Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What makes a traveller?

There is a difference. Between a "traveller" and a "tourist", that is.

I have long prided myself on being one of the former group and turned up my nose (figuratively speaking) at "tourists". But I have begun to realize, as I do research for my upcoming year's travels, that there is a whole other level of snobbery associated with long-term travel.

Okay, let's take as a given for the moment that I am not going to be a "tourist" next year - that category being defined vaguely by willingness to stay in all-inclusive resorts (or at the very least, hotels where they actually give you little bottles of free shampoo and towels) or expectation that people will speak English to you everywhere you go, and that your luggage will include all the usual accompaniments to your everyday life (such as hair products, blow dryer, and dressy clothes). There is nothing wrong with this kind of trip, if that's what you want to do -- just be aware that's it's not really "travelling".

(Hey, I did say there was snobbery involved, this is not my prejudice speaking. It's just the generally accepted rule.)

But it goes much further than that. There is "traveller", a camp in which I solidly believe myself to be. These are people who venture outside the tourist compounds of all-inclusive resorts, take public transit (e.g. chicken buses in Guatamala) and understand the concept of sleeping in a dorm room with bunks, because that's what they usually do. And consider a third change of clothes a luxury, considering you have to carry everything on your back.

But there's another level beyond that, I've discoverered, in the holier-than-thou "I'm a more authentic traveller than you" stakes of the long-term backpacking world. I have been looking into options for travelling around West Africa, as I am very nervous about the idea of doing it entirely independently (what can I say, the news about European travellers being kidnapped and held for ransom in northern Mali -- one was killed, one is still being held hostage -- kind of put me off). And there are some very reasonable alternatives that cater to the "traveller" spirit in me (which don't force me to become a "tourist") while still looking after my safety - the kind of group travel where they organize your travels from place to place, make sure you have guides (or armed guards) as needed for the more difficult bits, but pretty much leave you alone otherwise to do your own thing. Kind of like a "tour", but without the enforced togetherness and "if it's Tuesday, it must be Berlin" kind of feeling.

Well. Apparently that means, according to many backpacker blogs I have read, that I have sold out and can no longer count myself as an authentic "traveller", if I am even willing to consider such a thing. Unless you do EVERYTHING the most difficult and most dangerous way possible, it isn't "authentic" and it doesn't count as real "travel".

I have no patience for this. (No, that's not actually true. I am a little bit seduced by the reasoning, as generally i do think that Western travellers/tourists miss out when they opt to take an "easy" option instead of doing the hard-core, travel-like-the-locals options.)

But seriously ... when did it become somehow less valid to travel around west Africa in the company of other people and the occasional guide-type person who might smooth our way once in a while, than to try to figure it all out from scratch? I have come to the conclusion, more or less, that if I try to do West Africa with just a plane ticket to my first destination and some cash, that I will have a less than optimal experience -- this is not a place that is easy to get around, nor would it be a whole lot of fun to be the only white Western woman for miles around. (Okay, the marriage proposals might be good for my ego -- but i can live without the constant judgment about my standard of dress, my lack of male companions and what those things imply about my morals.)

I do believe that there is a difference between "tourist" and "traveller", and that you shouldn't pretend you've actually really seen Cuba, or the Dominican, if you've never left the resort for the weeks that you were there. You do have to embrace some unease, some stepping outside your comfort zone to really and truly "travel" ... but to think that you can NEVER take a slightly easier option, is madness.

And then there's the notion that somehow "far away" (relative to where you are) is automatically more "real" in the travel stakes than anywhere close by. So, for a North American, going to the Canaries is major points in the travel stakes -- but for a Brit, that's a cheap package holiday that isn't even worth mentioning. Vice versa for the Brits and N. Americans, when it comes to Jamaica, or Cuba.

And Southeast Asia, for example, no longer counts as real "travel", among the backpacker elite, unless you gone to Bhutan, or camped among elephants in the wild in Thailand, or trekked to a location in Nepal so remote that you're the first white face they've ever seen. And Australia/NZ/Europe? Forget it ... anywhere "Western" is far too easy to count.

Have you ever read the book The Beach? (It was a Leo diCaprio movie, too, but i haven't seen it.) That is a perfect example of the kind of snobbery i mean -- it isn't enough to find an unspoiled, little-visited beach in southwest Thailand to have an authentic "travel" experience. No, they have to find a beach that is so remote, they have to swim for a mile from the nearest island, then hike overland through a dope field, then scale a cliff to find their "real experience". (And then it goes all Lord of the Flies by the end, which presumably adds lots of "authenticity" points.)

I am learning to spot a backpacker snob at 100 paces or less ... they will usually try to compete with you over (1) the number of countries you've been, (2) the roughest conditions in which you've stayed, (3) how far they've managed to bicker down a price in a market, and (4) how many times they've been "threatened" (been mugged, pickpocketed, drugged, etc) because they've chosen to take local transport, stay in a local guesthouse (as opposed to chain hotel) and eat at street vendors. These things do not make your travel experience any more genuine --I don't buy this notion that you're not really "seeing India", for example, if you don't choose to *always* travel by local train/bus and eat exclusively at the cheapest market stall, staying in a place with cockroaches or bedbugs. This idea that travel somehow isn't "real" enough unless you're suffering as much as possible ...

I don't need to do that. As long as I keep an open mind, seek out experiences that are different that i would get at home and talk to local people somewhere along the way -- oh, and don't frequent western fast food chains or Starbucks -- then I'm probably safe still calling myself a traveller.

Even if I occasionally choose the flush toilet over the more "authentic" squat-over-a-hole-in-the-ground experience.

1 comment:

  1. Just testing the comments field ... okay, it appears to work!