The idea of travel has a romantic mystique. Travel is something out of the ordinary, beyond the mundane. We don’t say we travel to work, we say we commute. Travel appeals to a deeper sense that many of us have for something more—to experience something more and hopefully better.
People have always traveled. There’s a myth that past humans stayed in place, never venturing far from home. Increasingly, historians and archaeologists discover that previous generations did journey far afield and for no other reason than they could.
Humans are curious beings and throughout history, many people have overcome the fear of the unknown to explore new lands. That tension between the unknown and the familiar is a central theme of travel that I want to explore here.
Some people travel as a pilgrimage, some travel to escape their ordinary lives. Some travel for a sense of adventure. But some go on a trip out of a need to conform. When I think of a philosophy of travel, I keep thinking about the dichotomy of those last two senses: the desire for adventure versus the need to conform.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the philosophy of travel after a recent trip overseas. Two canceled flights, an unwanted diversion to another country, then another delayed flight, and a roundtrip total of 25 hours, 38 minutes of layovers in airports (thank you Google maps), was a nasty reminder of the complications of travel. But I don’t want to complain about the familiar annoyances of travel and the irresponsible behaviors of the travel industry. Enough people do that. I want to focus on what travel can be.
Otherness versus the Familiar
I’ve gone on many travels. For years, between academic conferences and for pure fun, I would spend fifty or more days a year traveling away from home. I’ve traveled alone, but mostly, I have traveled with my spouse. One summer we traveled for three months around North America. Another summer, we traveled for two months around Europe. Wonderful experiences we wouldn’t trade for anything.
That’s the glorious beauty of travel, or at least, those beauties are there for those willing to experience them. Travel means discovering other ways of life. It means opening yourself to learning and growing as a person.
Sixteenth century philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote that “Traveling through the world produces a marvelous clarity in the judgment… This great world is a mirror where we must see ourselves in order to know ourselves.” His words are still true today, but we can only earn those benefits of travel if we are willing to go beyond the familiar into otherness. That includes not being a tourist.
Here’s something very important: tourism is NOT travel. They are qualitatively different.
Anthony Bourdain, chef and travel writer, exhorted people to be a traveler not a tourist. He wasn’t being elitist, he was even more stridently against elitist pretension than he was against the herd mentality of mass tourism. Travel to experience the world, he said, to really experience the world. Being a tourist, he said, was being shepherded around in hermetically sealed vehicles, ferried from one structured, presanitized encounter to another. Being a traveler means stepping off the conveyor belt of the tourism industry and into real life to experience a place as the people who live there experience it. To be, at least for a brief while, one of the locals.
To me, that’s a metaphor for life at large—the difference between simply going through the motions and really living and experiencing life. Travel is adventure, embracing otherness. Tourism is conformity, clinging to familiarity.
Yes, conformity. Tourism is exploitation—of the workers of the industry, definitely, of local populations shoved aside to make space for hotels, theme parks, and chain restaurants, undeniably, and tourism also exploits tourists. The tourism industry tells you where you should go and what you should do, accompanied by how you should feel about it.
I’m talking about more than just package tours, cruise ships, and theme parks based on movies. I am also talking about mass tourism and the commodification of “the vacation.” Vacations are wonderful, don’t get me wrong. Getting away can be balm for the soul. The problem is when vacations are rote performances rather than personal expressions. It is one thing to look at travel blogs for ideas on places to go; it’s another thing to go where you think everyone else is going because you are told everyone else is going there. The tourism industry loves that herd mentality and actively encourages it with their annual guides to this year’s “hot” and trending vacation spots.
Where people go and how is linked with their status and identity. “I went to [blank] this year,” is common office chatter. In tourism, as in life, people feel pressured to conform to what other people do and to keep up with what is considered posh and trendy. Feeding into this pressure is the myth of “the trip of a lifetime.” Many people have a dream of a perfect vacation, staying at a palatial hotel where servants cater to your every desire, eating the perfect food, and being wafted off to the most wonderous sites. Sure, some days are like that, little moments of wondrousness, but by and large travel doesn’t live up to elevated expectations, because the real world, even the tourist places, don’t revolve around you.
