Making comparisons between civilizations is impossible for the traveller to avoid and it is easy to make evaluations in favour of one’s own civilization, because it is after all, one’s benchmark for normal. Paul Bowles claimed the difference between the tourist and the traveller is that the traveller makes comparisons between his own ‘normal’ civilization and the ones they encounter, rejecting elements not to their liking. These comparisons often begin with food or the availability of free wifi, but with the origins of the word travel rooted in terms meaning to travail, to be a traveller is to accept the assignment of not just experiencing new foodstuffs and places. Rather the assignment is to sift through this collection of experiences, adopting the valuable and rejecting the dross, resulting in a sort of pick n’ mix collection of civilization to take home.
As a child of the granola generation, I have long considered McDonald’s to be one of those elements of my civilization that should be rejected. However, visiting the golden arches in various countries around the world, sometimes due to sheer necessity, I have learned that there is also merit to be found within this seemingly morbid establishment, even if it is a contemporary icon of the long held and much misaligned mission on the civilizing of nations. In much the same way as Christianity mixed with pagan traditions to make it more palatable to the converted savages, even McDonald’s cannot prevent local cultural influences from worming their way into this franchise whose global success is in part is determined by its standardised brand recognition.
Although largely offering America’s supposed favourite food around the world, in itself raising questions about the actual condition of supposed civilization, region specific culinary preferences can be found on McDonald’s menus in exotic climes. In Peru, where McDonald’s can choose from 38 types of locally grown potatoes, an order of French fries is complemented by aji criollo salsa while the nearby drying ketchup vat is primed only by the occasional tourist. Or perhaps, you’d rather forego the traditional spuds and have an unusual serving of fried yucca with your Big Mac meal? Some McDonalds in Argentina have at times had wine available for consumption, certainly a civilizational win. Meanwhile, in China, you can order rice for breakfast instead of that all-American stack of pancakes or have a surprisingly delicious red bean pie for dessert.
In addition to identifying some differences in regional food preferences, the globalised Big Mac can be used to make useful economic comparisons between civilizations. The Big Mac Index, invented by The Economist, is a mechanism for measuring purchasing power parity or what they describe as ‘currency misalignment’. Strip away the fancy terminology and what this tells you, is how much Big Mac your $4.79 (the control price of a Big Mac in the US) will buy you in other countries. This currency misalignment, which is apparently a bad thing in the material measurements of the progress of a civilization, is a very good thing to the traveller on a shoestring budget. Evaluating the comparable cost of living in different locations certainly requires the traveller to question the value of things within their own civilization, but in the short term, the Big Mac Index is a tool to estimating how far their budget can stretch in different economies.
Although useful in many large cities, there are some pitfalls with using the Big Mac Index as a measurement for one’s relative wealth in economically valuated lesser civilizations. For example, in Argentina, there is purposeful undervaluing of the Big Mac in Buenos Aires’ McDonald’s as it is known that The Economist will be checking and publishing this price—making it appear that purchase power parity is better than it really is. In addition, bans by Argentine government on foreign currency purchases has created a black market —or a ‘blue market’ for foreign currency exchange. As a result of the blue market, a Big Mac in Buenos Aires, in reality only costs the traveller a mere $2.15 in November 2014—less than half of the price of a Big Mac in the US—creating the fallacy that the cost of living in Buenos Aires is half of some parts of the U.S. So while living expenses may be unexpectedly high, you can eat for cheap if you can survive on a single item diet.
As with many establishments in tourist catchment areas around the world, even in McDonald’s there is sometimes both a local price and a ‘gringo’ price for that iconic Big Mac. In Cusco, Peru, local citizens get a 20% discount rate—which if you follow the economic thinking of the Undercover Economist—is a way of price targeting a one off market. The gringos who frequent the McDonalds’ in Peru are doing so not only because of the familiarity of the product but also perhaps in the misaligned belief that it is ‘safe’ from potential food poisoning risks—one of the supposed benefits of food safety standards found in 'real' civilization. Once a gringo has set their heart on the familiar tastes of home, there is probably little likelihood that the inflated price of a burger is going to deter this one time consumer from making an alternative choice, even if they are travelling on a shoestring budget.
While adding new aspects for comparison as a result of the experience of travelling in new lands, the traveller cannot but help make extended economic comparison beyond those easily provided by McDonalds. Beyond enjoying the relative luxury that is now affordable in a different economic climate, this includes the realisation that living standards and perceptions of material necessity differ greatly from one civilization to another. Sometimes the biggest shock of being a traveller comes not from visiting a new civilization, but in returning from a ‘developing’ civilization to a ‘developed’ civilization only to be reintroduced to the waste and excess from the vantage point of having seen the other side.
If the true traveller can reject any element from a civilization not to their liking, given the numbers of people who merely return to the practices of their former life after time abroad, perhaps the world is not full of travellers, but is rather only full of tourists after all.
Corine loves a good adventure. She's partial to wilderness, UNESCO World Heritage sites and wine. Based in the United Kingdom, she has roamed the trails and streets of six continents. This is a chronicle of her experiences, seasoned liberally with philosophical musings.