Truth(s) about Travelers.
14 April 2014 § 5 Comments
Huffington Post recently posted a blog written by Stephanie Dandan addressed to the general public, written vicariously by the mysterious clan known as ‘travelers’ – though, apparently, we’d rather be called nomads, wanderers, modern gypsies. As if we gather under the flag willingly.
The piece romanticized dingy hotel rooms and the novelty of sleeper buses and the long, cold nights “we” sleep under a bridge (personally, those nights are usually quite lonely), as if the stay-on-the-road-at-any-cost maxim is our only compass reading, the only path to the education and evolution she talks about, the thing we as a ‘sect’ do and think about constantly.
As if nothing else could bring us the joy of an overnight train in India, chicken buses in Guatemala, exercising compassion for a bus ticket agent when a tourist gives him a hard time.
In Holy Cow, Sarah Macdonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two Westerners who look “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town. To the observant wanderer, this is common fare in the far reaches of the world. Westerners tend to bring our ingrained individualism elsewhere, and project it outward; we insist on our own spatial boundaries and chronemics, often oblivious to local custom.
I’m annoyed not so much as what this woman said as what she presumed in order to say it. A traveler is not a traveler is not a traveler. There are tourists, and there are travelers. There are nomads, and there are gypsies. Different words for different lifestyles. I identify as one or more, less for poeticism than accuracy.
Perhaps I’m sensitive because I’m three days back from a trip, still jet lagged and wake up in the middle of the afternoon because my body thinks it’s tomorrow morning. My bank account is freshly low, a few payments are behind, and I’m grateful to the subletter that we’ve got a place to land post-travel. Feels like a first.
I want to touch on a couple things in response to Stephanie’s enthusiastic writing. Many travelers like to let “normal” people know that letting go of everything to tramp off into the wild blue will change their lives forever. But it isn’t always the best thing. It doesn’t work for, or serve, every potential traveler. Some aren’t ready for it. Some will never be. It’s not always a matter of excuses (i.e., travel is too expensive, dangerous, lonely, etc.) – some people thrive more in the bubbles they’ve created. We’re on on our own paths.
Stephanie is dead-on in that we sacrifice luxury and comfort for experience, that many travelers are able and willing to toss most things aside for the contents of a backpack. Traveling, in my experience, is a spartan lifestyle primarily because trinkets, gifts, souvenirs, and bullshit don’t fit in a backpack. They weigh too much. They’re not useful.
Money’s often tight, and there can be a perpetual, annoying desire to squeeze as little money into as much time as possible, and some travelers index parts of the world by how much one can live on per month: Europe costs $1,000 minimum, India half that; Central America, depends on how one does it. In order to stay longer – if that’s the priority – one might sleep on the beach, eat only the cheapest local food, or stop drinking (alcohol can account for extraordinary amounts of one’s budget). If those are sacrifices, “we” also sacrifice things like community, relationships, a sense of accountability (but to ourselves), and very often, purpose.
One thing that many travelers don’t mention, consider, or share is the part of the journey which begins at the end: re-entry. Integration. Finding home where we left it. Reconciling acceptance and criticism of our mother culture. Taking the lessons from a 6-month sojourn through East Africa, and applying them to West Coast US America. Or wherever. How do lessons from other parts of the world fit at home?
When one arrives in a new country, skin color and economical differences can become points of separation. We spend the beginning, perhaps the entire trip, adapting. Like children, we learn how to communicate verbally, non-verbally; we learn effective reactions to confrontations, beggars, offers, situations we’d not likely experience at home. Perhaps we learn to accept that we do not, and will not ever, fit in amongst the locals.
The process of re-entry often depends on how well we’ve adapted to another culture. How do I, for example, take a developed skill of bargaining with South Asian street merchants to a world of fixed-price capitalism? Is there any crossover? Does the me that learned those lessons deteriorate as I re-learn how to conduct myself in the States? Motorcycling the narrow chaotic streets of India, for example, seem to have seeped into my hatchback-driving habits on the orderly, polite roads of Oregon: they don’t mix well, so one must adapt further. In this we find that the traveler does not stop traveling once he reaches home: he continues the process, re-calibrates to a different currency exchange, ways of buying goods, driving.
Some travelers, the hardcore nomads who actually claim the term ‘world traveler’ from a place of often traumatized clarity, intend to never return home. These adventurers become mythic to those of us who feel like three or six months is a long trip – these nomads are wisps of Himalayan air, leatherbacks at Goan markets, low-profile Westerners who no longer qualify for the so-called White Tax. They’re the ones who go to Antarctica for US$50, burn their passports to avoid the consequences of an overstayed visa, know the classical connotation of the word ‘gypsy’ and want nothing to do with it. These guys and girls are admirable to the point of exhaustion; incomplete, in a forever-spiral, wanting, searching, running forever.
And that is what the road is for. To be away. For some, to facilitate change. Because we do. Not just “we”, but anyone who claims the road as home for any length of time. While we’re journeying, we see how people of other cultures pursue happiness; in the mountains, with no money at all; in city streets, offering copycat goods for exorbitant prices. We gain a sense, perhaps, for what they value, and how or if they accomplish it. Then to ask oneself, is that true for me? In this way, we can distinguish adaptation from appropriation, integration from theft.
There is no right or wrong sort of travel (though one could distinguish responsible from irresponsible), in fact, there are as many ways as there are travelers: our paths, I believe, are determined more by what we’re open to accepting, rather than a specific itinerary or place. But an odyssey is not an odyssey if one never makes it home.