What Star Trek Has Taught Us About Travel

Although created in 1966, this television show would somehow become a predictor of how we should travel in the 21st century…

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?

While I wasn’t what you’d consider a hardcore Trekkie, I was nevertheless smitten by the travel bug from a young age, so 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?

Better Stay at Home

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, but for the first time in my adult life, really had the time to explore my surroundings, connect with locals and ferret out places not found in guidebooks.

She 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 the 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 made our beds or served our meals. Somehow I don’t think the cr ew 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.”

Live Long and Travel

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, it’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.”

While not under the Prim e 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 live long and prosper.

Image by QUINN RYAN MATTINGLY

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