Thursday, February 28, 2008

 

Travelers and Tourists

I've been thinking lately about what it means to love travel. Nineteenth century travel journals so often have that colonial tone of voice--that loving to observe and record sights. And yet I wonder. Did those travelers really pass through so many countries and cultures in an intellectually removed bubble?

It is easy to do now, of course. Sometimes when I sit in the Tokyo airport, I eavesdrop on conversations. I'm usually melancholy because I'm leaving Japan. When I'm sitting in the Red Carpet Club or (when miles permit) the First Class Lounge (otherwise it's economy all the way and the conversations are different), the people around me are usually American businessmen. I find the re-entry into so much western maleness and Americaness jarring. I usually like to keep quiet, and try to hide the fact that I speak English--a trick that never works on the Japanese, but does on the Americans.

You hear the weirdest things. A lot of executives discuss how lonely they are, and how hard the travel is. Most of these people never get outside of the bubble of their hotels. Once I heard two guys talking about how lonely their work made them, but how they would never: ". . .keep two families like some guys, if you know what I mean." It always sounds so extreme. Why not make friends? Why go to one extreme or the other?

People are so weird. Minds are so weird. I guess it can be difficult to travel from one culture to another and imbibe it. I find it difficult to travel and not ingest some of where I am. But this probably has something to do with the fact that I love meeting new people, love seeing new places and love new connections. Perhaps this is a kind of addiction, or a seeking out of something.

Anyway, this bit of self-absorption had me thinking of the masterpiece that is Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky. There are "travelers" and "tourists," he writes.

In the film, the idea is portrayed through this bit of dialogue:
Tunner: We're probably the first tourists they've had since the war.
Kit Moresby: Tunner, we're not tourists. We're travelers.
Tunner: Oh. What's the difference?
Port Moresby: A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive, Tunner.
Kit Moresby: Whereas a traveler might not come back at all.
Tunner: You mean I'm a tourist.
Kit Moresby: Yes, Tunner. And I'm half and half.

I guess it's an old idea--that visiting a foreign country and really and truly experiencing it forces you to recognize something about yourself. I go back and forth on novels like this. In general, I find them more honest than books which are absent of any psychological insight, and utilize a foreign country to explore a set of aesthetics.

But the traveler/tourist dichotomy rings true for me, though I'm not sure I'm committed to either. Which are you?

Comments:
I love this topic! :)

I would label myself a traveller, although a chicken one... I only enjoy travelling to places where I can make my way in English or Spanish, and where human rights are sort of respected, like I won't travel to a place where anybody would think a camel or a cow are more valuable than a woman, if you know what I mean...

I like to meet the people, eat what they eat, when, where, however they eat it. That sort of thing.

I remember one of my first travels to London with a group of friends where I was so badly disappointed about their constant complaints, them expecting things should be like at home. It was a nightmare.
 
Ha! I suspect I'm somewhat the same. You never really know what you will do until you push yourself and as I have yet to go to a Third World Country, I don't really know how I will react.

As for complaining travelers . . . my father told me a long time ago to be sure and travel with any potential husband. And it's good advice. Now my husband tells me to be careful who I travel with to Japan. It's special to me and, as you point out, you don't want to go somewhere with someone who complains the entire time.
 
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