“Yeah, but those kinds of people aren’t travelling, they’re on holiday.”
“Oh right,” I nodded, as I quietly took a sip of my beer, pretending to know what he was talking about.
What the hell was the difference?
For the rest of the night, the topic popped in and out of conversation, and eventually, I kinda got the gist of what he was talking about. It was my first year of travelling and, little did I know I would meet many, often smug and obnoxious characters, with this mindset throughout my next few years on the road.
“Don’t go to Phuket! It’s just full of typical tourists on package holidays. It’s not the real Thailand. It’s a place for tourists, not travellers.”
Spend one month on the backpacking circuit and you’re bound to meet someone like this; people who have, with apparent Robinson Crusoe-like fearlessness, slept in a beach hut or visited a city without a Sheraton, and thereby elevated themselves from just another silly tourist to a gritty, hardened and courageous “traveller” – someone who, through their immense nomadic struggle of taking one 40-hour bus ride, is now so brave and bulletproof that they no longer need the precious comforts of air-conditioning and pizza to survive life out on the unkind road.
These self-proclaimed “travellers-not-tourists” are often obsessed with shunning the tourist centres for more “local” and “off the beaten path” travel experiences. And if there’s one thing they always pride themselves on, it’s having experienced “local” life – eating like a local, sleeping like a local, living like a local, taking shits like a local.
But here’s the kicker: you will never know what it’s like to be a local, because you’re not a local, and you never will be a local. So, my suggestion? Stop trying to pretend you’re one, because you sound like an idiot.
After I returned from the visit to my project in Ethiopia last year, my friends and family all commented on how “off the beaten track” and “authentic” the experience seemed.
“It must have been so fascinating, to experience life in the village like that!”
“Wow, you really got to see what the locals live like! That’s amazing!”
And it was amazing. But I do not pretend to know what it is like to live their life. Sure, I slept in the village for a night. I met the community, ate their food, fetched their water, learned their customs. I observed, first-hand, a 48 hour snapshot of village life. But do you know what I did the next day? I got in a 4WD, drove to my 3-star hotel, had a Coke and a pizza, a hot shower, and went to sleep in a bed with clean white sheets and a fat pillow. I did not, and do not, live their life. I have no idea what it is like to wake up every single morning at 6am and carry a 20L jerry can of water on my back for 40 minutes. I don’t know what it’s like to eat injera and that pungent orange powder every night for dinner off the dirt floor of a mud hut. What I can do is attempt to appreciate their culture and their hardship. I can acknowledge the contrast their life has to mine. But, in reality, I have no idea what their life is like.
To all those who claim to be “real travellers” because they have experienced “the local life”, please, stop. You may well have seen how locals live, seen what they do in their daily life, you may have even eaten some of their food and slept in their houses, but despite all that, you’re not a local. You’re a tourist. You’ll always be a tourist.
“Why do these people even bother coming to Thailand? They spend their whole vacation in their air-conditioned resorts, eating cheeseburgers in the tourist restaurants. They might as well just stay home.”
Typical words from a “traveller-not-tourist” that you will hear on many an occasion. For some reason, they hate resorts. They hate tourist restaurants. They hate people who go on holiday to do things they can do at home.
The irony is, these oh-so-knowledgeable travellers will probably sleep in a hostel dorm, eat Thai noodles in small Thai restaurants, and drink beer with Thai people on the beach at night.
Guess what, Indiana Jones? You can do all that at home too.
And even if you couldn’t, what is so wrong with staying in an air-conditioned room and eating cheeseburgers? What is so “unauthentic” about it? Why is that not a “real” and “local” experience? Are you suggesting that all Thai people live without air-conditioning and never eat cheeseburgers? Walk into any Burger King in Bangkok, and I assure you it will be packed with Thais eating Whoppers. It will probably be air-conditioned, too. Perhaps these super-experienced know-it-all travellers need to pull their head out of you-know-where and start observing the “local life” they are so apparently informed about a little bit closer.
The reality is, a traveller is a tourist. And a tourist is a traveller. You are nothing more than a visitor in a foreign land. Just because you slept in a hut and shit in a hole, does not make you any more ‘travelled’ than the guy who slept in the Radisson and shit in a flush toilet. I mean, you can sleep in a hut and shit in a hole at home. Why did you bother coming all the way out here to do that?
It seems, people are searching so hard for something extreme, something extravagant, that they refuse to accept the “real” culture for what it actually is. Once you land in the country, there is no ‘real’ and ‘fake’. Everything you see is real. Yes, maybe it’s Americanised, maybe it’s changing, maybe it’s becoming frustratingly similar to what you see at home. But it’s real. Embrace it. Learn from it. This is the world, whether you like it or not.
I’m not quite sure when travelling became a competition. Perhaps in the 13th century, when Columbus sailed West trying to find chicken tikka masala before anyone else. Or was it more recently, thanks to TV shows like An Idiot Abroad and The Amazing Race?
Whenever it started, nothing paints the picture more perfectly than listening to two bickering 19-years olds in a hostel lounge trying to one-up one another while pretending to be best friends.
“Oh, but do you know what it’s like to actually live like a Cambodian? I do, because I got invited into a Cambodian family’s house, and actually ate real home-cooked Cambodian food!”
“Oh yeah, but did you actually help cook the Cambodian food? No? Oh that’s a shame, because I got invited to a Cambodian dinner too, but I actually helped cook the amok and I stayed the night there too!”
“Oh yeah, I stayed the night too of course. And then in the morning I realised they had no toilet. I had to shit in a bucket!”
“Oh I’ve had to crap in a bucket many times, it’s like, so normal to me now. Actually, when I was in Africa, I spent a whole week in a Maasai village and had to shit out in the cornfield!”
And it goes on and on, this passive aggressive “I’m a better traveller than you” game, until they’ve made up as many stories as their imagination will allow.
Sorry to crash the party kids, but here’s the inconvenient truth:
Both of you are just a couple of silly gringos.
Just like me.
Just like the rest of us.
We are all village idiots; outsiders, people who do not belong but have been welcomed in anyway. That is exactly what makes travel beautiful. We get to see a glimpse of different lives. We get to see new faces, experience new smells and flavours. We get to do, see and eat whatever and wherever we want, even if it is a cheeseburger in the resort café. Everything about travel is a personal experience – not a competition. People will explore the world and themselves in different ways. There is no wrong or right or better or worse. So instead of spending all your energy trying to be the most un-touristy traveller out there, how about just enjoying travel for what it is; a chance to escape the rut of daily life, learn about yourself, see the world, and have a good time.
You silly tourist, you.
Photo credit: garryknight@Flickr