Are you really leaving home when you travel?

Douglascomms's picture

There’s this odd and mistaken assumption that all travel is somehow beneficial both for the footloose individual, and for the destination. Although I’d like to make a distinction between travelling to gain insight into other cultures, and travelling merely to gather stamps on your passport.

The stamp gatherers will flit from country to country, icon to icon, taking the same photographs of the same monuments, and not bothering to learn languages and cultures as they move.

I read with interest Catherine Fritz' blog about the importance of taking you time when travelling with children, and I believe the same principle applies for footloose adults.

The problem with taking the tourist trail, or well worn backpacker routes, is that you’re surrounded by others who are doing the same. You’re speaking your own language, and spending little time actually getting to know the local cultures and people.

Years ago I attempted to go backpacking, and made my way from Mexico City where I attended university, down to Guatemala and spent one night in a sprawling hotel on the edge of Lake Atitlan. The view was amazing, food was edible, the beer was cheap and the bathrooms were clean, subsequently the hotel was full of backpackers, and the lingua franca was English.

I listened as many of the backpackers swapped tales of their travels, of bad food, poor service, and really really dodgy toilets. Each had had adventures, climbed mountains and pyramids (there are lots of pyramids to climb in Central America), paddled streams and walked through rainforests. Few, if any, spoke Spanish, and even less spoke any of the indigenous dialects which predominate in the region through which we were travelling.

There was even a chappy from regional NSW who’d managed to make it all the way up from Tierra Del Fuego with only two or three phrases in Spanish. A fact about which he was proud.

I found backpacking particularly challenging, not because of the food or hotels or toilets, but because of the total lack of contact with the local cultures and peoples.

Having participated in a student exchange in high school and again in university I knew how difficult it was to withhold the judgment reflex, which forces us to filter what we see in other cultures through our own cultural rules.

The tragedy of the backpacking experience is that few, if any, backpackers, or tourists, actually take the time to sit down and listen to the locals and understand their perspective on the world.

They travel in a bubble, move in groups of like minded individuals, casting judgment rather than casting judgment aside.

Although some gain important insights into the challenges of other cultures, few take the time to actually take in and understand what they are witnessing.

The great benefits of travel lie in its ability to open your mind to cultures you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to experience. But in order to do this you actually have to move outside the comfort zone of like minded people of similar ages and skin types.

Going native, as the anthropologists refer to it, takes time and commitment, but the benefits in terms of insight and learning are tremendous.

It would be marvellous if the boast of the backpacker was the amount of time spent in a single place, and the number of cultural assumptions they challenged while they were there.

For most however, travelling is a matter of being who you are elsewhere, rather than challenging your most basic assumptions.

The real adventures of travel are internal.


Sad, isn't it

This is a rather sad picture you're painting. And while I've also occasionally encountered similar attitudes from budding travelers, I have to admit that from personal experience, more often than not quite the opposite is the case. Those who travel are a curious, adventurous lot, very alert and attuned to the world around them, interested in new places, new people, new cultures - otherwise why would they bother leaving home in the first place when there's Discovery Channel? And I wouldn't be so harsh on ‘stamp collectors' either because usually they are the very ones who actually take the trouble to learn at least a few words in the language of the country they are going to visit, read about it extensively, choose and study their itineraries almost by heart and go on their trip well equipped with dictionaries and phrase books. And I just love Japanese tourists!

Travel to broaden mind

I think you are right to an extent but I think they are being exposed to more than you give it credit for. Even without actively seeking out and soaking up new cultures to the max, travel is still far more mind-broadening than staying at home. (If it's not, then there's probably no hope for that person at all!)