Rants and Opinions

Backpackers and “Tourists”

There are a lot of different categories that fall under the idea of the “traveler.” Of course there are the ones that the travel industry bandies about. Business travel (i.e. lots of dough, no time), holiday travel (or vacation, i.e. somewhat limited budget, somewhat limited time), and budget travel (which should be pretty obvious, and sometimes includes vacation travel). Let's talk about budget travel for a while.

You see, the budget travelers make their own distinctions, too. Just like Christians have about seventy million different types of Christians, and Jews have plenty of different types of Jews, there are many types of “budget travelers.” And there's a Hierarchy of Cool. The “Tourist” is at the bottom, the “Traveler” is at the top.
According to “Travelers,” the budget Tourist is a worthless excuse for a passport. The Wealthy Tourist, of course, comes from a completely different planet, and isn't even worth discussing. But the budget “Tourist” brings on himself a storm of vitriol from the Cool “Traveler.” Maybe you know the budget “Tourist.”

He has no money, but he scraped up enough to go to the islands with his girlfriend for two weeks. He stays in a cheap hotel, and sits by the pool (or goes out and takes pictures of everything he sees). He has a good time and goes home. “Tourists,” you see, don't really get to experience the true culture of a place. They try the local food by eating it at a hotel restaurant, or local restaurant which caters to foreign tastes. The “Tourist” may or may not use a backpack, but if he does, he will definitely be told at least once a week that he's not a real backpacker. No, a real backpacker is... a Traveler.

“Travelers” feel that they are at the top of the travel food chain because they are at the bottom of the economic one. They feel that because they have no family, job, future, or responsibilities, they're the only people free enough to really experience the true Culture and Atmosphere of a Foreign Land. The dream is that they travel with the locals, eat local food, catch local diseases, and become local as much as is possible for a foreign resident. The reality is that these people really have no money, they sleep in Youth Hostels (otherwise known as “Backpackers'” for obvious reasons), they eat bread and tomatoes for lunch and two-minute noodles for dinner. Most of them spend most nights drinking beer and looking for other backpackers to copulate with. I'm not saying it's not fun. I'm just saying that it's not quite as romantic as they'd have you believe.

I'll never forget meeting a certain six backpackers in Borneo. I'd spent the last few weeks in a tiny town called Martapura. I'd been the guest of a family there, and they'd made it clear that they'd love to have other foreigners visit them as well. These backpackers (two Dutch guys, and four Canadians) talked a pretty good game. All about how they gave up the normal lifestyle to travel the world; how they hated tours, and preferred to experience life the way the Indonesians do. By this they meant using local buses and boats instead of organized tour buses or airplanes. They weren't satisfied with merely looking through smoked glass windows on an air-conditioned bus. The whole spiel.

But none of them had ever stayed with an Indonesian in his house before, so I mentioned where I was living, and suggested that they come and stay a night or two. Really see what it's like. That's when the mumbling started. “Yeah, well, um, wow, sounds interesting, um...” Obviously none of them showed up.

Coincidentally, a week or two later found me back in the main city again (about an hour away from my adopted town). I ran into the two Dutch guys; the Canadians had gone off to some other island. Again I told them they should come along some time to see what Indonesian hospitality is like. See, this was a sure thing I was offering them. This wasn't some strange Indonesian man asking them to come see his etchings one night. I was telling them that it was an o.k. place. That there was plenty of room. That the food was good. Martapura is worth visiting for a day, because the market there is really big and colorful (and is even listed in my guidebook). They had said that they wanted to experience “true” Indonesian culture. But.

I never saw either one of them again. That's how it is. I wouldn't mind so much if people weren't so critical of other travelers. If they didn't talk about how “Travelers” do this and that, but “Tourists” are worthless, because they only do this and that. I believe that people get what they want out of a trip, and if it's good for them, so be it! There's nothing wrong with staying at a hundred-dollar hotel and eating hotel food as long as you recognize that you're not living with locals and eating local food. Or rather, if you realize that the local food you're eating is for rich locals. If that's what you want, and you're not kidding yourself about what you're seeing, then it sounds great to me.

What happens, though, is that some people will go on a two-week, organized tour, and come back believing that they've experienced what there is to experience there. They've “done” Indonesia. What a joke! I once met a woman on a train heading to Pamplona, Spain. She was traveling by herself, but had apparently been on a tour. She told me that she loved Florence. She said she loved it, and that she had, “spent two whole days in Florence, there was so much to do!” Obviously, the backpacker who has just spent two weeks there can't help but goggle. Still, she never said that she was finished with Florence. That she had done it.

And it's not really the expression, “done” that bothers me, it's the mind set that sometimes goes along with it. A lot of people say they've done a place, and only mean that they've been there. I'm talking about the people who mean done. They've spent a bit of time there, and figure they know the place. They say, “oh, Spain. Spain has no Italian restaurants.” Or, “people in Denmark always try to rip you off.” Whatever they say, they do it with authority, because they've been there and seen the place. They're almost always wrong, of course, but they say it anyway, and with conviction. People should realize that there's always more than meets the eye on a visit to another country. Hell, even in their home town they may be overlooking something. Isn't it possible that they haven't DONE the place at all, but just seen a portion, and therefore have to guess about the rest? The intelligent travelers know that what they've done is visit for a while. They've seen a bit, and tried (tasted, felt, smelled, heard) a bit, and came away more knowledgeable than they were. Hopefully more tolerant than they were. That's about the best you can do.

This philosophy, this fact, is true for backpackers as well. The Traveler can only say that he's seen, tasted, felt, smelled, and heard a bit MORE than the Tourist. That's it.

Backpackers understand that Tourists don't see enough of the country, but they seem to have trouble understanding the same thing about themselves. Those Dutch guys in Borneo will go home scoffing at anyone who saw Indonesia from a tour bus, but won't scoff at themselves for seeing it from cheap hotels and hostels. I'm not scoffing at anyone who got themselves together enough to visit a strange and distant place, only those who talk about doing it better than anyone else.

And of course, so many backpackers think that the poor (i.e. non-wealthy) culture is the true culture. I'm talking here about places in Southeast Asia, or Eastern Europe, or Africa. They act as if a person who stays in a top hotel, travels first class, or eats at good restaurants, is obviously missing out on the real culture of the country. He's not seeing how the locals really live. Well, it's true that that sort of traveler will not see how the majority of the country lives. But he will see how the rich of the country live. He'll see what sorts of foods are served for the upper class; he'll make conversation with the powerful people of the place (not least because they have a better chance of speaking English). The backpacker will never know what the political and economic elite has to say.

There is something to be found in every sort of travel. I don't think that I understood the poverty better in Bangladesh because my rooms had holes in the mosquito nets rather than air conditioning and room service.

Hey, that's my rant for now. It'll probably stay up here for nine years, knowing my talent for never updating anything....

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