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September 08, 2005

The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel - Rachel Antony & Joel Henry

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel
by Rachel Antony and Joel Henry
Pp 224. London: Lonely Planet, 2005
Paperback, £9.99

God bless the honest-to-goodness tourist! For there is something refreshing about simply going to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower, or to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State. There's something repellent about the self-conscious "traveller", boring one to death about their bus trip from Alice Springs, or even worse as a travelling companion - endlessly searching for an "authentic" place to eat, and rejecting all the perfectly attractive choices for failing to meet this criterion. Other people's dreams, other people's tales of intoxication and other people's travel tales - the three greatest sources of boredom in the modern world.

Of course, there are genuine travellers who should not have their reputations besmirched by association with the poseurs and bores. There are travellers for whom respect for other cultures is not a mere cliché, and travel is not an ostentatious gesture of difference but a genuine imperative. Therefore I will refer to the "traveller" in inverted commas throughout, to distinguish this type from the worthier form of traveller. The "traveller" is the Pharisee of the modern religion of tourism.

Alex Garland's The Beach became a staple part of the backpacking experience. A book that is essentially about the futility of the backpacking quest for the authentic, for the perfect escape - and what's more, is about how this search destroys what it sets out to find - became part of the tool kit, so to speak. Backpacking has become a victim of its own success. The gap year in Australia has become such a cliché that I would recommend to young readers who wish to "find themselves" that they stay at home and go straight to college or work in the bank or something. Thailand, and gradually the rest of South East Asia, has become a standard summer holiday destination.

Like the artist or writer who prizes "originality" above all else, the "traveller" must work hard at avoiding the snare of tourism. Lonely Planet have become one of the more lasting (for The Beach's vogue seems to have gone) staples of the backpacker set. Indeed, someone I know pours scorn on the Lonely Planetification of the world, and in Australia it rapidly becomes irritating to see every gap year and year out person toting around the same fat Lonely Planet guide. Somewhat unfair to a perfectly adequate, although rather worthy, series of guidebooks.

Lonely Planet, cleverly enough, have co-opted one of the movements that inevitably have sprung up contrariwise to its Weltanschauung. In 1990, Joel Henry, who bears a certain resemblance to a milder looking version of his fellow countryman and veteran trasher of McDonaldses Jóse Bové, founded Latrouex (Laboratory of Experimental Travel) in Strasbourg. As Henry whimsically notes:

We happened to be on board a barge-cum-restaurant with the fateful name of the Why Not?, and were talking about the approaching summer holidays. We were joking about the role of the tourist we were soon going to have to adopt once again, willing victims of the tourism industry's conveyor belt. Devotees of games that we were, we began to imagine amusing variations on the themes typically thrown up by tour operators. Somewhere between the fruit platter and the cheese, we began to sketch out what would become Latrouex's founding experiment.

Our initial experiment inverted the idea of the guided tour group by inviting whoever wished to come along on a visit to a foreign town, with the twist that each person would make their journey not as a group, but under their own steam. We chose Zurich, in Switzerland, a city that none of us had previously visited. As part of their mission, participants had to visit the city conscientiously, taking full advantage of whatever touristic, cultural and gastronomic treasures it had to offer..

Sounds exciting, non? However in case you're thinking Latourex's founding experiment sounds suspiciously like honest-to-goodness tourism:

They were also required to make a literary - or even artistic - contribution, consisting of a brief description of their travels written on the back of a postcard, bought from a souvenir stall.
Radical. Over time, the Latrourexians embarked on somewhat more interesting adventures – developing the various games featured in The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. They are perfectly aware that they are not really innovators – acknowledging their debt to the Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, and Oulipo, amongst other–ists and groups sounding like laxatives. The Oulipo author Harry Mathews, in his recent My Life in CIA, describes something very similar to the Latourex concept.

Now I'm usually a sucker for these kind of things. There's something attractive about the Latourex concept, something of the Chesterton of The Club of Queer Trades and his other, sunny fictions touched more by buoyancy than nightmare. And who has not spent some time playing Exquisite Cadavers, the Surrealist game which involves writing a sentence or paragraph, folding the page to hide all but the final words, passing it to a companion who does the same and passing the paper on, thus ultimately creating a jolly little tale?

Surrealism is an oddly unproductive set of techniques. The initial rush of novelty and amusement at the odd combinations thrown up by Exquisite Cadavers fairly quickly gives way to boredom. The avant-garde, ironically, has barely changed throughout the last century. There is simultaneously something very dated and very timeless about experiments in automatic writing, group writing, and the rest. On the one hand, nothing is as dated as yesterday's cutting-edge, as a quick look at any Sixties "experimental" movie will confirm.

On the other, surrealist techniques, based as they are on perpetual goading of convention, are extremely easy to apply in any subsequent era. Conceptual art has evolved very little from Marcel Duchamp's urinal - a gesture that could be repeated today and seem just as "relevant", "shocking" and, well, boring. Equally, poems using the "cut up technique" are as possible - and just as uninteresting - today.

