“I’m a traveler, not a tourist!”
It’s a refrain I hear often, usually with the word tourist sounding like something the person scraped off the bottom of their shoe.
By now, we all know the difference. I mean, kind of. A traveler is an individual; a tourist is one of many clogging up the Eiffel Tower line. A traveler is adventurous. They’ve got that escargot halfway to their mouth already. A tourist has already said no thank you, I’ll take a pizza at the chain restaurant that reminds me of home.
A traveler, in other words, is cool.
A tourist is not.
What if those are narrow definitions? What if they’re just each of us trying to prove that we have more class or nuance or worldliness than the people around us?
And what if we stopped worrying about whether we were better, stopped dickering about terms, and just traveled the way we want to travel?
Because is it really true that eating escargot (which I love, by the way, and do recommend, but don’t think is in any way morally superior to other choices) makes us better than the person longing for a taste of home?
* * * * *
Back when I lived in Switzerland, our valley got quite a bit of traffic from the popular round-Europe party busses. The people on those buses were mostly the early-twenties crowd, often traveling Europe for the first time. They were Aussies and Americans and the occasional Canadian. Sometimes they thought our waterfall-laden valley was boring because there were only two bars.
And the non-bus travelers really liked to poke fun at them. To scoff and roll their eyes and talk about the buses like they weren’t really traveling.
And, sure, a part of me agreed: hopping from party to party in major European cities surrounded by a hoard of people just like me might not be my style either.
But the idea that those 20-somethings’ bus trip didn’t count as travel always rubbed me the wrong way.
Just because it isn’t how I would choose to travel doesn’t make it illegitimate. And, frankly, even if the idea of bouncing around Europe drinking yourself into a blackout sounds like a waste of a trip to you, who’s to say that the party bus won’t open up a world of possibilities for those on it? Maybe someone who was scared to travel solo the first time will feel safe enough to try it the next time. Maybe someone will find a travel buddy and they’ll set off on another type of adventure.
Maybe any travel experience, even those that feel a bit more insulated from the cultures they are passing through, can shift and change us.
* * * * *
I recently saw someone on Facebook ranting about two American girls at a gorgeous European attraction making plans to walk all the way across town for Starbucks when there were so many better, quirkier, more local coffee shops nearby.
Why couldn’t they be less embarrassing? The person’s post implied. Why couldn’t they be braver, more local, more adventurous?
But here’s the thing: sometimes we all need something comfortable and familiar. I’ve been traveling full-time for six years and sometimes I still seek out the proverbial Starbucks. And why is that so bad? Why can’t I decide I want Asian take-out in Paris because I’ve had a lot of French food? Why can’t I hole up in Starbucks in Playa del Carmen for a couple hours because I need to take a break and be somewhere familiar? Why have we decided that one way is always superior to the other?
* * * * *
I’m guilty of this too.
And there is a balance to be had.
I can and have poked fun with the best of them. And I do cringe sometimes at the things tourists around me do or say.
But I also think it’s important to realize in any situation there is nuance. And that my mode of travel isn’t automatically superior to someone else’s.
To me, big cities almost always feel the same and I get bored easily when visiting them. But that doesn’t mean that someone who loves cities is a worse traveler than me.
For me, getting so off-the-beaten-track that people don’t know when the next bus comes can get stressful, but that doesn’t make me less of a traveler than someone who flies entirely by the seat of their pants and hitch-hikes their way through Serbia.
* * * * *
Now, this is not to say there aren’t harmful ways to travel.
And it’s not to say we shouldn’t be discerning.
Because going on a tour that disrespects a local culture, getting so shit-faced that you pick a fight with someone or run screaming down the street to your apartment waking all the poor locals who have to go to work tomorrow, participating in activities that are known to be harmful to animals, etc. etc. all suck.
So, yes, it’s worth questioning what kind of tours we take and what kind of travel we participate in.
But not because we’re cooler than the Starbucks girls.
Because how we travel matters.
* * * * *
So, the point: How about we stop being so damn judgmental? Who cares if those two girls are craving Starbucks today? Who cares if Joe Somebody wants to take the party bus? Who cares if we love different things, have different definitions of adventurous eating, or want to hike different difficulty level trails?
More and more lately it seems compassion and nuance and assuming strangers’ humanity has gone out the window. Which is a damn shame.
Because can’t we love our own travel choices without looking down on others’?
It’s something I’m going to work on. Something I wish we all would.