I know you’ve seen them — those world maps advertised on Instagram and Facebook that can be scratched with coins to indicate which countries a person has visited. They come in a variety of colors, some featuring flags or stereotypical symbols of the region. Many are advertised in frames to suggest that a well-scratched map is something to show off, something to be proud of.
Yes, traveling the world is wonderful. But scratch-off maps are one of my pet peeves.
I’ve jumped around a number of the most famous cities in Western Europe, but I will admit that I am not a major world traveler. I spent one summer living in Dublin, Ireland and another living in Berlin, Germany, and I would consider those summers the most substantial international experiences of my life.
Nonetheless, those months plus a handful of vacations were enough to prove that, much like the United States, other countries have great variation between cities. Unlike on scratch-off maps, countries aren’t just one color.
All the colors and flavors
Capital city Berlin, built with a unique history, great international influence, and even its own dialect, has little in common with the rest of Germany. I loved living in Berlin and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city for nine weeks. However, my experience with the rest of Germany is scant. I spent a week in Konstanz, a town on the southern boarder of Germany, and had a chance to admire its beauty and tranquility. But as for the rest of Germany, I have only heard stories of the food, architecture, natural areas and culture.
So, if I had a scratch-off map, would I scratch off Germany? Of course not!
How could I mark off Germany without celebrating Oktoberfest in Munich? How can I say I have “seen Germany” without seeing the Cologne Cathedral? Or Saxon Switzerland National Park? What’s the point of pretending that my pennies can scrape off the existence of the rest of that
Now imagine someone scratching off China after visiting Beijing for a few days, or scratching off the United States after a weekend in Hawaii. Seems pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it?
But this isn’t the real problem with scratch-off maps.
The real problem is that it perpetuates the idea that people should be traveling for some sort of trophy or praise, whether that be likes on instagram or interactive wall-art.
Tourist attractions and the entire traveling industry can already thank social media for part of their booming success over the past decade. Many people enjoy traveling, but don’t kid yourself: having hundreds or thousands of people ogling over the vacation photos for weeks afterward doesn’t hurt either. Be honest: would you have taken as many photos in 2018 if you knew you could never post any of them online?
Now, this is not to say that taking pictures or traveling #forTheGram is wrong or bad. Although I believe people would get more out of their international experiences if they focused on visiting places they would learn from and enjoy instead of the most recognizable photo-ops, I still think there’s plenty to learn otherwise.
What is wrong is believing in the lie of the scratch-off map— believing that places in the world are not worth visiting because they won’t rake in the Facebook likes, or they won’t give you a new country to scratch off. Believing that by visiting a foreign city, you can understand a foreign country. Believing that your travels are a function of displaying on a wall, not a means of growth and enlightenment.
It’s so easy to get lost in what others will think of your travel experiences and to think more about how to capture the right photo than how you can use your senses to capture the moment. It’s tempting to visit places just so you can say that you visited them, allowing the richness of a location to get lost in the check-box. It’s easy to travel without really seeing or experiencing anything at all.
So by all means, explore the globe and do it for the ‘Gram and the scratch-off maps. But remember to do it for yourself, too.