A Travellerspoint blog

December 2008

traveller or tourist?

backpacking a state of mind?

Am I a tourist or traveller? What are you? As a backpacker, I belong on one side of the great divide in the world of travel snobbery. The saying that prevails around this group is - tourists know where they are going, but don’t know where they have been, while travellers know where they have been but don’t know where they are going.

Of course, my friends who stay in hotels are horrified at the idea of sleeping on a rooftop in Jerusalem with 29 others, or any of the other shared places I’ve slept in.
I, on the other hand, cannot imagine spending any more than the occasional night in a sterile, albeit luxurious, hotel.

Many of my friends hate to leave home without knowing where they will sleep, what tours have been booked, what times their transport will leave and exactly where they are going. They think I am crazy to have no idea where I am going, where I am staying and what I will see. This is, for me, the difference between a traveller and a tourist, characterised by the freedom of time and attitude. As Hostelling International says in one of their adverts, backpacking is about attitude not age.

However if you have two, three or four weeks to enjoy an annual holiday, or this is your one chance to visit Europe, China, or Australia, and it is important you see all that you can join a tour. Being part of a tour is the only way to fit in the top sites. Just make sure you are not in a cultural quarantine - returning home untouched by any contact with locals.

As a wanderer, I often miss many of the ‘must see’ tourist places but leave a country having been to a wedding, had a long coffee and meal with a local school teacher, taught swimming to a group of young Thai boys and on another occasion, spent three weeks on an island cleaning up a marine-reserve after a monsoon. Am I the only person who went to New York and merely stood at the bottom of the Twin Towers?
Conversely, I don’t know any ‘tourist’ who volunteered their time in a soup kitchen in the middle of a New York blizzard.

The snobbery evident on both sides of the fence: ‘I can afford to stay somewhere clean and civilised’ versus ‘I can afford the time to spend a long time travelling’. Different strokes for different folks.

So what do others have to say about the topic? Larry Krotz (Tourism. 1996) says travel, or going somewhere as a tourist, has become something we do in order to share our culture - like going to an annual sports or cultural event. He discusses the shift over 150 years, from travel for education and knowledge to the enjoyment factor of today, ‘something everyone does’.

Mass ability to travel, as things became cheaper and faster, was captured originally by Thomas Cook mid 19th century, making a fascinating topic to read. So, if you want to know about the conveyer belt that tourism has become; how we are a product to be seduced, fed and watered, displayed and then returned home go to the library. If you want to know about the selfishness of people like me who get off the beaten track and then don’t want you to discover it too; if you want to know about the affects of tourists or travellers on the country we travel in, I recommend the whole section on tourism in your local library.

Posted by nomad kiwi 19:14 Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Asian Drivers

My fish theory

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Intimidated by the fast one-way traffic in Chang Mai, (Northern Thailand) I ask a Canadian "How on earth do you cross the road? These drivers are crazy.”

"No they’re not. You live here a year like I have" he tells me "and by then you'll learn to just step out into the traffic. They'll move around you. Just don't run and don't stop or they don't know what you are going to do. There is nothing worse than a farang (foreigner) on the road; they don't know the rules. Locals hate seeing you front of them, they know you are unpredictable"

Sitting over a coffee, I study the busy intersection then, as I don’t have a year to spare, and with heart pounding, step into the apparent confusion to put his words to the test. The traffic continues to travel at the same speed, they divide, parting like water around a rock, some to the front of me, some to the back and, heart beating even faster, I walk slowly and evenly across the road.

Pulse and breath slowing I realise I'm safely on the other side, no blood! The drivers here seem more aware of the traffic - driving according to conditions rather than rules.

This has led to my-theory-about-Asian-driving. Although it appears to be chaotic, its actually safe, sort of organised chaos: my theory is the school of fish model.

It's like diving or snorkelling in a school of fish, they absorb you, move around you and carry on just as this traffic is doing.

Safer? I don't know, but the longer I’m in Asian and Middle Eastern countries the more keenly my senses are in tune with my surroundings.

Perhaps us western drivers need to be sent to Cairo for driving lessons among 20 million people and we'll learn to drive with our eyes everywhere on the five lanes of traffic on a three-laned street: driving with centimetres to spare and where I rarely saw a prang and crossed the roads with confidence.

Posted by nomad kiwi 13:36 Archived in Thailand Tagged transportation Comments (2)

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