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Taking the lid off the bucket list

By Edna Froese

02/08/2017

Perpetually lagging behind on the movie scene, I hadn’t watched The Bucket List (2007) until its popularity was well established and its title had become common parlance. Everyone, it seemed, had begun talking about their bucket lists. And are still talking about their bucket lists, eight years later. Oddly enough, although the movie’s two protagonists do include on their lists items like “help a complete stranger for the good,” what seems to have taken root in collective memory is the desire to travel, to experience the unusual, the exotic, the expensive.

These days a bucket list typically means a list of places to visit before death ends all bodily travel: “Oh, I finally got to see Buckingham Palace — that’s been on my bucket list for years”; “I really want to hike the Pacific Trail before I get too old and rickety to be able to manage”; “I’ve always wanted to see Aztec ruins and next year we’re going.” Often included in such lists are expensive adventures such as hang-gliding or sky-diving, which could, I suppose, be considered a form of travel as well. It’s enough to make one wonder whether some travel agency commissioned the original film.

Recently, I happened upon Robin Esrock’s The Great Canadian Bucket List website. Its opening pictorial preview of “Canada’s ultimate activities and destinations” suggests the following: “hike to an Arctic waterfall, cross the Northwest Passage, encounter polar bears in the wild, float in our own dead sea, spend a night in an ice hotel, walk the seabed at Hopewell Rocks, cycle across Prince Edward Island, hike in the far North, go heli-skiing, sail in Haida Gwai, heli-yoga in the Rockies, . . . .” I would rejoice over the emphasis on physical fitness were it not that such a list seems to encourage that whiff of one-upmanship I’ve occasionally sensed in coffee-row swapping of travel stories.

Even before reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, I had been uneasy about the environmental footprint of extensive tourist travel. Now I couldn’t help but begin to look harder at the assumptions underneath the entire concept of the bucket list. The aforementioned suggestions on The Great Canadian Bucket List all depend on a certain attitude — what Klein calls “extractivism”: the earth and the fullness thereof exists solely for our pleasure and our consumption. Hence, none of what typically appears on bucket lists calls for anything other than temporary engagement. No bucket list mentioned in my hearing includes something like “I want to live, on minimal income, for several years in the favelas of Brazil.” Most often bucket lists are buffet lines of places and events, meant to be sampled with gusto, captured in photos, and then left for the next location.

To speak honestly here, my position is not objective; my observations are thoroughly mixed with desire and guilt. While my husband and I submitted no exotic travel agenda to our financial adviser before our retirement, there was a half-acknowledged hope that at least one major trip overseas might be possible. It was becoming entirely too awkward to function conversationally in a mostly middle-class environment without being able to share travel stories. I often felt provincial, resentful even, when asked, “you’ve never been to . . . ?” especially when the followup sentence began, “Oh, you should . . . .”

Such is the flavour of our culture. What was once the painful necessity of refugees (my parents among them) has become a necessary reverse pilgrimage for their descendants. What was once the privilege of the very rich has become de rigueur for anyone at all who aspires to a good life: holidays in Mexico or Hawaii, cruises to Pacific Islands, tours to the Middle East or the Far East. The traffic through airports the world over has become heavy and constant.

My reaction to this powerful cultural expectation to sample all the pleasures and sights of a magnificent world is about as confused as our recent experience of our own pilgrimage to Russia and Ukraine, the land where my parents and my husband’s father were born. In the midst of our amazement at being in astonishing places we’d never imagined we would see was a nagging discomfort at being tourists, consumers of experiences, gawkers at the locals, stumblers through markets and museums where we did not speak the language or know the history, throwers-away of innumerable plastic water bottles and Styrofoam food containers, takers of thousands of pictures without knowing real contexts, beneficiaries of those who earned their wages catering to tourist “needs.”

We understood, of course, that our participation in the entire tourist enterprise brought welcome currency into struggling economies, and that travel, of whatever sort, offers valuable education. At the same time, we couldn’t ignore troubling questions about appropriate stewardship of the earth and its resources, about the need for an understanding of others more nuanced than what could be offered by tour leader monologues or quick tour bus stops in tiny villages with subsistence living conditions.

To date, I have made no bucket list. I don’t know how to wrestle the bucket out of the hands of the sellers of experiences and destinations, and I lack the moral courage to write down those purposes that I wish I could make my own. Such as advocating for social justice, mending neglected relationships, or learning how to walk alongside the poor, wherever they may live.

Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.