Whenever I return from traveling, I love to tell stories about my ‘cultural experiences.’ Usually, at the end of these stories, I come off as a bit of a jackass, but if I call it a ‘cultural experience,’ I sound like a fabulously worldly jackass.
I’ve learned that a lot of cultural experiences are complete bullshit. A lot of the time they’re tourists traps, at best an inside joke among the locals at tourists’ expense, while others are simply not worth the time, or are unsafe, or are reprehensible. Here are 5.
1. The Mona Lisa
Honestly, I don’t really ‘get’ art. And I know some people do ‘get’ art, and that it’s not ‘open-minded’ to say they are ‘objectively wrong.’ But don’t waste your time on the Mona Lisa.
The Louvre is an awesome building in itself, and it’s a lot of fun to walk through and stumble across works you recognize from the walls of many a college dorm room. But the physically tiny Mona Lisa is kept behind bulletproof glass in an insanely crowded room. You’d get a better view of it from a postcard.
There are a billion things to do in Paris. Check out the most beautiful cathedral in the world, Notre Dame, just a few blocks away, or better yet, go find a place that sells insanely cheap bread and wine and get soused.
2. Kissing the Blarney Stone
The Blarney Stone is a piece of rock in the battlements of Blarney Castle in Blarney, Ireland. I have absolutely no idea how the stone got its name. Legend has it that if you kiss the Blarney Stone, you are granted the “gift of gab,” or great eloquence. Countless people have been kissing it for centuries now.
Full disclosure: I have not kissed the Blarney Stone. By the time I made it to Ireland, I’d already read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, in which the narrator, after getting drunk one night with his college friends, breaks into the castle and pisses on the Blarney Stone. I’ve looked around online as to whether anything like this was verifiably true. I wasn’t able to get solid confirmation.
What I did find is thousands of pictures of people kissing the stone. It is actually smooth from the number of times it’s been kissed. This in itself is a deal-breaker. Statistically speaking, at least one of those people had mouth herpes. Besides, the Irish know better: A gift of gab is not granted, it’s a talent that’s earned and honed over many, many pints.
3. Kopi Luwak
Kopi Luwak is an insanely expensive coffee made in Southeast Asia. The reason it’s so expensive is that each bean was, at one point, eaten by an Asian palm civet — a relative of the weasel — and then pooped out. The coffee producers pull the beans out of the poop, roast them, and serve them up in what I assume could be described as a “nutty, heady brew.”
I have never actually tasted this, because it costs $35 a cup. But it sounds suspiciously like a product invented on a dare and sold to tourists by people who really hate tourists. I’m all for trying new foods, but if you’re going to draw a line, draw it at poop.
4. Getting altitude sickness
The reason I call altitude sickness a cultural experience is that I’ve gotten it at two very famous trekking spots, one in the Andes and the other in the Himalayas. In both, it appeared to be a pretty standard part of the culture. Everyone in each group who hadn’t spent a significant amount of time in the mountains suffered it in varying levels of severity. One of the men in our group went temporarily blind from what’s known as a high-altitude cerebral edema.
The guides always had remedies or suggestions — “Did you drink a lot of water?” or “Try this milk made from rancid yak butter, that helps,” or “How about you go back down the fucking mountain?”
Getting sick while you’re traveling actually makes for pretty fantastic stories. I once, for example, ate a nasty burrito in London during a trip around Europe and two days later found myself miming diarrhea to a pharmacist in Paris. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t go to Peru or Tibet, but environment does affect culture, and it will, inevitably, make some places impossible to enjoy to the fullest.
5. Slum tourism
Slum tourism is when tourists pay companies to drive them on a bus through Indian shantytowns, or South African townships, or Brazilian favelas. They get off the bus at controlled, pre-planned points, and are escorted around for picture taking and possibly a brief trip to a school or a market. Then they are bused back to their hotels to dine on caviar and count themselves lucky that the maid showed up for turndown service.
There’s an element of voyeurism and schadenfreude to slum tourism that strikes me as icky. Although personally, I haven’t been the same person since I first walked past an Indian slum. So I think there’s a certain amount of value in rich, entitled kids like myself coming into contact with extreme poverty, if for nothing else than to make the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems more meaningful.
But, as a South African friend put it, “If I were to visit you in Washington, and you were acting as my guide, would you want to take me to the ghetto?” No, I probably wouldn’t.
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Matt is a writer and blogger based in Washington, DC who has lived in London, Buenos Aires, and Beijing. His hobbies include profanity, Scotch consumption, and human rights activism. You can find him at A Man Without a Country.