Have you traveled around the world and not spend a thing? That’s what I have been doing while seated leisurely in my comfort chair. If you’re a boomer, you must remember that old TV western series entitled Have Gun-Will Travel. Now, have smart TV, will travel.
Virtual traveling: it’s a new diversion I acquired during the long lockdowns. And it is widening my cultural horizon and enriching my CQ (cultural quotient.)
Thanks to the diverse digital channels literally at my finger tips, I have gone on tour to many places I’ve always wanted to see, like Tuscany, Nantes, Malaga, Bangalore, Nagoya or Lisbon, and other obscure spots that I could only dream about or conjure in my mind while reading passages from the books of Paul Theroux, Michael Palin and other noted travel writers.
Now I’m content that I’ve visited all these places, walked their narrow streets and alleys, been to their dining places and got to know some of their local dishes, listened to the locals and learned about their peculiar ways. Just a few days ago, I went inside an old prestigious restaurant in Paris frequented by Coco Channel, Proust, Picasso and Toulouse Lautrec and even had a glance at their signatures on the guest book.
The TV or digital screen is not just a window to the world but a sort of traveling machine that gets you transported to places in a jiffy, as in the movie Jumpers. Statistical data reveals that YouTube is the second most popular search engine after Google for virtual travelers like me. People who upload their vlogs on YouTube garner views in the hundreds of thousands. Forget the likes of professionals on the level of the late Anthony Bourdain or Rick Stevens and other known travel guides. Even amateur vloggers are riding the trend and enjoying the fruits of having an ever growing number of subscribers.
I have a smart phone and an old tablet, but I much prefer to watch it all on our 40 plus inch monitor for which I am still paying installments. I bought it before the pandemic because I am a cinephile. It was meant to substitute for the conventional movie theater, which my wife and I had shunned since long ago. But now this smart TV is finally earning its worth because I get to enjoy these travel videos in full big screen splendor in HD color.
Truth be told, I now subscribe to at least 5 or 6 channels dedicated to travelling. I specially like the walking videos where the hand-held camera goes through the streets of a remote village, picking up odds and ends, sneaking in and peeking into every nook and cranny. I also love it when the camera goes inside shops, old churches, museums or charming old world dining spots.
It’s a good thing handheld cameras have become lighter and advanced. Gone are the days when amateur travelogues were synonymous with blurred videos or jerky movements. Scenes are no longer jerky and the images are more pleasant for viewing, and because of their HD quality, they are so detailed, one gets the feel and sense of really being there.
Usually, I avoid watching vocally annotated walking videos where the travel guide or host keeps droning and chattering on and on. I like the voiceless walk-through videos with accompanying silent captions, in which the camera still picks up the ambient natural sounds as it jauntily goes along. I can’t help but admire the stamina of the anonymous dogged bearers of these cameras who walk continuously for 20 kilometers or even farther.
Occasionally I click on vlogs where the host explains or gives a short backgrounder or sheds light on an ancient structure or statue, an object or artifact or a piece of the native dish. There’s one channel where the husband and wife hosts are fond of going to flea markets in the quiet French countryside. Their delight in their discoveries of quaint bric-a-brac, old trinkets, ornaments and utensils is very infectious. Sometimes, they buy meats and fruits and vegetables and homemade cheese sourced from nearby farms and wines aged and bottled in local wineries. Towards the end of the episode, they bring these items one by one, and talk about them for the enlightenment of their followers.
I subscribe to various travel channels. They come in an assortment of niche categories. Some channels focus on the cuisine of a particular place, while others highlight the city or country life. There’s a solo explorer who concentrates on showing different types of domestic ferries going from one point to the next in Japan. Some vloggers even go live to share the adventures they experience along the way, glitches and all.
One learns a new thing every day as you watch these channels. My cultural quotient now includes the cost of things. I have a daughter who calculates the equivalent of yen, euro, won, or rupee in pesos. Europe is expensive. So is Tokyo. Korean dishes are priced almost the same as here.
I have a feeling many of the vlogs are designed for real tourists or travelers to give them tips or even promote a tourist destination, recommend them to viewers who have plans of traveling. Vlogs serve to give them an idea of what to expect during the journey and at their destination.
I sometimes ask myself: why bother to travel when you can see all these places, famous or obscure, without being pressed by crowds, without the physical, mental strain of keeping up with schedules, not to mention the drain on your limited budget.
I have done a little traveling outside the country myself, and I know what the physical reality of traveling entails. No wonder even travel vloggers quit after a year as research reveals. They cite tiredness, expenses, and lack of time as specific reasons for quitting.
Yet, travel vlogging is said to be in demand. I am not surprised because the human mind is curious by nature. People are interested to know about new domains. They say that the impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life. I am certain the viewers of these channels have increased geometrically during the long lockdowns when people were constrained to stay inside their homes. In fact even if limited restrictions are still in place, lots of people are now traveling.
I am not so naïve not to know that these vlog channels are out to make money. I’ve found out vloggers can earn as much as 48 percent of the subscriptions on some platforms. But I can discern the earnest ones. Even if they don’t speak English well, or the auto generated captions are atrociously done, I still can sense their enthusiasm and their palpable sense of discovery. Authentic content and candid, unscripted commentary are my only two minimum requirements.
What I am most interested in is the culture of the place, encompassing the language, cuisine, ways of living, and so on. If I were a tourist, what I would eagerly seek out are the people, more than the scenery, more than the iconic landmarks. I would observe how the natives talk and how they behave. I would definitely taste their local cuisine. I would go to their local museums, theaters, temples, local handicraft stores, and explore their backstreets. I will try to immerse myself in the kind of life the locals experience everyday.
I would choose to spend more time trying to gain a deeper understanding of the culture or heritage of a destination. Culture is what travelling should be all about. As someone said, each time we travel, we see the world with new eyes.
I wish that virtual traveling would be a required subject in high school, or as part of social studies to acculturate our youth to diverse people and societies. It will be a fascinating, mind-opening session for them, and many times they will discover that people all over the world have so much in common.
So what’s next in the horizon? VR traveling, which involves virtual reality (VR) technology and 360-degree videography. I understand some of these virtual travel tours can be enjoyed online right now. You have a choice of national parks tour, scuba diving tour, castle tour, as well as tour of famous landmarks and iconic cultural spots. I guess these VR tours are more immersive than the travel vlogs that I watch.
It’s tempting to try VR traveling but no thanks. It’s because the focus is more on the superficial aspects of the landscape or landmark. I want my virtual immersion to be on a deeper and more enriching level, to encounter the more meaningful aspects of a place. It’s not just about sightseeing, it’s really more about widening my cultural universe.
As it is, I am just about ready to find a beautiful new place to get lost. It’s true: the more we get lost in our travels, the richer our lives become.