Vagabonding book club: Chapter 8: Keep it real


“In reality, travel is not a social contest, and vagabonding has never represented a caste on the tourist/traveler hierarchy. Depending upon circumstance, a sincere vagabonder could variously be called a travelerĀ or a tourist, a pilgrim or a satyr, a victor or a victim, an individual seeker or a demographic trend. Indeed, the main conceit in trying to distinguish travelers from tourists is that you end up with a flimsy facade of presumed insiders and outsiders. By the vacuous standards of fashion, insiders and outsiders are necessary, but in the realm of travel (where, by definition, you are always a guest in foreign places) such a distinction is ridiculous. Putting on a cocksure and superior air may win you points at a nightclub in your hometown, but such pretense on the road will only cheapen your travel experience.” — Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

This is a particular pet peeve of mine: the tourist vs. travel debate and its associated snobbery. There is nothing more off-putting to me, in meeting another vagabond, than to hear her speaking with disdain about “those people” who got off of the tour bus, kept together in a group, followed their guide with a carnation on the tip of his umbrella held high, and took their tour of the colosseum in Rome.

It’s true, that group travel and organized tours are not my preferred method of exploring the world. The sentiment behind her disdain is one that I share: the value of owning one’s own time, discovering a place without the pre-chewed experience, specially designed to make sure you don’t miss anything and come away knowing the basic facts. I travel to interact with a world I don’t know about, with people I don’t understand yet, and to do that in my own way, and in my own time. Thus, the “tour package” deal isn’t my thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s of no value.

Which is better: to stay home because the world is too scary and you don’t know where to start, or to take a three week packaged tour through China? To take the packaged tour through China, of course! Some exposure is better than none. Some experience is more educational than none. For many, two weeks vacation is all they get, that should be used to the best of their ability to travel, if they have a desire to do so. For lots of people, purchasing a well organized “tourist” experience is the gateway that broadens their horizons and builds confidence while reducing their fears to the point that, perhaps later, they can branch out on their own.

Seasoned travelers tend to wear their adventures like boy scout badges and arrogantly point them out. This is unattractive. Instead, those of us who’ve been around two or three or fifty blocks, should be the first to quietly applaud the first tentative steps that others are taking. We should be there to validate their experiences and encourage them to take the next steps. It’s not a contest, it’s a path we walk together. Travelers are often tourists, or at the very least, they were once. Tourists are also travelers and, given enough adventures, will eventually meet the real world on their own terms.

Do you consider yourself a tourist or a traveler? Do you think there’s a difference? What has been your experience?

Posted by | Comments Off on Vagabonding book club: Chapter 8: Keep it real  | June 24, 2014
Category: Travel Writing

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