Tips for characters in travel movies

So you’ve found yourself trapped in a travel movie. Signs of this are breathtaking panoramas, swelling music played by indie bands and an initial sense of existential listlessness that gradually gives way to open-eyed wonder. (Also possible: you went hiking after letting a hipster tamper with your iPod.)

Spot check: in the last 45 minutes have you realized that the world is actually a beautiful and magical place? Did you conquer some fear that had haunted your sheltered existence? Have you recently suffered a heartbreak?


Now make the most of it! You’re in for a whirlwind of financially and logistically improbable adventures, but be careful. Travel movies are overwhelmingly populated by a certain kind of idiot. Do try not to forget that…

Foreigners aren’t magic.

There are just so many variations on this theme. The wise shaman, the humble villager, the jolly expat all waiting to teach the (generally white, upper middle class) protagonist a lesson. But you know who I really hate?

The Love Interest Who Opens Your Eyes. She’s nothing more than a manic pixie dream girl (or guy) with an accent.

She’s not magical. She’s just hot and just happens to live within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower. I’ll admit the latter is pretty cool, but I think it’s time we all admitted that having a great zip code is not a super power.

I’m not saying that hooking up in the Latin Quarter isn’t awesome, and a whirlwind romance set against some of history’s great monuments makes for a cool story. It’s just not because she’s got some sort of insight born of foreign knowledge. It’s because romance is good for the soul.

Neither is knowing a local spot.

Quick, where’s the best place to grab a beer back home? Did you suggest the local Applebee’s? No? Is it because you’ve come to sprinkle magic inspiration on girls who just got cheated on by their boyfriends, or is it maybe because you’ve lived in one place for more than 15 minutes?

It’s de rigeur. Lost, confused, maybe even arrogant westerners connect with an attractive local who “knows a place.” It will be trendy. There’ll probably be Christmas lights strung up out of season. Outside will be a hip neighborhood or an amazing view that developers somehow haven’t found yet. Epiphanies will follow.

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Just down this way…

Just make sure you get there early, because it’ll fill up fast. What, you were surprised that this resident knows the town better than a Lonely Planet writer? Or that other people know about this bar too? That’s not magic, it’s called not wanting to order Chili’s Super Margarita Slammer every Friday night.

Backpackers aren’t all clueless, entitled, hippy assholes.

I hate Michael Cera’s Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus. I mean, pretty much everything Cera has done since Arrested Development has been lousy, and even then he coasted on the coattails of far more talented colleagues, but this movie is awful even by his extra-low standards.

In CFMC Cera plays the drunk, sneering embodiment of every ugly American backpacker stereotype rolled into one desperate ploy to break out of type casting. I’m sure it had lots of people nodding along like, “yep, that’s exactly right.” They should try meeting a backpacker some time. Or better yet, they should go on vacation themselves.

Backpackers aren’t some special type of weirdo. They’re simply travelers, often young, trying to save some money. Sure, lots of backpackers get drunk, hook up and make stupid mistakes. So what? They’re on vacation. You should see a Sandals resort. It’s littered with poor life choices. Contrary to the wholly inane “traveler vs. tourist” debate, the only difference is one’s budget.

Poverty is not “authentic.”

This is akin to the rule that foreigners aren’t magic.

There comes a time in many films, such as the execrable Eat, Pray, Love when our hero travels to some distant land. (India or Thailand. It’s probably one of those two, and most likely filmed in Burbank.) They visit a village and meet the local people. A child probably beams over the gift of a trinket (or gives one that becomes a cherished keepsake), then the hero sweeps off back to their well appointed hotel room to marvel over the whole moving experience. The lesson is that there’s a wisdom in the “authenticity” of how those people live and are happy despite a lack of iTunes, comfortable sofas or Direct TV.

Those people? They were props. Shadows who are supposed to disappear once they’ve taught this half baked lesson, but you know what? There’s a reason we invented streaming video: people love it! True there are many ways to live life, and it’s valuable to learn that, but don’t try to cobble together some sort of authenticity out of poverty. That’s just demeaning.


Beautiful? Yes. Magical? Okay, kinda…

People don’t hate Americans.

Of the well worn cliches, this may be the hoariest: the American sophisticate who claims they’re from Toronto to avoid trouble with the locals.

Happily in recent years it’s seen some mockery, but this character remains despite the fact that nothing could be farther from the truth. Speaking only from personal experience, people around the world generally love Americans. We’re friendly, well traveled, our culture is hugely popular and we tip in bars. What’s not to love?

Will some people give you a hard time for being from the States? Sure, but there are also people who will give you a hard time for having the wrong clothes, drinking the wrong beer or asking the wrong questions. It should surprise no one that there being a jerk is an international condition.

So, no, oh-travel-movie-comrade, please do not sow that maple leaf onto your backpack. It’ll just leave you with awkward questions to answer when you meet someone who actually does hail from Ontario.

Leaving home does not solve everything.

There is much that travel can do, and much that it can help you find out about yourself. In and of itself, however, leaving home will not set anything right. Those problems will still be there, lurking, and they’ve got more patience than you have time off.

The question is, will you be someone different the next time you face them?

That’s what travel can do for you. It won’t make everything just better, but it might make you better at dealing with everything.

Want to see a movie that doesn’t tick me off? Try Eric’s top five favorite travel films and shows!


Eric Reed may be the only living travel writer who's afraid to fly. A freelance journalist, reformed lawyer and accidental expert on economic policy, he launched Things Dangerous as a place to tell the ups and downs of a beat writer's life on the road.

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