The Occidental Tourist

The Occidental Tourist
Odds and Ends

Despite Alexandre Dumas’ assertion that “All generalizations are dangerous, even this one”, there seem to be three different types of independent traveller.

First there’s the Nervous Traveller. They’re mostly young, often a couple on their gap year, and it’s their first big trip. You’ll spot them at the railway or bus station with their brand new rucksacks and their pristine guidebook of choice, looking up where they’re supposed to stay. At lunchtime, they’re looking up where they’re meant to eat. Later, in their guest house, almost certainly the first one listed in the guide, they’ll be reading about what they’re supposed to see tomorrow, or which town is next on the book’s itinerary.

Everything’s new, exciting, mysterious, even a bit scary. Wide-eyed and innocent, they sometimes look like defenceless rabbits, frozen in the glare of oncoming headlights; they’re a bit worried that people might take advantage of their lack of experience. My first time in India, I was on my way to book a “tourist quota” train ticket in Delhi when I was intercepted by a friendly, plausible Indian wearing an official looking uniform. Learning where I was going he informed me, apologetically, that the tourist office was closed “for the holiday, but if you’d like to come to the other office across the street, I can help you…” I declined politely and continued to the station. If I hadn’t read the warning in my guidebook about the travel touts, I might have believed him. Many do, and end up paying inflated prices for readily available tickets.

A young American girl in Prague, travelling alone for the first time, confided, “I love Europe. You can always find somewhere reliable to eat. McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts…” She wasn’t being ironic. When my sister-in-law told a friend I was going to Southeast Asia, he said, “Oh, my daughter went to Thailand last year, and she found this book which told her exactly what to do.”

It’s easy to be flippant. Condescending, even. But that’s a little unfair. They want to travel, and to see each country’s historical, cultural and natural highlights. They want to do it cheaply and independently, only they’re a little apprehensive. Following the recommendations in a guidebook may not be original, but it’s relatively safe. And the Nervous Travellers I’ve met were all having a wonderful time.

Then there’s the Superior Traveller. He (they’re almost always male) has an ethnic tattoo in a prominent place and some ethnic beads. The necklace or bracelet “was given to me by an orphan in an unbelievably poor village, the kid didn’t want any money, but I gave him some anyway…” He’s also called a WIWI. Because every other sentence he utters begins with the phrase “When I Was In…”

He wants to know how much you paid for the souvenir or handicraft you just bought. Not because he wants one. It’s so he can take a sharp intake of breath and shake his head in disbelief, like an English plumber looking at your old central heating boiler. Then he’ll explain how you’ve been ripped off, how he would have got it for a third of the price. For him, bargaining isn’t a matter of life or death. No, it’s much more serious than that. He’ll claim he always pays less than the local prices.

Wherever you’ve been, not only did you go to all the wrong places, you really should have been there when he was, i.e. earlier, before it was completely ruined by tourism, when there were almost no guest houses, and certainly no restaurants serving Western food. He was there for longer, paid less, used more basic transport, and had the most incredibly humbling experience where he stayed with the poorest family in the remotest village, and they didn’t want any money either, they were just so proud and privileged and grateful to have an (insert local respectful word for white foreigner) under their roof.

He’s always been to more countries than you. I met one who had flown back to Germany with a particular airline because it included a one hour stopover at Damascus airport. That way he could add Syria to his very extensive list.

He’s scornful about people who take the tourist buses or who travel air-con on the trains. It’s not real travelling unless it’s an eighteen hour journey over unmade roads in a dilapidated forty-seat bus which breaks down twice, with at least eight goats, four pigs and seventy locals for company. And he always travels unreserved, the very cheap, unbelievably crowded hard seats, on Indian trains. That way, he can have a more authentic experience with genuine locals. It doesn’t matter that he speaks only three words of Hindi, or that most of the Indians who travel “jungle class” don’t speak English.

The Superior Traveller never, ever uses a guidebook. Those are for unimaginative sheep who all want to go to the same places, sleep in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants and just talk to other tourists. A book doesn’t have any information he needs; he’s quite capable of finding everything out for himself, thank you.

Travelling down the Mekong in Laos, I overheard a young man proclaim that he’d checked out all the agents in Chiang Khong, Thailand, and got the price of his boat ticket down to 1100 baht, including the ferry across the border. And he hadn’t looked in a book. He wasn’t so pleased when the person he was talking to pointed out that if he had, he would have discovered that the same ticket could be bought in Laos for around 650 baht.

