TRAVEL 2050 By R J Furth
I was momentarily confused, not a surprise considering that I’m approaching my 100th birthday. The drugs my doctors prescribed keep the senility and Alzheimer’s at bay, and the herbs and vitamins I regularly eat assure that my 99-year-old brain functions like a 50-year-old. My confusion, therefore, was not a result of physical decline. It was directly related to my age, though. The world has changed so dramatically in the past few decades that my brain can’t keep up. I suspect that some 50-year-olds experience the same confusion. The world they knew so well in 2020 is not the same world they occupy in 2050. The difference between those ‘youngsters’ and me is that I have nearly 100 years of memories, 100 years of watching the world change slowly, then more rapidly, and finally at a pace that dazzles and, ultimately confounds. It’s like if you start a trip on horseback and get to see the scenery clearly, in detail, then you hop in a car and see more scenery, though in much less detail. When you eventually ride in a hyperspeed jet you can’t see a damn thing besides flashes of light and color and sound. Nothing is distinct. Nothing tantalizes the senses. Yet, somehow, amidst those flashes, there are bits of magic in this new, rapidly changing world. At a time when international travel is rare, I have been introduced to a new form of travel that is surprisingly pleasing. Is it possible that people can experience travel without actually leaving home? That was the source of the confusion in my 99-year-old brain.
My grandson and his wife invited me to their house for a family trip to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Until a couple of decades ago traveling had been my life’s greatest pleasure, besides being with family, of course. My parents loved to travel, so I grew up with a home where life revolved around traveling. We would read about places we’d like to visit, watch movies about distant lands or far away cities. Hours were spent planning the next trip. In my youth we spread maps out on tables or pinned them to walls and tried to figure out the best routes. If we were driving from Ohio to California, we’d have competitions as to which family member could come up with the fewest miles that passed through the most national parks. Later, with the advent of the computer age, when I had my own family, we would contend to find the best website that would do the calculations for us, including costs. I never saw the point in hiring a travel agent, not when there was so much pleasure to be gained from planning a trip. Trips to distant countries required a lot more planning and provided more opportunities for personal growth before even heading to the airport. If we were going to Japan or Peru or Morocco, we’d read travel books and novels set in the country and even study some of the language. It was time well spent. Arriving in a country with a knowledge of its history and culture, and with a few words and phrases (hello, goodbye, thank you, where is the toilet) was always rewarded with smiles from locals who appreciated our effort.
Of course, even better than the preplanning was the aftermath of the trip: photos, souvenirs, clothes and art work and handicrafts, memories. As I sit in my study and type this essay―I might be one of the last people on the planet to type rather than dictate, loving the clatter and feel of a keyboard as much as I do―I look around the room at artifacts from my travels. Batiks of curvaceous sari-clad women remind of a trip to Varanasi in northern India. Wood carvings take me back to Bali and Sulawesi, both in Indonesia. A miniature carving of Michelangelo’s David rekindle memories of a family trip to Italy. I can close my eyes and allow my nose to take me back in time. A sandalwood carving from Nepal. A musty calendar from southern India. Straw sandals from Japan. An old postcard that I wrote while in India has a faint aroma of the curry that I accidentally spilled onto the edge. Other senses trigger more travel memories. On particularly hot, humid days I have flashes of walking through the Amazon rainforest in Peru. When the heat once went out in my house in Canton, Ohio, and we huddled in front of the fireplace, I flashed on memories of being chilled in Melbourne, Australia, during one June visit. I was also reminded of the time I built a fire early one frigid morning high up in the Rockies of Colorado as I waited for the sun to heat up the day. And I mustn’t forget sounds, always a strong trigger of past events. The Muslim call to prayer―most often heard in movies these days since Muslim populations have become isolated― always takes me to Morocco or Malaysia or Jordan. Ocarina or shamisen music instantly transports me to Japan. Every one of my senses triggers memories of past trips. Now that I no longer travel, it is only through these sensory triggers that I am able to experience the pleasure of travel. I suppose that is what today’s ‘travel agents’ had in mind―traveling through your senses―when they came up with the idea of replacing real voyages with virtual trips.