This is all testament to the essential sterility of Surrealism in art and literature. The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel is testament to its strange ability to drain such a promisingly entertaining premise of any entertainment. The meat of the book consists of descriptions of forty "Experiments". Each experiment is described on two pages, although most descriptions are really very brief and padded out with elaborate design. For instance:


HYPOTHESIS: Explore and experience a new place without seeing it.

APPARATUS: A friend to guide you and a blindfolding mechanism of some kind.

METHOD: Spend 24 hours blindfolded in a new location.

The author's describe this as "an extreme form of Experimental Travel and not recommended for amateurs". Certainly not one for Baghdad, unless you want to save the hostage-takers a certain amount of bother. Another example:

HYPOTHESIS: Find the area's best drinking spots (and drinks) by following the advice of a local expert.

APPARATUS: Dutch courage, a map and a friendly face may also be of use.

METHOD: Go to your favourite pub and order your favourite drink. Ask the barperson [sic] where their favourite pub is and what they drink there. Go there and order their recommended drink, and then repeat the exercise with whoever serves you, and so on.

Note: participants would be well advised not to attempt the experiment on an empty stomach, nor to repeat it ad nauseam.

We wouldn't want things to get too experimental, would we? After the description of each experiment, there follows the more irritating segment, the "Laboratory Results". The Lonely Planet empire managed to recruit various punters to play each game, and to contribute an essay on their result. Tom, who played Barman's Knock in London, dolefully reported:

We were served by Jonny, possibly Spanish, who directed us (rather unimaginatively, we thought) to the Fine Line chain pub. In the Fine Line we dutifully ordered vodka and Red Bull, and tried to avoid watching the last-ever episode of Friends on the big screen.
Could any two sentences sum up the less attractive side of the "traveller, not tourist" mentality? Such are the risks of Experimental Tourism for a "traveller"; one might end up watching a popular sit-com in a popular chain pub! Greater love hath no man. Most of the "Laboratory Results" are in a similar vein, purring with self-satisfaction and managing to make the games sound less than thrilling.

So, how was it for me? The first one I tried was Literary Tourism:

Hypothesis: Travel around the world via a bookshelf.

Apparatus: You will need a bookshelf containing books, plus a pen and paper to keep track of your journey.

Method: Choose a book from the bookshelf and commence reading. Continue reading until a foreign country is mentioned in the text. Then choose a second book that's somehow related to the country and begin reading again. Repeat until you have either returned to your point of origin or have completed one circumnavigation of the globe.

I discovered that I own far too few books on China, in fact rather embarrassingly only Ian Buruma's Bad Elements. Walking around Dublin lent itself to Alternating Travel:

HYPOTHESIS: Discover your own or a foreign town by following alternating travel directions.

APPARATUS: The ability to tell your left from your right.

METHOD: Leave your home on foot. Take the first road on the right, then the next on the left, then the next on the right, then the next on the left, and so on. Carry on until something – a no-man's land, a building or a stretch of water – blocks your path and you can go no further.

This did reveal a hidden Dublin - however it turned out to be the same dead-end of hidden Dublin each time. Exquisite Corpse Gadabout, the book's travel version of Exquisite Cadavers, did throw up some interesting outings. In theory. Will my bunch of friends and I ever really go to the Dublin Port oil refinery for a picnic wearing evening dress and carrying umbrellas, or play Twister outside the American Embassy carrying flowers and wearing wellington boots?

There's a money for old rope quality to this book. The "games" that are of any real interest can be summed up thus:

Lose yourself in a city – any city. Do something unexpected. Wander around randomly. Or use some kind of algorithm – like taking alternate left-right turns – to wander around.

Leave out the "Laboratory Results" and the whimsical design (reminiscent of McSweeney's and The Baffler) and the most stimulating thing about the books - the games themselves – would take up a sub-2000 word feature in a newspaper.

Reading through a book which I bought impulsively, and with a certain amount of expectation (as I said, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing), was saddening. I began to realise what made this seem less like the glorious Chestertonian adventure and more like, well, the dogged approach of the "traveller". A book which tells you how to have a glorious, whimsical adventure will fail by definition. If only Latourex had remained forever obscure, and resisted the temptation to expose itself in the Lonely Planet universe! Bound in hard covers with prim little essays by "Experimental Tourists" it seems a very pallid and pointless series of undertaking.

There is one game featured whose conception genuinely impressed me, and indeed made me wish that I had the most important prerequisite to take part.


HYPOTHESIS: Discover a city while looking for love.

APPARATUS: A partner (lover or friend) and a destination

METHOD: Arrange to take a holiday with your partner. Travel there separately by different means and don't arrange a meeting time or place. Now look for each other.

Now isn't that sweet. I guess you'd have to be pretty sure of your lover though…

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005). For further writing on travel by Social Affairs Unit authors, see Touristic Reflections.

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