As a kid in the early 80s, I remember rushing home from school in time to get my Star Trek fix, eager to see what trouble the valiant crew of the Enterprise would encounter that week. Would it be hyper reproductive furballs, gladiator-style death battles or some near fatal malfunction of the dilithium crystals? And more importantly, what color alien would Captain Kirk inevitably have to seduce in the name of intergalactic diplomacy?
I even once met a real life crew member at LAX. Sadly, he could not use his special powers to transport us from the secondary security line.
While I wasn’t what you’d consider a hardcore Trekkie, unfamiliar with all the acronyms like TNG and DS9, I was nevertheless smitten by the travel bug from a young age when our family took its first international vacation, all the way to Cancun. I remember being the one who spotted the $399 deal in the paper and peppering the exasperated travel agent with questions. I don’t even think a passport was needed to travel back then. Yes, we stayed in a dump of a city hotel, four people on two cramped beds, but I was in heaven. We rented a jalopy of a Volkswagen Beetle to drive to Chichen Itza where I was transfixed by the ball court and the altars where human sacrifices took place. Even at 11, I was already a history nerd and seeing places I had only read about was akin to being transported back in time. It was nothing short of magical.
It was also my first exposure to seeing kids my age (and younger) selling chicklets on the street. We couldn’t really afford any tours, so as a family, we wandered around the mercados where I had my first experience bargaining for wool blankets, took local buses to the beach, and ate at eateries in the barrio, my sister taking the lead using her high school Spanish.
So I guess it’s no surprise that the lure of “boldly going where no man has gone before” had an irresistible appeal. What travel junkie wouldn’t jump at the chance to explore new worlds, unfettered by space or occasionally even time?
That spirit of exploration has driven me to travel the planet, everywhere from Nepal to Namibia, Thailand to Tanzania, Japan to Jordan. But recently, I’ve been thinking of what else Star Trek has taught me about travel.
A recurring theme throughout the series was the Prime Directive, an unassailable mandate which forbade interference with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. I found myself questioning to what extent travelers and expats affect the culture of the place they’re visiting or conversely, allow that culture and experience to affect them?
After more than 10 years in the corporate world, I recently met up with a former colleague here in Ho Chi Minh City and told her I had completely changed my life. I was working less (and as a result, earning significantly less), just making ends meet, selling travel articles I wrote, re-wrote, then agonized over, all for a measly $50. But for the first time in my adult life, I had the time to explore my surroundings, really connect with locals and ferret out places not found in guidebooks. I talked about spending hours just wandering around back streets and taking photos. Or sitting down and hearing the life story of a wizened old man who sold coins and stamps in front of a luxury clothing shop.
My former colleague visibly grimaced.
“I don’t want to live like that,” she pronounced as we walked through her all-marble lobby past a huge pool and a Domino’s Pizza.
In fact, with all the glitzy cupcake shops, pilates classes, and 1.5 kg hamburgers available here in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s easy to craft a life virtually indistinguishable from one in fashionable London or vibrant Sydney, or any other modern metropolis.
We’ve probably all been guilty at one time or another of going to a beach resort in some exotic destination where the only locals ever encountered were the ones who cleaned our rooms, served our meals or turned down our beds. Somehow I don’t think the crew of Enterprise would’ve been impressed.
In response, the independent travel movement – people moving away from packaged experiences, toward more authentic interactions – has grown significantly in recent years. Bootsnall, a popular site for indie around-the-world travel, encourages travelers to adopt a manifesto which focuses on discovery over escape, interactions over transactions and seeking to understand, not judge or romanticize, other cultures.
Travel fiction writer James Michener once said, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”
Just because we can live a life removed when we’re abroad, surrounded by all that’s familiar and comfortable, does that mean we should?
Poet Gael Attal eloquently observed, “A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
Digital nomad, Barbara Adam agrees: “While living in Chiang Mai, we hung out with fellow travelers and expats quite a bit. Through Twitter and Facebook, someone even organized a complete Thanksgiving dinner just for travelers! But looking back, I’m disappointed to say that after living there for seven months, we hadn’t made many local friends other than saying ‘hello’ to people at the market. We were living in a bubble of sorts. It was easy to forget why you travel which is to meet the locals.”
“It was easy to forget why you travel which is to meet the locals.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the danger of making too great an impact on the place you’re visiting. My Thanh Pham, a CouchSurfing ambassador for Ho Chi Minh City, expresses her growing concerns after years of meeting hundreds of visitors and hosting dozens of travelers. “Originally, CouchSurfing was about sharing travel experiences. It was a great way to practice English while learning about other cultures. But recently, that’s changed. Now, it’s almost like a dating site,” she explains. “Vietnamese girls are using it to find Western boyfriends. I know a few young Vietnamese who have quit school entirely, just to hang out with Westerners, both hosts and surfers, partying and drinking all day… I now see that it’s a two way street. [Meeting travelers,] I’ve learned a lot about Western thinking and culture. But I’ve learned that we need to be able to share our own culture while not losing ourselves.”
“We need to be able to share our own culture while not losing ourselves.”
While not under the Prime Directive, modern-day travelers have a choice to make: Embrace authentic travel experiences despite all the accompanying inconveniences and discomfort? Or settle for an artificial, superficial hologram of the real thing? And what impact do we seek to have on host cultures? One of mutual learning and appreciation? Or one of imposing Western-centric values and an unsustainable sense of entitlement?
While the original series only lasted three seasons and ended more than forty years ago, the crew of Enterprise were way ahead of their time. They came, they observed, they interacted, they sought to understand — all while respecting the cultures they visited. Thankfully, the spirit of Star Trek lives on in intrepid travelers across the globe, seeking their own adventures, boldly going where they’ve never gone before.
To my fellow indie travelers, may you travel long and prosper.
What kind of traveler are you? Is there anything wrong with having a “packaged” experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo credit: Kid with “Spock” sign by Quinn Ryan Mattingly
Note: This article was originally published in Oi Vietnam. Click on the image below to read more great stories on life in Ho Chi Minh City and beyond.