But, the TV shows, the magazines, the blogs and social media accounts, and especially the advertisements all feed the perfect vacation myth. The constant pressure of the vacation fantasies create sky-high expectations that reality can seldom meet. People want what they see on TV, and too often they expect every hotel, every restaurant, every tourist site, to live up to their unrealistic expectations. When they don’t get it, they go online and write bad reviews for the places that didn’t perfectly cater to their every desire.
Too often in my travels I have witnessed the angry tourist castigating a hospitality worker whose transgression was not being a mind-reading genie who could grant these tourists their every wish and demand. Countless times, I have seen where the idea of the “Ugly American” came from. Ultimately, it is the tourism industry’s fault for creating unrealistic expectations in tourists. They did promise the “trip of a lifetime” after all, and somehow everything looked nicer in the advertising photos. The industry hangs its underpaid workers out to dry without the resources to deal with the tourists’ sense of entitlement.
Being a Traveler, Not a Tourist
To be fair, not all tourists are so demanding. Most are good people following the herd as best they can. They go where they are told it is good and safe to go. They stand in line for hours to pay exorbitant fees to enter the tourist sites, they endure the inconveniences and indignities of going on vacation. Countless times, I have seen them trudging past, exhausted at the end of the day and I sincerely hope they enjoyed their day more than it appears that they did.
Is it worth it, this vacation thing? That’s up to each person to decide. But I would like to suggest that though it seems that being a tourist is the easier and safer path, it is not the most rewarding one. Traveling is stepping outside of your comfort zone and into greater clarity.
I am not advocating anything extreme. You don’t have to stay in a yurt on the Asian steppes or a treehouse in the jungle wilds. It would take only a few steps away from the overly beaten path to discover so much more. When you are in a different city, you have choices, often many choices. You could of course go to Hard Rock Café or you could go to the local bistro a couple of blocks down the street.
I have learned in my travels that going those few extra blocks makes a huge difference. Just one example: Years ago, on our first time in Vienna we reached the main square, Stephanplatz, and like most European cities, Vienna has a lovely central square lined with cafes. We walked through, surveying the crowded restaurants and decided to walk a little further to explore what else the city had to offer. A mere seven minutes away we discovered a quiet restaurant frequently by the locals. Less expensive, quieter, and probably much better food. We experienced the Vienna that the Viennese live every day. That’s priceless.
Being a traveler is going those extra steps to have a genuine experience. That’s my advice to everyone wherever they go.
Avoid chain restaurants. You already know what that tastes like and you will get better food and better service at a locally-owned establishment. Visit the local shops, not the gift shops near the tourist sites. Go to a local grocery store. Seriously, it’s a great place to learn what a culture is truly like when you walk down the aisles and see what the locals have to choose from. Walk around the neighborhoods and take in the sights. See the real place to which you have traveled and meet the real people.
Those local places may not be as outwardly pretty and sparkly as the tourist spots, but that’s because they are built for real life, not for paper-thin fantasies. The beauty of the local shops and cafes are that they are expressions of something real. When you buy from the owners of local shops and restaurants, you support the local people and their economy, not a multinational corporation.
Best advice of all: respect where you are and who you meet. That’s the most sure-fire way of enjoying your travels. Wherever you go, the people you meet are entitled to your kindness and respect. The Ugly American tourist expects people to be their servants. That attitude doesn’t get better service; at best it garners a cold, clipped efficiency. Most people are friendly and welcoming. Show them respect and they will respond in kind. Go to the local establishments and try that attitude and you will get so much more out of your travels.
Some say the journey is more important than the destination. I say that your attitude is more important than anything else. Travel accompanied with respect builds bridges between people and cultures. It does produce a marvelous clarity in the judgment and opens up knowing the world and yourself. Be a traveler. Experience the world.