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.