First off, you don’t have to be in a foreign country to be one or the other. Everyone is more inclined to be either a tourist or a traveler.
Tourism focuses on consumption. You go somewhere to eat something, do something, get something, feel something. When it’s done you’ve achieved the purpose of your visit. Traveling focuses on relation. You meet people and find out who they are, why they are. You notice things that make a place special, whether they are the goal of your trip or not. Each of us has the option of being either. Your mode of life at home will translate greatly to your journeys abroad. And your journeys abroad might change your mode of life at home.
The tourist and the traveler may both visit an important mountain. The tourist might appreciate the beauty of the view from the top and take photos as a souvenir and as a badge of achievement. The hike was the price for the treasure of the vantage point at the end. The returning path down is a necessary evil for having gone up. The traveler will take photos for memory’s sake, but will remember the people along the way who greeted and helped with finding the path to the top. He will ask for directions as much for the chance of human connection as for staying the course. The trek up and back down may be difficult, but every step is special because it’s over ground in a special place.
The tourist pays the admission ticket to the mountain trail reluctantly. It’s unexpected money pulled from his wallet. The traveler gives the money to those who maintain the trail and keep the earth’s beauty and sacred essence intact. Yes, it flattens the wallet a bit, but it’s the very reason for the money being there.
The tourist judges the mountain by it’s pleasantness, incline, and view. This assessment is shelved in the tourist’s mind next to other mountains hiked and sights seen. That’s when phrases like, “Don’t do it, it’s not worth the effort,” are painfully heard.
The traveler learns of the significance of the mountain to the locals, and sees how they relate to it. She then adopts this sentiment as much as possible. It becomes a part of the place. The traveler cares much about how locals feel about the hill. She knows it is a part of their lives, and that it might have a part in how they see the world, how they were raised, what they eat, the language they speak, and the reason for their existence. The traveler is a different person from when she started at the base. More than just the sweat shed, she has learned about fellow people, touched a new part of the world’s skin, and found the part of her own self that connects with it all. She is no longer the same. She’s grown.
So replace that mountain in your mind with a temple, a beach, a restaurant, a library, the subway, a neighborhood, your own apartment complex, and everything still applies. Yes, we get calloused from daily life. It’s probably not possible or feasible to notice all the little things around you all the time. But maybe we can notice some of it. Maybe we can be aware that the world is made of everything, and it’s not just a manufactured structure for you and I to flow through the designated corridors.
What is your neighbor like, for one? The pitch of their voice, the type of greeting they give, or respond well to, the way they walk, the time of day you run into them? Are they angry, sad, or cheerful? The tourist cares only that their neighbors don’t endanger or inquire about his personal sphere. He will observe enough to determine that his neighbor is docile, clean, quiet or loud, and not a threat. As long as he can go about his life undisturbed, the tourist is satisfied with his neighbor. The traveler is open to discover who her neighbor is. She will risk embarrassment by greeting them, asking how they are doing, offering to help with heavy groceries, and letting them find out who she is. And she lives day to day ever learning, ever growing in her awareness of those around her and herself.
I’m oversimplifying things. No one is purely a tourist all the time. Neither is any traveler completely free of tourist behavior or thoughts. As a foreigner and visitor to new places, I’ve experienced and acted as both a traveler and a tourist. But I’m being an intentional traveler, so to speak, making a habit of experiencing a place for who, what, where, when, why, and how it is. For me, it’s less about going to the “good” places for this or that, and more about going to any place and finding more about the world, myself, and others. I’m trying to learn to travel as I travel. And I’m glad I started at home.
My wife and I haven’t been perfect, but we strive to learn from people and engage them respectfully. We know we are the outsiders, the guests, and we acknowledge that we are being accommodated as we eat, sleep, and move about a town. Courtesy and warmth come easily through this mindset. Travelers meet, greet, and share with each other, because there’s camaraderie among those that respect the place they visit. We open up to people and find that in response to an ounce of generosity, tons are returned.
Even when we are being tourists, though, we return in moments of clarity. Places that just take our breath away, prevent us from holding up the camera to block our view. People who blow us away with kindness, or anger, or strangeness. Smells that no stubborn tourist can ignore. These experiences crack open a tiny fraction of time that spans past, present, and future, a memory that will never fade. And then we open our hearts again.
Traveling is not just about being in overseas countries. Rather, it is learning to have an open mindset and a respectful attitude about the world at home. Before going overseas, try visiting your grocery store, library, or coffee shop as an outsider. Assume nothing. Be courteous, observant, and willing to roll with the punches. Remember, it’s not just about consuming stuff. It’s about relating to the place and the people with whom we live.
So live powerfully,
A special thanks to Rolf Potts and Tim Ferriss for helping me prime myself for extended travel.