“Are you a traveler or are you a tourist?”
I recently finished two travel books back to back: Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term Travel by Rolf Potts and Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson. Vagabonding is more of a basic guide to paring down your lifestyle, your “things” so that you can lead a simple life of adventure on the road around the world. Davidson’s book is set in Australia of the 70’s and written in the 80’s with an afterward written in 2012.
Potts states, “…the tourist/traveler distinction has largely degenerated into a cliquish sort of fashion dichotomy. Instead of seeking the challenges that true travel requires, we can simply point to a few stereotypical “tourists,” make some jokes at their expense and consider ourselves “travelers” by default. In reality, travel is now a social contest, and vagabonding has never represented a caste on the tourist/traveler hierarchy. Depending upon the circumstances, a sincere vagabonder could variously be called a traveler or a tourist, a pilgrim or a satyr, a victor or a victim, an individual seeker or a demographic trend.” (158)
Basically, Potts is saying perhaps when we leave home we actually “travel” between the two. If you are there to observe someone else’s culture – whether it is a visit to the worst block in your city (mine is 6th street downtown LA), or a trip through Navajo country, or sitting a Parisian cafe outside the Louvre you are a tourist. What connects us to the human aspect of society are bonds of language, culture, tradition, history. Unless you have family there, and I mean “family” loosely meaning friendship, you are a tourist if you are watching someone else’s culture and are unable to participate.
As much as I can go down to the bowery and hang out with homeless people, I won’t be sleeping on a piece of cardboard, I am a tourist. I either can not or will not fit in. You can’t mistake how other cultures acknowledge the history of where you were born, your skin color, the languages you speak, who you know, and why you are there.
I think one can only be a traveler in a physical sense, a geographic sense. If you go to Pompeii and visit the ruins, you can be a traveler because you are there and have the same access to the history and culture as any modern Italian. If you go to Arches National Park, you are a traveler since you can enjoy the rock formations as much as anyone.
It leads me to think that tourism is culture, traveling is place. One travels in a culture but to a place. The only difference that makes a huge effect is if you are spending money and there only to consume. Thus, if you go to an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica and never leave the compound – you are only there to consume the sun and surf, food and wine, in a bubble then you have traveled to a place but are not even a tourist there. Your culture has been replicated just with a different view.
The next question arises, are you in the bubble or out of the bubble, rather than are you a traveler or a tourist?
While I love a good, “woman crossing the desert book” (I also have a love of mountaineering books!) Robyn Davidson’s book is very problematic. She rails in anger against being photographed on her trip, and quickly judges whether the people she meets are real or not based on a sort of inner calculation of how closely they jibe with her politics. She wants to hang out with the Aborigines but she’s a white woman and without an introduction she is as much of an outsider as any tourist buying indigenous knick-knacks (meaning no matter how much you want to be a bear, even if you believe you are a bear, bears know the difference). And then she is very angry with her own choice of accepting money for her trip, at being photographed, at her own book she wrote (obviously for money and recognition). She writes, “…The journey, MY journey would eventually be subsumed by its reconstructions…First it was hijacked by my own book then by Rick Smolan’s photographs, and any day now by a film that will have almost nothing to do with ‘what really happened.'” Davidson comes across as a narcissist where everything is “her” experience which she constantly states is personal journey, but yet can’t keep her mouth closed. It is an interesting feat having crossed the desert via camel, yet her book fails in showing us the historical and cultural context. So her ignorance is our ignorance–she never got it that she never owned anything. In the telling it is shared, in the understanding it morphs. It is a chimera, and if what you value about it is that it is uniquely personal, the only way to own it is to stay silent.
There are some places, like here in Los Angeles where I live, where you are always in the bubble then out of the bubble and then back in. No one really owns the history here and it is crumbling so quickly, it is a million layers of strata. Space is constructed…the brooklyn-esque coffee shop that sells “provisions,” a Mexican bar that used to be the American Legion, your dentist office is in a nondescript building off Wilshire and also has the office of the Austrian consulate. There are the “ghost signs” on the sides of buildings that advertise things that have been gone for ages next to a new building-size mural.
While I can’t seem to answer the traveler or tourist conundrum (sort of chicken and egg, if you ask me) or in the bubble and out of the bubble issue, I do know that recognizing the porousness of space is good. We all know when we see something (a restaurant, a shop, a theme park) and know that it is trying too hard to give off the sense of belonging. Perhaps the all-Swedish fondue restaurant seems kitschy in a place that does not have much of a Swedish population? It doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it seem uncanny.
Two of my favorite recent pieces that I have been exposed to recently are I WALKED FROM MARINA DEL REY TO MALIBU — AND IT WAS A LOT LIKE BEIRUT from the LA Weekly and writer Will Self writing about his walking practice, where in this case he flies into JFK and then walks to Manhattan.
The truth is that bubbles are endless, the beach that reminds us of Beirut bursts when we are brought back to Venice….but the one in Los Angeles and not in Italy. Or that we decide to walk a route in the most human way possible, on foot, but find that the industrialization of geography has made the route inhospitable to the bipedal animals we are.