There is no confusion in my mind as to why people have stopped international travel. Even my 99-year-old brain can easily comprehend the fears that extinguished the desire to dine in Paris or visit the Taj Mahal or walk the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu. The world has become a dangerous place, too dangerous to risk you life in order to eat sushi in Tokyo or ride a camel in the Sahara desert. Terrorism drove the first nail into travel’s coffin. A few planes were blown out of the sky, a couple of airports were destroyed by bombs, travelers from certain countries―the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany―were targeted by extremists. Once upon a time you dressed nicely, took a taxi to the airports, showed your passport and boarded a plane. Now, getting from one country to another is an Orwellian nightmare of security checks, body searches, constant video surveillance. All suitcases and carry-ons must be constructed from clear materials, and even then they are brusquely yanked open and the contents searched and scanned for dangerous items, leaving you to repack while those in line behind you mutter that you’re taking too much time and they’re going to miss their flight. The travel difficulties caused by terrorism were then augmented by the fight to stem the flow of disease. In my younger days I was politely asked if I had been in contact with farm animals during England’s Mad Cow scare. A simple denial and I was allowed to enter the U.S. Then bird flu struck, followed by Ebola, followed by so many contagious diseases that I’ve lost track of the epidemics and pandemics. That’s when security moved well beyond mere questions. People were placed in quarantine for up to a month after visiting countries with Ebola. The next epidemic―something to do with monkeys or bats or some other animal, hell if I remember―led to people being barred from returning home for months, until they could prove that they weren’t carrying the disease. When an international scandal erupted about forged health certificates, border security became tighter, more aggressive. Not only did you risk terror attacks when you traveled, now you faced the possibility of not being allowed back into your own country.
The fear that gripped America soon spread around the world. Countries closed their borders or made it increasingly difficult to get a visa: doctors’ notes, blood tests, DNA samples, long periods in quarantine. The European Union, which once allowed visitors to travel from Turkey to the UK without having to stop at a border, eventually fell apart as each nation beefed up security and reopened checkpoints. Airlines stopped flying to countries that were paralyzed by terrorism or where disease went unchecked. People stopped flying because there were fewer places to visit. Airlines began losing huge sums of money, leading them to dramatically raise prices. Few besides the very rich could afford to travel, causing a majority of the world’s airlines to declare bankruptcy and ground their fleets. The international travel industry that had boomed after World War II, due in large part to inexpensive flights, soon vanished. There was little reason for Lonely Planet or Rough Guides or Frommers to publish books about the best hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu or Cairo if people were no longer visiting those places. The same was true for online travel sites such as Tripadvisor. Regional travel still existed, though. Americans traveled domestically. Americans and Canadians visited each other, as did French and Spaniards, Argentinians and Chileans, but only by car or train, and in miniscule numbers compared to the good old days. I heard a news story around 2040 that claimed international tourism in the previous thirty years had declined 95%. 2040 also marked the year that virtual tourism became all the rage.
Early in this century a company named Georama began to offer customers the ability to, ‘experience the world vicariously in real-time’. I remember seeing one of their ads and wondering what the hell that meant. Experience the world vicariously. In real-time. Fascinated, I checked them out online. Turns out they had ‘guides’ who wore cameras that would ‘live stream’ their point of view. You could talk with your guide, deciding where they would go and what they would live stream. If a narrow cobblestoned street in Edinburgh looked interesting you could ask the guide to stroll down it, stopping to look into shop windows. Or you could follow your guide down the Amazon or through the slums of Bombay. Just like a real trip, except without the smell and feel and taste and actual contact with real people, the very things that made travel special in the first place. Although Georama offered a virtual form of real tourism, it lacked too many elements to have much appeal to people who had experienced the real thing. To techies, to people looking for startup ideas, to those seeking a challenge and/or financial opportunities, these limitations were trifles. In fact, people had been seeking enhanced viewing technologies for decades. Cinerama was developed in the mid 20th century to offer a more dramatic, panoramic viewing experience. Large theaters were constructed for Cinerama, which featured a giant curved screen with multiple cameras. Although the effect was entertaining―I remember flinching as a herd of buffalo thundered toward me in How The West Was Won―the cost and numerous technical difficulties (synchronizing multiple cameras) doomed Cinerama. Other experiments included vibrating seats (for earthquakes or stampedes) and Smell-O-Vision, neither of which I experienced in my youth. I did visit the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, where the Disneyesque tour in small cars on a fixed track included the ‘authentic’ smell of a Viking village, an odor that blended smoke and dung that wafted your way during the tour. Starting in the late 20th century we were offered Surround Sound, High Definition, 3D and more. By 2040 you not only saw and heard movies―the quality of which was quite impressive―you could also feel and smell the action on the screen. And just as movie watching shifted in the 20th century from large theaters to home entertainment units, so too the new technologies that had been developed for the big screen were being adapted for the small screen. Combine the virtual tourism of Georama with the technologies coming out of Hollywood and Bollywood, adapt them for home use, and you have the tourism experience of today, 2050.
