We might not be allowed to travel anymore but do we really need travel anymore? The internet offers us the ability to visit so many places for so little money. There's 360-degree photography, virtual reality, user-navigable video, super-high definition photography and sophisticated software for combining visual and informational material. Might not this offer us a superior experience? One where we're far less likely to have someone throw a fake baby at us then steal our wallet? There's only one way to find out.
On Friday, I toured the White House. I wandered the unimpressive grounds outside the front door, clicking across the workaday lawn, and around the uninspiring fountain. I was able to wander widely and freely but I did so more from a sense of obligation than desire. The lawn was enclosed by a circular driveway which passed the front door, which was guarded by a single unimpressive looking man - not the President. A few metres from the door was a children's playground set. It was of the type a middlingly well-off friend might have bought from Mitre 10 Mega and about which you might comment: "That's a nice play set", more out of politeness than genuine appreciation.
Inside, the various rooms, probably famous and recognisable to many Americans, had the feel of so many generic hotel ballrooms, but with less appealing colour schemes. Initially, I moved slowly around each room, clicking along the walls, looking at some of the art and decorations, but I wasn't able to get close enough to most of it, and rapidly became bored by them anyway. So many paintings of previous presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bush snr, Clinton, some others. The desk drawer in the vice-presidential office was open, and an accompanying note mentioned it had been signed by several previous vice-presidents, but I couldn't see them.
I tried to feel the place's sense of grandeur and history, the world-shaping meetings and decisions that have happened there over centuries, but I couldn't stop thinking how much more impressive it would have seemed four years ago, before it ceased being a place of seriousness. I reflected that decay and death comes to all things, regardless of their goodness or stupidity. A more positive view: this too shall pass; hopefully in a few months.
On Monday I went to Machu Picchu. I had never particularly wanted to go there, but what did I have to lose? It was extensively mapped by Google Street View cameras five years ago, and I thought maybe wandering around there for an hour or two, feeling the sense of beauty and history, might make me feel something. I remember Clarke Gayford hiking there on some intrepid travel show a few years ago, talking to the camera about the excitement of rounding a corner and seeing the city spread out before him. In search of my own Gayford Moment, I started my walk some miles away and first followed the road, then a series of trails, waiting for that corner, that view, that moment of awe.
I passed many decrepit, dull green buses and many more badly-dressed people. I passed a rundown snack bar, with a coffee-vending machine. I passed one middle-aged couple having an argument. Half an hour after setting out, I passed through what looked like a ramshackle ticket booth, came out the other side, down a hill, and there I was in the ancient city. There was no great moment of awe, no epiphanic rounding of some mythical Gayfordian Corner. I was tired and frustrated.
Maybe it was for these reasons I didn't especially love it. Maybe it was because it was crowded with obnoxious tourists. I didn't know what the impressive bits were supposed to be: there was no guide and no information. I couldn't get any perspective or relevance. I was contextually frustrated. I wandered around for another three-quarters of an hour, up and down the terraced hillsides, trying to look into stone dwellings, trying to get some kind of mental and spatial purchase on the place, but I just couldn't. My eyes started hurting and so did my clicking hand.
I felt the rushing back of all the thoughts and feelings from my solitary wanderings of Western Europe's pre-eminent tourist attractions during my early 20s: "Am I feeling anything? Why aren't I feeling anything? What's wrong with me? Where should I go now? Will I feel anything there?"
In the afternoon, I took a one-hour tour of the Colosseum. The tour had no commentary, just the ambient sound of the crowds, and was conducted by someone holding a camera aloft and walking the publicly accessible parts of the arena. Occasionally there were informational titles on the screen, but not many. I didn't expect to watch the whole thing but I did. At the 35-minute mark I was like, "Okay, I get the gist", but I stuck with it and the more it went on the more I thought, "You know, patience is important."
The longer I spent looking through the lens of that video camera, the more I felt like I was coming to some sort of understanding, not just about the place but about the nature of travel. Towards the end, we walked into a light-filled concourse, heavy with tourists, and I felt the genuine human connection across space and time that you sometimes get in places like this, or when on psychedelics - the euphoric feeling of losing yourself in the fast-moving current of existence. It lasted only a few seconds, but as I read in some self-help literature once: seconds are all we have. The tour ended with us walking out of the Colosseum, accompanied with an on-screen graphic reading "The Gate of Death. Dead gladiators and animals were carried away through this exit."
