Tourist or Traveler?

This is the question isn’t it? I feel that if you are apart of my generation you would rather swallow battery acid than associate yourself with ..”that word“. That other “t” word – tourist – shudder.

We don’t tote around in oversized ill-fitting hats, Hawaiian shirts, constantly checking to see if our money belts are still attached at our hips. (BTW checking for your money belt is a clear sign to EVERYBODY that you wasted $30 plus at REI on a money belt… jussayin.)

No, we went to the book stores to copy information out of Lonely Planet, were sized for the perfect “backpackers” backpack, and all we really need to pack is our already opened mind. Basically screaming – “Experience, enlightenment, life changing moments – I AM READY FOR YOU!!”

Sound familiar?

Yeah, to me too. I was this way, and well, I still am – a little bit. I am not big on tours, cruises, or anything with a set itinerary. But, I have come to realize that the gap between what it is to be a tourist and a traveler may not be as big as we think it is.

Is “backpacking” not just a different type “touring”. There are countless backpacking guides and websites with recommendations on where to go and what to do. Great! But, if you are following the steps of others can’t you say that you are still taking a type of tour… I am of course playing devils advocate here. But, really, let’s think about this. We are after all open-minded individuals, yes?

Aren’t both methods used for the same purpose?  We travel to escape our everyday lives. Some people want to do it in a resort with everything planned for them. Others want to get their hands dirty, get lost, risk not having a place to crash for the night – in the mystery lies the adventure, no? I know which attitude appeals to me, but whose to say that the other is wrong?

In many ways they are both a privileged way to view the world. Both are methods of “othering”. The word “local”, for example, drives me crazy. This term is popular with “backpackers” telling stories like “yeah, we were in this village and hung out with the “locals”, while showing pictures of children with torn clothes and swollen bellies. Is this not insulting? Using their poverty to show your friends and family back home how “real” of an experience you had? Do you think that maybe if that family whose straw floor you ate dinner on, if given the means, wouldn’t be eating dinner in a room much like the one you ate at growing up? Again there is no right or wrong here. Just questions.

How many times have we thought to ourselves “oh it wasn’t authentic”, or the opposite “we went to this really authentic restaurant.”

What is authentic? I am serious.

Is what you experienced in the “non-authentic” place any less of a reality? I remember sitting with a friend on a rooftop in Pushkar, India drinking a “special” lassi with these 2 Indian guys. They wanted us to teach them english while they played songs like “Hotel California”. Sure we could have walked away from that night annoyed that it wasn’t Indian enough. But what does that mean? Why do we feel like everyone in the world has an obligation to provide us with what think are “authentic” moments. For those guys, they were providing us with an environment that said “be comfortable, we are not simple, we can connect with you and your culture.”

Having grown up in a town that depends on tourism for economic survival, I know what it’s like to have visitors arrive salivating for spirituality and a sense of unique welcoming. Dripping in turquoise, deer skin, and silver they are hoping to the get the “secret password” that will make them feel invited into our community – like they belong. It is hard to not want feed into their needs. Provide them a positive glimpse into the lifestyle and maybe even offer them a seat at our table. I think the key word there is “positive”. We want to give the best impressions, and coming from a cultural that is so often misunderstood, it is important that we break those misconceptions. But even though they are sharing our food, perhaps even sleeping under our roof, they are only given access to what we consider appropriate – this would be referred to as the “front-stage of the back-stage”.

This concept isn’t mine. I was introduced to it in my Anthropology of Tourism class that I took when I was an undergrad. I can’t recall who first introduced it (I am sorry professor Kaifa) it’s a concept that stuck with me.

Imagine a restaurant. The staff is friendly and welcoming, this is a “front-stage” view. If you head into the kitchen and hear your server talking shit about you and your request for water with no ice – that is the “back-stage”. This is, of course, an over simplification of these two spaces, but I think it works. You can also think of it as public view vs private view.

It is when we make ourselves aware of these 2 spaces that we begin to question every experience. We being to question “authenticity”. Yes, someone invited you over to their home for dinner, you might ask yourself is this just a “front-stage” perspective of what I thought was a “back-stage” experience? The reality is, most of us don’t really want the “back-stage” perspective. Being jolted into reality takes away the romance of the moment.

I think the real challenge here is not to focus on “authenticity”. Not to constantly ask ourselves – is this experience “front-stage” or “back-stage”? Because in doing so you’re immediately pulling yourself out of the moment. You are behaving as a “cultural collector”. Someone who collects cultural experiences as one would stamps. In my mind these people are only doing things to say they did them, without a real desire for a deeper understanding and connection.

If we can explore these ideas of “front side” and “back side” we might begin to see the line between “tourist” and “traveler” begin blur a bit.

We can use Pushkar again as an example. I am sure back in  the ’60s some travelers came upon Pushkar and loved it. It’s secluded in the desert of Jaipur, it has the feel of a location that only “insiders” know about. Then word spread and it slowly became a mecca for backpackers. The only “problem” with this is if you are going for what you perceive is going to be an “authentic” back-stage experience you may find yourself being let down. It is overrun with foreigners, foe holy men, and stalls of trinkets. The process of cultural commodification has completely taken over and we are left wondering what once was. We could head home and talk about how sad it is that such a lovely town is overrun with tourists. We can even look back to my earlier post on Boca, and how I was annoyed that there were so many tourists. But, we can change our perspective, put down the judgment stick, and realize that what was experienced was the current reality.

Cultural commodification is the final result of traveling. What starts out as a backpackers dream will most likely result in the perfect place for a 5 star resort. So whether you associate yourself part of the traveling tribe or the tourist sect you are feeding the same monster.

I am just curious about what happens when we look closer at our journeys. Our expectations. Our perceptions. How we view ourselves and those we come in contact with. Maybe we shouldn’t  turn our noses up so quickly. Let’s be a little more self-aware. I can start today….

And let’s face it, of course there always exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, no matter how you see yourself when you are exploring the world, most of the time you will only be seen as a …tourist. GASP.

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