That is why I went to my grandson’s house to climb Mount Kilimanjaro rather than fly to Tanzania, which was no longer possible, even if I wasn’t approaching my 100th birthday. (East Africa was waging a losing battle against terrorism and disease, the dreaded double whammy.) I have experienced nearly all of the technological innovations developed during my lifetime and I have been impressed by few, yet I’m not a Luddite and I always try to keep an open mind. As my eyesight and hearing worsened, I welcomed innovations such as high definition and ultra-real sound. Watching movies and television has remained a favorite pastime even as my senses fade with age. Still, I miss traveling as I miss old friends and solid food and booze and sex, all wonderful pleasures from my younger days. When my grandson called to tell me the latest in virtual travel systems had been installed at his house I was intrigued. Maybe I could recapture some of the thrill of real travel. Maybe technology had reached the point where it could fool our brains into believing, even if just for a brief moment, that we were in another land. My great-grandson picked me up, drove me to his dad’s house, and guided me to the new viewing room. (I walk slowly with a cane, but I still get to where I’m going.) My grandson was bubbling over with excitement, impatient to show me his new purchase. He had heard many of my travel stories and knew how much I missed my overseas life, and he was confident that I would find immense joy through virtual travel.
My old brain still functioned well enough to comprehend the technology. (Hooray for modern pharmaceuticals.) The viewing screen was the latest in 3D―it had been thirty years since technology had dispensed with the need to wear clunky 3D glasses―so realistic that you couldn’t help leaning back when somebody on the screen reached out toward you. A dozen speakers were placed strategically around the room, including the ceiling and floor, that produced sound indistinguishable from the real deal. Each theater-style seat was equipped to move, vibrate and shake so as to realistically simulate actual movements. The seats could replicate the sensation of riding a horse or elephant or being on a canoe or riding a hang glider. The room’s climate was also controlled, so that the heat and humidity could be cranked up for a trek through the Malaysian rainforest or the room dried and chilled for Nordic skiing across the frozen tundra. My grandson showed off each of these features with the same pride as when he introduced me to his newborn children. His excitement reached a new level, though, when he revealed the newest feature, the one thing that took virtual travel to new heights: The Olfactory Orgasm. Yup, that’s what it’s called. The designers claim that their invention will take you to new levels of pleasure that were never before possible. Of course, remembering the aroma of dung at the Jorvik Viking Center I couldn’t help smirking. Not all odors are orgasmic, but I quickly wiped the smirk from my face and gave my grandson my full attention. He pointed to two dozen tiny jets that hung from the ceiling. Each was fed from a device concealed in the ceiling that contained hundreds of small vials filled with chemicals. When the central computer that ran the system called for the smell of curry, the valves on the correct dials would open and chemicals were released. These chemicals were combined during their journey down tubes and were released through the jets in a fine mist. In a fraction of a second the mist could change from curry to cow dung to jasmine, simulating a stroll down a narrow street in Varanasi on the way to the Ganges, or so claimed my grandson. Put it all together―3D viewing, ultra-real sound, active seats, climate control and Olfactory Orgasm―and you had a travel experience with all the sensory pleasures but without the threat of terrorism, crime, jetlag, disease and all the other factors that eventually led to the end of real tourism. (I fleeting wondered if the system offered pornography, though I was decades past the age when it would have been of any value to me.)
When my grandson had asked me over he gave me the option of choosing the virtual tour, of which there were nearly 1000 choices, most of those being in Europe, Oceana or safer parts of Asia and Latin America. I had seen little of Africa in my travels, besides north Africa, and had never climbed Kilimanjaro. Even if the world were a safe place and travel still open for anybody with the money and spirit, climbing Kilimanjaro would be out of the question for my weary, old body. As much as I scoff at the idea of virtual travel, I was intrigued by the possibility of getting to the top of Africa’s highest peak. I was given the best seat, dead center in the front row. A few family members mounted treadmills so that they could more faithfully participate in the ‘trek’. My great-granddaughter put a glass of cool water in my cup holder, in case the climb made me thirsty, she said. I reclined so that I could look up at the large, curved screen, the lights were dimmed, and we commenced the hike. I say ‘we’ because there were six of us in my grandson’s Voyage Pod―the term coined by the company that created the program―and two actual climbers on Kili, both young Tanzanian men.