On Wednesday, I went to Stockholm's art and design museum, Arkdes, for the opening of the world's first exhibition dedicated to ASMR. ASMR is a name that was invented for the difficult-to-describe feeling of calmness, tingling or bliss derived from particular sights and/or sounds, notably including: whispering; soft and slow speaking; tapping; brushing; precise, heavily structured or routinised movements. Top ASMR creators generate millions of views on YouTube, and the still-barely understood phenomenon is a fast-growing area of academic research. Because Arkdes, like the rest of the world, is currently closed, the opening happened live online, presented by curator James Taylor-Foster in a dressing gown. He conducted interviews, sat on a specially designed 1km-long pillow and showed clips of the ASMR videos that make up part of the exhibition. It was weird and interesting and the sort of perspective-shifting thing you sometimes stumble across unexpectedly when travelling, particularly in Sweden.
On Thursday, I went to 13th-century Angkor Wat, using a series of virtual reality videos in which I was able to look around as the citizens, vehicles and animals of the great city moved around me. I was provoked to think about the nature of progress. At the time of my visit in the 1200s, this was arguably the greatest and biggest city in the world. A few centuries later, it would become the site of one of the world's worst genocides. At the time of my visit, I stood on dirt roads and looked around at the passing citizens and merchants carrying baskets and riding horses through the serene streets. Afterwards, on Google Street View, I visited modern-day Angkor Wat and found it run down, filled with tourists in overwhelming outfits, a sad remnant of the place I had been to so recently. I was provoked to think about the nature of reality versus virtual reality.
On Friday I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, to watch a performance of Verdi's Falstaff. On Sunday I went to the Bolshoi to watch Swan Lake. I walked out of both. Maybe it was because I missed the connection with the buildings and their histories, the physical contact with other people, the smell of the theatre, the pageantry and all the excitement that generates. More relevantly, I had other places to go and no barriers to going, so I went. I walked out of Falstaff to attend a Zoom meeting. I walked out of the Bolshoi to attend a world-renowned contemporary dance performance in Europe, and I walked out of the contemporary dance performance to watch the documentary Whitney, on TVNZ OnDemand. During Whitney, I fell asleep.
The following Tuesday, I went to Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, one of the world's greatest art museums. I entered through the great hall and walked through the Gallery of Honour, home to some of history's most famous paintings, notably Vermeer's The Milkmaid and Rembrandt's The Night Watch. I walked first along the gallery's central concourse, then stopped in at each alcove to admire the paintings. I was able to zoom in so close on the paintings I could make out individual paint droplets and map every crack on the centuries-old canvases. I listened to every audio guide. I like an audio guide and I don't care who knows it. An audio guide offers both company and context. It's a smart friend who wants to help you understand something but doesn't need to affirm itself by making you feel intellectually inferior. A good audio guide is not wheedling or overbearing and it leaves you alone after only a few seconds. It never demands you stop spending so much time looking at the work of Jan Steen because it wants to get a good spot at the coffee shop before the lunch rush.
But the audio guide, for all its value, is restrictive. It tells you only what its makers want to tell you. Obviously, this is a metaphor for online travel as a whole. The excitement of regular travel is derived from freedom but online travel by necessity is always mediated. Google Street View might appear to offer you the opportunity to freely explore Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat, but in reality it only takes you where it wants you to go, where it has gone, to the places it deems important, shows you only the vantage points it has seen. You are free only to the extent Google decides you are. Come to think of it, that might not apply only to travel.
Of course, you are free in other ways. if your online destination bores you, you go somewhere else. You don't need to be stuck at Machu Picchu all day having paid $300 to get there, and another $4.50 for a vending machine coffee, cursing the name Clarke Gayford and wishing you could feel something. If you're not moved by the Google Street View images of the bas relief sculptures at Angkor Wat, you don't need to look at all 1000sq m of them. But maybe - because we are human and we are weak and pathetic - this freedom costs us something. Maybe we need the force of having spent $3000 on airfares, $2000 on hotels, $65 on entrance fees and $2 on the toilet to force us to find meaning or feeling in a place. Without that incentive, we might never break free of our couch and the increasingly high-quality content available from TVNZ OnDemand.