Tourist vs. Traveller: Pest or Guest

A tourist doesn’t know how he got there.  A traveller doesn’t know how he’ll leave.” — unknown

With departure day peeking around the weekend I’ve finally started preparing for this trip.

Where to go? What to see?  How to get there? What to avoid?  The list of pre-trip questions can go on and on and as usual Google has all the answers.

A mix of Internet sources helped me set what I deem to be a reasonable budget.  I got my shots and meds, made that last-minute shoe purchase (who knows if Panama has any size 13s), and even booked the first few nights’ accommodation.  Basically, I’m ready for that first immobilizing sunburn and/or case of explosive diarrhea.

But all this preparation is just material, simple solutions for simple problems.  The real questions are more complicated:  How do you prepare yourself for the social, every-day situations you’ll come up against?  How will you react when a child comes to your dinner table begging for food?  Or when you’re forced to shit into a plastic bag for lack of real toilet?  Or when you’re faced with a policeman screaming at you in a different language?

It’s moments like these that determine whether you’re a traveller or a tourist. Although, I’m not sure there is any way to avoid being a tourist at all times.  When travelling south, we all arrive as white as pina coladas, like shining silver dollars on foreign beaches, crying out for imitation sunglasses and flip flops.

This is an issue I have struggled with in the past.  I remember the city of Sihanoukville on the coast of Cambodia, a place where children sold bracelets and begged—often instead of going to school, a public service provided by the government—while their parents did the same, or perhaps offered some other indulgent item or service to tourists for a dollar or two.  In this environment, that seemingly harmless donation to a smiling child can do more harm than good.  A cute 10-year-old could make $10 or $20 a day selling bracelets—sometimes more than their parents—and trade their education for an opportunity to help the family.

Or in Laos where men with limbs blown off from mines dropped in the country during the Vietnam war will shuffle up to your dinner table, dragging themselves with their hands a few feet at a time, a pinned-up pair of pants covering their stumped legs and a piece of rubber, like a mud flap, strapped to their bottoms, and ask you for money.

How can you say no?  The truth is, no matter how seasoned a traveller you are, sometimes it still gets to you.  I gave money to some of these men and I even gave money to some of the children, but I did learn to ask the children if they were in school first and only give to those that were.

And these situations are only a part of what will separate the tourist from the traveller.  Another way to feel like a wanted guest rather than a resented pest is to learn the language.  Even if you fail miserably, people will appreciate the effort.  Struggle with the words and try to the local food…even if you choke (on either) people will appreciate it.

There are lots of resources online for travellers wishing to get the most out of their trip, including this list of four ways to be a traveller rather than a tourist: http://www.vagabondish.com/4-ways-to-be-a-traveler-not-a-tourist/

Like I said, I haven’t figured it all out yet and I’m not convinced that I will, even by the end of this two-month trip, but I’m going to try.  Please let me know how you think I’m doing.

Just trying to get invited back,

The Broke Backpacker

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