An existential travel question

We’re privileged to have done a lot of travel. Increasingly when we visit new places we see old ones in them. And these comparisons come up a lot in conversation. For example in the past twenty four hours we’ve said that Cartagena reminds us of:

  • A fort we visited in Manila, the Philippines
  • A colonial town in southern Spain called Cardiz
  • Venice, Italy

You can see why we might do this. Lots of the places above, for example, were Spanish colonial sites too. There are patterns in the world and it isn’t surprising that we recognise them. But we might be overrecognising similarity.

When you’re experiencing something new seeing similarity to old things that are more familiar gives you a sense of comfort and understanding. It’s a useful heuristic or mental short cut. Some economists talk about an availability heuristic where we place an over reliance on examples that are easier to remember (because they’re vivid or recent) when evaluating information and making decisions.

So here’s the existential bit: by seeing and speaking in analogies when we travel do we actually end up seeing and experiencing more or less?
There might be a risk that our eagerness to see things that make sense with our memories means we under-experience new things we encounter. That we read sameness into all the indigenous hill tribe’s we meet, or the jungles. Or the colonial towns. And in doing so we miss the subtle differences. We might even become jaded and feel there’s nothing left to see.Or that might be nonsense. Seeing what’s similar might also illuminate what’s different. It might allow you to focus your observation on specific things. The colonial towns all look pretty samey, but the people in them seldom are. After all, if there were really such significantly diminishing marginal returns from travel, we wouldn’t still be doing it.

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