Do Things, Not Countries

I have a pet peeve. It’s one of those things that grates, like nails on a chalkboard, for me. I know the perpetrator doesn’t mean it the way it sounds, and I fervently hope that it’s just a matter of not having applied thought before opening one’s mouth.

“Have you done Spain? What did you like about it?”

“We did Indonesia last winter and it was amazing. We were there for three weeks and…”

“My friend has done South America…”

“Yeah, I did Europe last summer with my friend… it was so cool, man, we spent a whole six months just riding trains.”

No. Please. Just stop it.

Some definitions from Webster for “did” include: carry out, undertake, discharge, act, behave, suffice, to serve a purpose, prepare, make, organize, create or produce, decorate, style, present, grant, pay or render, work out, calculate, solve, to be employed at, manage, cope, succeed, move at a particular pace.

Now the dictionary does acknowledge at the bottom that an informal use is, “We’re doing Scotland this summer,” meaning visit, tour, or sightsee in, but I’d like to take issue with this for a moment.

Want to dig deep and<br/> reflect on your travels?
Want to dig deep and
reflect on your travels?

When we say that we’ve “done” something, that usually means we’ve accomplished it, finished it, or mastered a specific thing

  • “I did the dishes.”
  • “I did a raft trip on the Colorado River.”
  • “I’ve done a helicopter ride over that glacier.”
  • “I’ve done the mule ride down into the Grand Canyon.”

It is entirely possible to do things. Things are finite experiences, they are definable.

It is not possible to do countries

RTW_Trip

Countries are not things, they are places; incredibly complex places full of thousands of smaller, distinct places, millions of things (which you could do!), hundreds of thousands of people with ideas, philosophies, religions and experiences to share. Countries are not as simple as the sum of their tourist traps. Nor can they be characterized only by broad brushstrokes that they’re publicly painted with. A country isn’t defined by its politics, or its religious palate, as there are thousands of individuals that fall within those spectrums that defy stereotypes.

A country isn’t defined by its politics, or its religious palate, as there are thousands of individuals that fall within those spectrums that defy stereotypes.

To say that we’ve “done” a place implies some subtext that I don’t think most people using the phrase actually intend. To say that you’ve “done” it implies completion, mastery, checking it off of a list as finished, having had the full experience of, without a need to revisit. It implies that you’re on to the next thing, having neatly packaged the previous place and pronounced it “done.” It also implies an attitude in the traveler that the world is a check list, or a laundry list of experiences to be had, perhaps that the world and its countries can be neatly summed up and tied with a string after a two week visit.

Travelers are often type-cast as an arrogant lot: inordinately proud of the flags on their jackets and the notches in their belts. It’s a mischaracterization, in general, I think. The people I know who’ve traveled most and traveled longest tend to become exactly the opposite: humble, teachable and with a firmer grasp on the enormity of what they have not seen or experienced than they have on what they’ve “done.”

 It also implies an attitude in the traveler that the world is a check list.

But, it’s phrases like this that reinforce that stereotype and cause us to come off like jerks.

You’ll never be “done” with a country

Angkor Wat

Let’s take a look at three places I was not born in that I’ve traveled:

  • Cambodia: 3 weeks
  • Guatemala: 7 months
  • USA: years

It could be said that I’ve “done” those countries, and yet, clearly, my experience in each of them is very different.

I wouldn’t say I know Cambodia in the way that I know Guatemala. I don’t speak Cambodian, which instantly excludes me from most of what matters in the country. In three weeks it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface. While I spent the time studying and learning and seriously seeking to understand, the reality is that I barely understand anything about that complex and historically layered place. Far from being “done,” I don’t feel as if I’ve even gotten properly started.

I’ve experienced enough of Guatemala to know that I’ll never be done with it, and it’s certainly not done with me.

I’ve spent seven months in Guatemala, over a two year period. I lived there, instead of just traveling through. I speak the language well enough to make friends with locals and discuss the deeper things in life. I’ve visited all of the districts and driven it in our own vehicle. I know Guatemala better than many people, and yet the take home message for me is that there is more to that country than I will ever see. Most of it is below the waterline in the hearts of people who’ve grown up in a country rocked by civil war and genocide funded by my father’s generation’s tax dollars. I’ve experienced enough of Guatemala to know that I’ll never be done with it, and it’s certainly not done with me.

I’ve spent years in the USA. Fifteen, to be exact. I’ve lived in three states, and I’ve traveled to 49. The outlier: Alaska, and I’ll “do” that in July of this year. I’m married to an American born man. It is the country of my second citizenship. And yet, I will never know it, I will only know my experience of it. I guess that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s the issue at the root of this whole discussion: what we know of a place is based on the experiences we have there, or the stories of others.

What we know of a place is based on the experiences we have there, or the stories of others.

When we say, “I did Scotland last summer,” we’re doing two things:

1. We’re selling the country short.

Scotland

I promise you, you did not accomplish all that is the culturally rich, historically lively, linguistically intriguing, naturally stunning, socially layered place that is Scotland, even if you were there for every single day of summer. When we say that, we are masters of oversimplification and it’s insulting, frankly. I know some folks who took a whirlwind month and a half swing through the USA, touching both coasts and one spot in the middle, then pronounced that they’d “done” America and proceeded to write with authority on the topic. Of course I laughed, as did everyone with any perspective, as do the Scottish when reading the above sentence, I’m sure.

2. We’re selling ourselves short.

Are we really such shallow persons as to believe that we’ve checked an entire country, in all of its diversity, off the list with a six month visit? And let’s be honest, most people are staying far less than six months in the places they’ve “done.” Are we really thinking that little? Learning that little? Are we really that absolutely arrogant in our assessment of our own understanding of the complexities of the world? I don’t think we are, really, but we sure sound that way sometimes.

I’m not finger pointing here. I’m just saying that, as travelers, I think we have a responsibility to think about how we speak about the places we’ve been and to be intentional with the words we use to describe our experiences.

Look, I’m not busting your chops over semantics. I’m not going to slam my beer on the bar and call you out for underlying philosophical issues that you weren’t considering in a moment of conversation about where you’ve been and where we’re going next. I probably will laugh; however, if you say you’ve “done” Indonesia, and ask you what the notable cultural differences between the 17,508 islands were and how many of the more than 700 languages spoken in that one country alone you became fluent in.

I’m not finger pointing here. I’m just saying that, as travelers, I think we have a responsibility to think about how we speak about the places we’ve been and to be intentional with the words we use to describe our experiences.

What do you think? Am I over reacting? Perhaps I’m too much of a logophile? Or maybe this kind of thing bugs you too? Talk to me, people.

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  • Lynne James said at 2014-03-26T21:12:07+0000: The 'done' syndrome is part of that competitive one-upmanship that some of us travel to escape! They (the 'done-ers") think it makes them superior beings because they have 'done' more countries than you, and the whole RTW thing tends to encourage this. Better to go to one area of one country and live there and know it well, I think.
  • Neil Davenport said at 2014-03-26T16:32:55+0000: Could you do Lichetenstein?