Essayist and translator Shahnaz Habib, who grew up in South India and immigrated to the U.S. as an adult, long considered herself a “bad traveler” because her experiences frequently fell short of guidebook hype. She explores this incongruity in Airplane Mode (Catapult, Dec.), an examination of how tourism’s roots in colonial and military expansion continue to influence travel and travel writing today.
When did you become aware of your unease around travel?
I noticed a few years ago that all the essays I was writing about travel were about not going to a place or about feeling unhappy and uncomfortable in my travels. Despite my great love of traveling, it felt like I didn’t know how to do it well. I’ve spent so many hours waiting outside different consulates or waiting in lines to be interviewed or being asked to step aside for random security checks, so there’s this accumulated resentment of all those different moments.
How did this book come to be?
I started looking into the history of guidebooks and became fascinated with how guidebooks inherited the perspective of the Enlightenment—a European male is the de facto observer and superior to his surroundings. That made me realize that my personal story of discomfort is connected to this larger history of how travel and tourism are created from specific ways of seeing the world.
Given these troubled beginnings, do you find travel worthwhile?
Travel is a given in my life because my family is spread out over multiple continents. But in addition to that I do have wanderlust. In the book, I look into the history of the term wanderlust and how it’s been strategically shaped into a consumer activity and programmed by governments and the tourism industry. Yet, as much as I understand all that, I do still feel the need to travel. There’s this hope that I can find something new, something that will make me a better person, that will make my life more meaningful. That paradox of finding meaning in an activity that is so problematic but also irresistible is at the heart of this book. I don’t know that I’m solving that contradiction, but I am holding it up to the light.
Why do you see “tourist vs. traveler” as a false distinction, and how does this relate to the Western notion of “discovery”?
I think we’re all tourists. We’re lying to ourselves when we think that we can go somewhere other tourists haven’t been. The idea of finding something new mirrors the ways that Europeans talked about discovering the New World and is based on a very extractive and exploitative relationship between explorer and the place that has been traveled to. I propose the term pseudiscovery to describe these instances in which explorers claim to have discovered something that existed well before them. By embracing the fact that we’re all going on these really beaten trails, we can redirect our energy away from this idea of discovering something to understanding the hybridity and magic of the world.