Disappointing Travel Experiences: When Materialism and Travel Collide

We’ve all had those anti-climactic experiences where we’ve been really looking forward to seeing something, or had high expectations about it, only to feel slightly disappointed afterwards. It’s a common case when travelling – guide books marvel about how wonderful a place is and the websites only show photos taken in the sun. But I’m not just talking about realising that the sights aren’t actually that impressive; sometimes your experience of the people around you can tarnish your views.

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I experienced this feeling after visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. Possibly the country’s most famous place to visit, I decided to go and check it out en route to the airport. My bus left rainy Reykjavík at 9am and we drove through a barren black sea of lava fields, until about 50 minutes later the bright blue water appeared in sight, bringing instant energy to a bleak morning. In a building situated next to the car park, one could store their belongings for a non-returnable fee of 500ISK. The receptionist said “Enjoy your stay” with the same upbeat tone to every customer, as if programmed like a machine.

A return bus journey and ticket to bathe in the hot springs costs 9800ISK from Reykjavik Excursions, but being low on cash and uncertain I’d have enough time to get sufficient bathing value for the price, I decided I would just pay 1600ISK for the Visitor’s Pass once there, which equates to around £8. “You can keep this,” the receptionist said, sliding a loose blue rubber band onto my wrist as the lady next to him patiently dealt with a ditsy customer. “And just come back if you change your mind about bathing.”

As I walked onto the viewing deck and looked over the huge pool, I nearly did. The large baths of blue water sat amongst the mass surroundings of dark lava fields like a rose amongst thorns. The heat radiating from the water was so inviting and there was plenty of space to lounge around daydreaming. The perfect end to a trip, surely? There wasn’t really much you could do with a Visitor’s Pass apart from watch other bathers enviously from this deck, feeling like a bit of a pervert – a sly method to get you paying more. I stood watching the shoots of steam in the distance, the constant swapping of my weight from one foot to the other reflecting the constant changing of my mind.

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Then I was suddenly distracted by the sound of haughty laughter, and looked down to see a whale of a man conversing loudly with his friends in the water about some sort of business matter, waving his champagne glass around carelessly. Right then something told me that my original decision had been the right one. I averted my gaze from his large belly only to see other people behaving in a similar fashion – talking loudly and uttering fake laughs that seemed to epitomise money and privilege.  I found myself asking, ‘Is this what coming here does to people, or is it just these people that it attracts?’

Unfortunately the man’s arrogant laughter continued to fill the air, just as the rain continued to fall. I couldn’t stand hearing anymore, but the ‘Yorkshire Lass’ in me was determined to get as much value out of my entry fee as possible, so I headed downstairs to the cafe to read.  As I purchased a smoothie that would taste purely of diet, the staff stood around looking fed-up. I soon learned the cause of their moods, gritting my teeth as the abrupt deliverance of the question “Is there WiFi here?” continually flooded my ears. Women and teenage girls in designer clothes would then proceed to stare non-stop at their iphones for their remaining stay.

Whilst I don’t own an iphone myself, I’m able to realise how in this day and age, Facebook updates to show off the really cool thing so-and-so just did can’t wait. And of course, working people need to check their emails regularly. But there was something so empty about these people, as if they literally had no essence of human inside them – only a piece of technology for a soul and bank for a heart that constantly churned out money like oxygen.

A few minutes later a member of staff around my age looked bewildered as a customer explained to her that she must make her own latte. The lady finished reeling off her special recipe instructions with a patronising “Thanks, honey.” I looked at her, feeling both stunned and repulsed as she ran her hands through her perfectly conditioned hair, nose in the air as she looked down to scrutinise the finished product. Suddenly her face turned in my direction and I looked down at my scruffy jeans and walking boots, make-up free face reflecting in the window, realising just how odd I must have looked compared to everyone else here. As I stood up to deposit my empty carton in the bin, immaculate women looked me up and down with a facial expression that seemed to suggest I should be apologising for something, as if my clothes offended them.

And yet how ironic that a few years ago, my outfit would have been regarded as completely normal. Only now in an era of advanced social technology did it matter to these people that I wasn’t carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag and wearing a cream blazer. The ability of people to stay in constant contact with friends and colleagues while travelling across the globe, by updating everyone and his wife about their every move with tweets and photos, means that nobody is free from judgement about how they look, or what possessions they own. As a result, travel has started to become less about backpacks and dog-eared journals, and more about luxury hotels and strong WiFi on buses. Where’s the sense of adventure and escapism gone?

When I think of genuine backpacking, I think of counting waterproof mascara as ample make-up; wearing my cheapest, scruffiest clothes and not caring if they get torn or muddy; accepting that I may have to go a couple of days without a shower; checking my emails every few days on a slow computer in an internet cafe; and spending my food budget at the supermarket on biscuits and bread. But now it seems that even budgeting backpackers are expected to constantly conform to high standards of appearance, financial expenditure and socio-technological mobility.

