Traveller vs. Tourist

Are you travelling?  No, but are you really travelling?  We've all been asked this at some point, often by a sanctimonious white person with dreadlocks whose standard for Authentic Travel™ seems wildly unattainable.  There are things you learn are unacceptable unless you want to receive the dreaded moniker of 'Tourist' - i.e. having a suitcase instead of a backpack, or going on a package trip instead of making your own way, and God help you if you even consider eating Western food.  The more I think about it, the more I have come to realise that the 'Traveller' archetypes as they establish themselves are very privileged people, and belonging to this hallowed tribe takes more than just wearing elephant pants or not shaving.  Those inspirational quotes telling us "Quit your job, travel the world" - who are they for?  The single mother working two jobs to support her children?  Or the teenager fresh out of high school with no commitments and plenty of pocket money?  Exploring the world is an incredibly rewarding thing to do, but it is a luxury, and there are many reasons why it is unfair to judge people for the way they choose to travel.

Money.  I've met several 'Travellers' who have been on the road for years at a time, taking odd jobs for cash, couch-surfing, and living a very frugal lifestyle in order to remain on the road.  However, being able to take that initial step of embarking on long-term travel requires some residual funds, whether you have been supported by your parents beforehand or been in a lucrative job that you chose to leave behind.  There is a certain amount of privilege that facilitates a nomadic lifestyle in the modern world because you are living with the assumption that money will always come your way.  For people who have always struggled financially, this leap of faith is often too much.

Safety.  While there are many women who travel independently and still participate in a dazzling array of cultural experiences, it is just a fact that men have more avenues of exploration available to them.  I've met male travellers who will tell me exciting stories of running out of money and sleeping on the street, hitch-hiking across deserts, befriending strangers on the street who then give them a floor to sleep on, and my reaction is always the same: if I tried that, I would get raped.  Perhaps this seems like an extreme response, and certainly I have both hitch-hiked and couch-surfed before, but always very cautiously assessing the situation and often sending a friend the licence plate or home address  just in case.  Sometimes we just don't want to go to those shady guest houses or get on the motorbike of that strange guy, because instinct tells us not to.  Unfortunately being a traveller of any gender can make you a target of crime, and sexual assault can happen to men too.  However there is a difference in how men and women assess risk, and I have always prioritised my own safety and comfort over spontaneous experiences.

Transport.  I can't drive, I'm a Londoner and a lot of us never learnt.  Unthinkable as this is for many Americans and Australians, it simply isn't ubiquitous to have a car in many British cities because our public transport is so good, and as such I never took the time to get a licence.  However this can be quite prohibitive in some countries, meaning that I have been forced in the past to go on guided tours or coach trips rather than miss out entirely.  I fully appreciate the idea that you shouldn't just select the 'highlights' of a place and ignore everything in between, but generally speaking you need your own vehicle to go off the beaten track.

Health.  "You have to bungee jump in New Zealand.  You have to dive in Indonesia."  Aside from the obvious fact that the majority of inhabitants of these countries have not themselves partaken of these supposedly obligatory activities, there are other reasons not to participate.  Something as innocuous as my asthma is enough of a danger to prevent me from deep sea diving, as even a minor asthma attack could be perilous when using breathing apparatus.  Mental health is a factor too, for although travel is excellent for helping you to face your fears and insecurities, you should never be forcing yourself to do something that feels wrong.

Commitments.  Most 'Travellers' are young, single, middle-class, and as such free to roam as far and as long as they choose.  Not everyone has this freedom.  In the UK, you don't have to pay back your student loans until you are earning above a certain threshold, but in the USA, once you graduate those debts have to start being repaid, whether you can afford it or not.  Then there is family - personally I think that being in a relationship should not hold you back from travelling, as a supportive partner should be happy for you and trust you.  But if your parents are old, or a family member is sick, you might not feel comfortable going too far from home.

The way we delineate differences between travellers is baffling, and something that I am seeing more clearly now that I am studying in Australia.  We judge people for only spending time with people from their own country, for partying too much, for travelling to the same places as everyone else, for living in hostels.  I am guilty of this myself, just because I am trying to build a life in Australia I overlook the many reasons that some people are just passing through.  As travellers, we are all strangers in a foreign land, and as long as you are respectful of the countries you visit and their people, it doesn't matter how you choose to experience it.

No comments:

Post a Comment