Last weekend I was down in London at the Natural History Museum for the Veolia Environnment Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit. Since I was 14 I would have a look at some of these images and feel in awe of the talent of the photographers, and the wonders in the images they have managed to capture. I always noticed one thing: most of the images were taken in far-away, exotic locations. But this year, much to my surprise, I noticed that there were several, even in the adult category, that had been taken in the UK. So this got me thinking about the term exotic, in relation to travelling and how much we yearn for a place that is described so. The dictionary describes the term as ‘originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’ (surprisingly enough each dictionary also included a definition relating to strippers). I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from yearning for travel, as I would be the biggest hypocrite out there. But it is worth considering what we Europeans do actually have on our doorstep in terms of travel and nature…
Unlike hundreds of years ago, we have more desire than ever to travel to places that are halfway across the world. Why is this?
Is it the culture? Sometimes those countries have a relatively similar culture, especially to that here of the UK (I say this lightly as I am very well aware of the slight differences).
Is it the landscape? Croatia has emerald blue water, so why travel out to the Seychelles? The Falkland Islands are very similar to the British countryside. There are more fjords in Sweden than in New Zealand. Indeed, most Japanese I know are fascinated by the UK just in the same way we are by them.
Is it remoteness then that we seek? Places that require long travel time? There are places in the north of Scotland that, to get to, require hours of driving and may see you on your own for a significant period of time.
Maybe it’s that we seek to be different. That we do not want to blend in with everyone else and we want to find people from a different culture, who speak a different language or who look different. The degrees to which many seek a different culture are not unanimous – going partying on Koh Phangan in Thailand or Bali in Indonesia means you are surrounded by mostly other Caucasians looking to get wasted at a cheaper price (and with less legal and social restrictions) than home.
Perhaps it’s in the weather? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone refer to the Mediterranean as exotic.
We might be seeking a different culture, and a different history, learning about things we’ve never had to study at school, flavours that we can’t even visually recognize and smells that are so fresh it overwhelms our nostrils. Expanding our horizons, both physically and mentally.
Perhaps it is most of all an impression of remoteness and untouched by our Western capitalistic notions and exploitations. The rainforests of Madagascar, the vast Siberian wilderness, or the Pantanal of Brazil. Surely we do not refrain from using exotic for places not to connected to nature, such as Beijing, or Mexico City. And Europe has its fair share of remote places that can take your breath away, such as parts of Iceland or the Black Forest in Germany.
Though I don’t think anyone will doubt that the wildlife in places that we consider ‘exotic’ is definitely in a greater quantity and of a greater quality than what Europe can offer.
So what about you? What criteria do you have to be able to call a place ‘exotic’?