I won’t relate the details of the climb. I always detested being invited over to somebody’s house to watch slides (in my youth) or videos (in middle age) of people’s vacations. (‘Here’s me and Martha in front of the Louvre.’ ‘Here’s me and Martha in front of Notre Dame.’ ‘Here’s me and Martha eating French toast.’) I’ve watched home movies of families boarding planes, being served dinner on the plane, then deplaning. As boring as watching paint dry. Let me sum up, as Inago Montoya once said. It was an interesting experience. I’d go so far as to say stimulating. Rather than just sit and be a passive observer, there was a real sense of participating in the climb. Occasionally I realized that my feet were moving of their own volition, as if trying to keep up with the guides. In the same vein, I liked communicating with the two guides who were actually doing the hike. When I asked for them to scan the horizon I was treated to a panoramic view that was really quite spectacular on the 3D viewing screen. We snacked in Ohio when they stopped for food on the mountain. As ‘we’ climbed higher the room grew colder and the air seemed to get thinner. I had to take deeper breaths, which worried my granddaughter-in-law until I assured her that I was not likely to die in her Voyage Pod. Since the hike took place in real time, and we couldn’t ask the hikers to risk hiking during the chilly night, we turned off the system while our guides slept. I went home and napped, then came back after midnight to be there for the second day of hiking. This time discrepancy is a drawback or, to be generous, I’ll call it a tradeoff. If you want to be in some exotic location in real time, you have to adjust your sleep time accordingly. A spectacular dinner in Paris works perfectly as a lunch in Ohio. Visiting the early morning Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo can be enjoyed during the evening in the States. If you are able to sleep in the afternoon and enjoy an adventure in the middle of the night, then you can participate in an adventure ten time zones away. Although I am a creature of habits―insistent on when I eat, exercise and sleep―it was invigorating to break my routine and allow myself to enjoy Kilimanjaro. Isn’t that what travel is about? Stepping away from the mundane? Interrupting tired routines? Recharging your emotional batteries? Just as in the old days when you had to contend with jetlag and stomach issues from dramatic changers of diet, virtual travel has it’s discomforts, though they are mild and of little consequence.
We reached the top of Mt Kilimanjaro early in the morning, Ohio time. It was snowing in Canton, matching the chill of Kilimanjaro’s 19,341 feet. My granddaughter-in-law wrapped me up in an extra blanket and brought me a cup of hot tea. I felt exhausted yet exhilarated. (Exhaustion has been a constant companion since my early 80s.) I can’t remember the last time I felt so exhilarated. And the confusion I experienced was temporary, and not unpleasant. The few times when I thought I was really in Tanzania rather than Ohio were magical. After all, one of the pleasures of a great movie or book is being transported, momentarily, to another time or place. When we said goodbye to our two guides I started to reach out to shake their hands. My relatives held their breath, apparently worried that my confusion would upset me. I did hesitate a moment, struggling to grasp the reality of where I was, then I put my head back and laughed. I waved goodbye to our guides and they waved back, seemingly pleased that they had provided a memorable experience to an very old man.
My great-grandson drove me home and helped me climb into bed. It was only midday, yet I was tired from the ‘trip’. Besides I spend a lot of time napping these days, so it wasn’t unusual for me to be horizontal and resting my eyes. During the past few days I’ve had a chance to contemplate the nature of international travel in 2050. The first and most obvious point is that it’s not real travel. Virtual is not the same as real, can’t even approach the sensations, regardless of the technology. Nothing approaches the thrill of eating a terrific meal in Paris, splashing through the world’s largest―and most fragrant―fish market, skiing down a challenging slope in the Rocky Mountains. You can’t sit in a room and replicate the excitement of being at a live sporting event or pushing your way through a sweaty crowd of a million people at a religious festival like Thaipusm in Kuala Lumpur. Virtual travel is not without value, though. Children can be introduced to the wonders of the world while remaining safe. Those with serious handicaps or mobility issues can see, hear and do things they would otherwise never dreamed of experiencing. As a person approaching his 100th birthday, I can continue to enjoy the essence of what was once among the greatest thrills of my life. The cranky old me is tempted to shout at people to get off their fat, lazy butts and experience life. It’s a different world, though, and most of it is no longer open for tourism. Due to rising costs, spreading diseases and the continued increase in terrorism, it is no longer safe or advisable to travel to distant lands. Buddhism teaches that desire leads to suffering, that we should strive to live in the present, to be here now, as Baba Ram Das once wrote. Except the ‘here’ is a very small place, a cocooned place where we can keep danger at a safe distance. The world is not a better place in 2050 than it was fifty or a hundred years earlier. We’ve lost our freedom and many live in fear, but it’s the only world we have and there’s still much to be enjoyed, even if it is virtual enjoyment. For most people, certainly for those under the age of 90, there will be no confusion. Virtual travel will remain the only means of international travel, the only way to ‘see’ the world.