was despite being surrounded by Ukrainian stores and Ukrainian people everywhere he went.
He was absolutely right. It is a different world because it should be a different world. And, in this day and age, that’s an awesome thing.
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