It is common that people will stop in Iceland just for one night, en route to a destination in Europe or North America. Being situated only 20km from Keflavík airport, the Blue Lagoon therefore makes sense as a place to visit for some pampering time. Many of the people who come here will not be interested in learning about or seeing anything else of Iceland. It is simply another place for them to spend their money in and post a photo to Twitter from, before heading back to their hotel for a fancy dinner and spending the evening in their suite browsing the internet. The boost to Iceland’s tourism industry that comes from the bulging wallets of such people means that unfortunately, the strong presence of businessmen and bankers; trophy-wives and spoilt children, is set to linger on in the Blue Lagoon as the features of the resort continue to be catered towards their ostentatious demands.

One consolation is that the heat of the lagoon isn’t a natural occurrence, instead being produced by geothermal energy usage, so at least an innate wonder of the country isn’t being contaminated by such a pompous bunch.  However at the same time, one can argue whether native Icelanders would even want their country’s energy to be used to feed the hungry desires of such strong representatives of capital, especially when this is something they themselves can relate little to.  As debate grows (in the context of proposals to build more hotels in Reykjavík) about whether Iceland’s government is neglecting its public expenditure in favour of developing the tourist industry, it is not surprising to note that few Icelanders themselves seem to visit the tourist-haven that is the Blue Lagoon, especially if this is the kind of snooty atmosphere they’ll be greeted with.

Before I start sounding like a boring draconian, let me clarify that I’m not at all immune to the idea of sipping champagne in a relaxing hot bath outdoors. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But you can enjoy such pleasures without trying to make other people feel inadequate for the simple reason that they aren’t sporting the latest materialistic goods and designer names. I could have told those snobs the names of all the renowned natural wonders of the country that I’d seen during my travels. Then I realised that in this day and age, I wasn’t actually sure which names would be regarded with higher value.

For a moment I wondered if it was just a case of me feeling intimidated about bathing amongst these people with all their commerce-and-capital-orientated chat. But actually, it was simply that I didn’t want to be amongst these people with their plastic cards and plastic faces, lending my support to their arrogantly flamboyant lifestyles. Like any girl, I of course like to look good, but whilst I’m travelling the tomboy in me would rather I spend my day lifting my feet up a notorious mountain than having them rubbed in a resort’s spa. I could do the latter in my own country. And yet evidently because the habits of the image-obsessed celebrities women ‘follow’ on Twitter would disagree, the ‘outdoors’ aspect of the former is becoming viewed as an unattractive activity for the female traveller.

As I walked towards the exit past ladies sauntering around in their white robes, I felt immense relief that I’d decided to come here last on my trip. Had I visited the Blue Lagoon first, it might have damaged my expectations of what was to come for the remainder. But luckily for me, I knew this brief experience was an exception to the real Iceland that I’d been fortunate to see for myself.

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I disliked the Blue Lagoon not because of its purpose or how it looked, but because of its association with high socioeconomic status.  To the majority of the people I saw there, the pool of water mayaswell have been a pool of money. This is what their minds were purely drawn to – the acquirement of it; the spending of it; and the display of it. Just like demand for five-star hotels leads to the chipping away of old concrete, the Blue Lagoon represented how materialism has begun to chip away at the old values of travel. Young people are now growing up influenced by implications that travelling is about exhibiting their clothing collection and taking photos of a popular place on their iphone, ready to show off straight to their friends back home with the click of a button. Travel money is spent on expensive perfume at the airport, not cultural mementos from the country they’re visiting. In ten years will young people even be using backpacks?

Located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but lava fields, the Blue Lagoon has sadly become trapped in a spider’s nest of capital-fixation, with little choice but to please wealthy foreign visitors if it wishes to help liberate the economy, in a land where the high cost of living is lamented. As a result, the Blue Lagoon for me unfortunately represents the negative effects of the modernisation of travel.

So if you decide to visit Iceland someday, please don’t make seeing the Blue Lagoon your priority. There is so much more this country has to offer, often for free and often in unexpected places. It is, of course, a cruel irony that you will however be doing the country’s economy a favour if you do go. In which case, please wear your backpack and walking boots with pride.

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Another blogger recalls 5 disappointing experiences…

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2 thoughts on “Disappointing Travel Experiences: When Materialism and Travel Collide

  1. Very amazing perspective! Personally, I dislike doing live-updates (although this is mainly due to privacy and security reasons). When I’m traveling, what I do is to schedule everything the night before and then just enjoy the day without having to check my phone 😀

  2. Pingback: Return to Reyjavík: The Changing Face of Iceland | SoleSeeking

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