Gordon Sharpless, on his excellent Tales of Asia website, tells of a traveller he met in Vietnam who was very dismissive of the Lonely Planet. Having made it clear he would never look in a guidebook, he then asked about the Cambodia visa regulations since he’d bought a plane ticket to fly to Cambodia from Hanoi. Gordon said, “If you’re flying into Phnom Penh you can get a visa on arrival at the airport.”

“I’m not flying to Phnom Penh, I’m flying to Vientiane.”

“Okay, that’s in Laos, you don’t need a Cambodia visa you need a Laos visa.”
“I’m not going to Laos, I’m going to Cambodia,” he said quite resolutely.

“Okay, if you fly from Vientiane to Phnom Penh you can get a visa at the airport. But regardless, as you’re flying to Vientiane you need to think about a Laos visa first. And I haven’t been to Laos, so I don’t know what the Laos regulations are.”
“But I’m not going to Laos,” he again insisted.

“Yes you are. You have a ticket to Vientiane.”
“I know. Vientiane is in Cambodia.”

“Uhh, no, Vientiane is very much in Laos.”
“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You have a ticket to Laos not Cambodia.”
“I do? Really? No. It’s Cambodia. I know.” He paused. “Laos? Really?”

“Yes, really. Vientiane is in Laos, Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and that’s where you would fly to from Hanoi if you were going to Cambodia.”
“I don’t understand. I wanted to go to Cambodia. I thought Vientiane was in Cambodia. Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. You’re going to Laos. Better get a Laos visa.”
“How’d this happen?” Gordon didn’t see the need to answer that question.

“So what do I do?” he continued. “Vientiane is really in Laos?”
“For as long as anyone can remember.”

If you really want to wind him up, refer to him as a tourist. He’s not a tourist. Everyone else is a tourist. He’s a traveller.

Finally, there’s the Happy Traveller. They’re not very hard to spot. They’re smiling, relaxed and enthusiastic. Everything’s still exciting and mysterious, but the things they used to worry about have become routine.

When they ask you about the souvenir or handicraft you bought, it’s because they’re interested. Although they do haggle with the sellers, they do it with a smile, and if they don’t quite get down to the local price, they’re stoical about it.

Sit with them in a tea shop or guest house and they want to know where you’ve been. If they have been there, they want to compare notes; what did they miss? If they haven’t, they’re hoping you’ll have some hot tips, recommendations on places to see, things to do. At the end of 2005 I’m going to Central and South America. Although I’ve done almost no planning or research yet, I do have a really long “must-see” list from many enthusiastic, helpful Happy Travellers who’ve already been.

The ones who have travelled extensively don’t know exactly how many countries they’ve been to; it isn’t that important. They’re not “collecting” countries so they can impress other people. Nor are they in the least embarrassed that many of the places they’ve been to are right on the beaten track. After all, the really exceptional sights are ones which lots of people want to see.

Although they all have horror stories about “bus rides from hell”, if it’s within their budget, they’ll opt for something a little more comfortable and a lot less gruelling. My most memorable encounters with friendly, articulate middle class Indians have been in second class air-con.

The Happy Travellers carry a guidebook, only they treat it like a menu, not a recipe. They’re aware that the opinions about hotels and restaurants are just that; opinions. If they arrive at ten to midnight, tired from the long bus or train journey, they know that the recommended guest house will be ok. If it’s early morning, the map tells them where there are a group of budget hotels, probably within walking distance of the things they want to see, and they’ll check out a few before making a decision.

But a guidebook isn’t just for eating and sleeping. It’s full of interesting background about the country they’re visiting, its history, geography, economy etc. It gives the location of and important facts about the significant highlights in each place. In addition, the Happy Traveller will get information from locals, other travellers, tourist offices and the internet.

If the Superior Traveller doesn’t want to use a guidebook, or wants to travel more cheaply, that’s up to him. If he doesn’t want to visit the really famous places, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat etc., because there will be other people there, that’s his loss. But what I find sad is his arrogant intolerance, his cynical, condescending tone, and his belief that the way he travels is the only authentic way to travel. What really amuses me is that he always seems so miserable.

Retired and in my fourth year exploring Southeast Asia, I think I’m starting to get the hang of being a permanent tourist. When I end up paying more than I could have, I just remind myself it’s still considerably less than in the UK. Having a guidebook to dip into has enlightened and educated me, but it has also saved me time, money and energy. I’ve met generous, helpful and interesting people, locals and travellers. I’ve been moved to tears by some of the places I’ve visited. Most importantly, my sense of wonder has been working overtime and I’ve had so much fun.

Sadly, in his intense, desperate quest to do it cheaper, better, and especially more authentically than everyone else, having fun is something the Superior Traveller seems to have lost sight of.

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