There's a cultural norm out there among the crowds I frequent that being a tourist is a bad, shameful thing to do. That if you visit a country, you should not do it as the stereotypical tourist: wearing ostentatious clothing (fannypacks and hawaiian shirts), speaking loudly in English, only going to the few tourist attractions in the area, eating off the tourist menu at the few westernized restaurants, not getting to know any of the locals, and in general just acting like you've no idea how things are done around there.
I basically agree with this. I think that travelling can be a great thing, can teach everyone a great deal (though beware the false lessons), and can really improve your life and your outlook on it. And I think you don't get that if you only look at the tourist traps. But that said, I think there sometimes people err too far in the other direction, utterly avoiding tourist attractions. I mean, they're tourist attractions for a reason. The Pyramids at Giza are a truly mind blowing thing to witness, even if there are touts trying to sell you camel rides the entire time you're there. And to be honest, the camel rides aren't that bad either.
The oft-times discussed counterpart to tourism is travelling. The distinction is usually nebulous, but it focuses on paying attention to the people in a country rather than the things or attractions there, using a lower budget, travelling via traditional or popular transport instead of modern, expensive means, and generally doing things in ways that bring you closer to the day to day lives of folks who live there. This is definitely an improvement over tourism. Getting to know the culture as an actual, living, breathing culture, full of apes and meme-creatures, is the only way to have the experience "broaden your horizons." Otherwise, you might as well be watching a movie, right?
That's the position I held for a long time, and it worked really well for me. Not ideally, but it was great. It showed me a lot about myself, taught me how to deal with comfort-based hardships, and did actually expose me to a great deal more of the culture than I would have seen if I was just going to the tourist attractions. Backpacking around Europe is a great and storied tradition, and I totally recommend it if you haven't ever done it. Southeast Asia would probably be even better to start with-I did Europe first, and then Asia a few years later, but reversing that might be preferable. Asia's not actually much more difficult, just more intimidating, and so probably teaches bravery better.
But there's a third way to deal with going places (man, "travel" having a specific jargon meaning here is inconvenient). Namely, living in them. This is both a practical distinction in terms of time, and also a philosophical distinction, so let's discuss both. This is the mode I'm currently employing, and have for
A Brief Diversion: My Travels
I first travelled on my own in the year I took off after my first year of uni. Financed by the first few porn films I starred in, I backpacked through France and Italy, lived with a boyfriend in Utrecht, Netherlands for two months, and then came back to the States. Two years later I did a six month study abroad in Budapest, Hungary, whence I did the tourist thing in Austria and Egypt, finished up uni stateside, moved to Berkeley for a year, backpacked Southeast Asia for a few months, and am just now finishing a year in Melbourne, Australia. In a week and a half I'm moving to Brooklyn, NYC, USA.
Back to the Theorizing
Practically, there is a big distinction between the tourist mode of travel, spending a few days to a week in a place, the traveller mode of travel, spending a few weeks somewhere, and what I'll call the lifestyle mode of travel, where you spend several months up to a year or sometimes even more in a place.
For the philosophical distinction, I would say the difference is one in viewpoint. I used to think in terms of going to a place and how best to experience that place, or using going to a place as a way to learn something, or about the culture, or to meet the people. I now think about my life as a grand story, and the place where I'm living is the setting. The setting is rarely the point of it-it's the background. But it does greatly affect what goes on in the foreground. Sometimes it is the foreground, in overwhelming ways-tripping balls in a thunderstorm in Angkor Wat is an experience unique to that time and place. But most of the time you're not going on adventures, you're just living your life.Maybe I should go on more adventures. Scratch that, I definitely should. I've been quite busy with starting a business, my partner starting a business, and generally halving the awesomeness level of our lives for this year so that we can increase it by a factor of 10 next year and 100 in a decade, but perhaps I've erred too far in that direction. Oh well, regrets are pointless. Ever upwards.
But like I said, most of the time you're living the story of your life. And so is everybody else. If you want to actually connect to people, you have to live somewhere for a while-long enough to make friends, get a favorite restaurant (which is actually your favorite, you actually know other ones nearby that are worse than it). My best experience in Thailand was being given handmade nunchuks by one of the 4E Masters, a local dance crew I had befriended through the universal language of dance (which was pretty convenient, given that they didn't speak English and I didn't speak Thai). In Melbourne, it's one thing to walk down Hosier Lane and admire the graffiti. It's another to know the quickest routes vs the most interesting routes through all the alleyways, know which buildings are abandoned and which ones just look that way (and how to get into the ones that are), and walk through Hosier Lane as just one of the hundreds of alleyways of graffiti, and to see how it constantly changes. It's a wonderful thing, feeling like you truly know a city. Cities are meme-creatures, and if you get to know them, they can tell you things that mere apes cannot.
I want to know as many cities as I can. Having favorite restaurants on four different continents is an incredible feeling. When I am old, I want to be able to walk into any city in the world like I own it-either because I already know it intimately, or because I have perfected the art of seducing a city and getting it to show me everything it knows how to do, like I already do with men and women.
My thoughts have changed a bit as I've written this. My initial inclination was to extol the virtues of the lifestyle mode of travel, but writing this made me realize that, perhaps because of operating in that mode, I've not had as many adventures recently. I have many plans for the upcoming months, and while they tend to focus on the practical rather than the adventurous (though there is overlap, there is often not), I now have a renewed focus on that part of my life.
So I am caught in a contradiction. Living in one place lets you know it better-but I cannot limit to myself to knowing only a few cities, and after 6 months to a year, I get an irresistible itch to move again. Living in new countries exposes you to new sources of adventure, and travelling in the lifestyle mode gives you all the time you need to do what you want there, but removes a sense of urgency.The one thing that, at least at this point in my life, tips me towards wanting to continue the lifestyle mode when I move to Brooklyn is that having travelled so much over the past few years, I do not have a tribe to which I am connected nearly as strongly as most people do. The closest thing I have largely lives in New York-it's a newly inaugurated sharehouse there that I will be moving into. I am hoping that I can find my place there, in that culture, and use the businesses my partner and I set up this year to fund some truly outrageous travelling outside of NYC (being a single economic unit with her is the most liberating thing I've ever experienced. We are so much greater than the sum of our parts). And, of course, I'm going to find all the adventures there that I can.
Hi there. I'm bgaesop, long time reader, just recently started posting and actually using my SETT account. In my effort to figure out how best to craft my SETT experience, I've posted this here instead of on my blog, where it will show up in a week. My most popular post so far is The Meme-Creature vs the Ape: Why Coca-Cola is a Person and You Aren't.