Traveling isn’t always fun, and at times, it can be as arduous as being stuck in a standstill traffic on LA freeway.
Therefore, being a smart – and more importantly, an aware traveler is important. This doesn’t mean just being aware of your environment, getting your vaccination shots or knowing that you need a visa. It’s also important to familiarizing yourself with different cultures and customs like wearing a headscarf, understanding that tank top and shorts may not be an appropriate attire in some parts of the world, and more importantly, knowing not to go gallivanting or hiking in the most conflict-driven regions just for the thrill or worse, for an “off the beaten path” experience.
Familiarizing ourselves with all the different customs that exist in the world can be quite a task. Often, there isn’t sufficient information in travel guides and magazines on these matters, as these publications are designed to make traveling appealing and attractive. I mean, what travel publication will promote, “Paris, the City of Plight”?!?
However, after all the years of my travel, I’ve learned that it’s just as important to be knowledgeable about the nuisances of travel as well knowing the hottest bar or restaurant to go to, as the experience and insight you gain as a tourist is a reflection of the broader world. And ultimately, isn’t that what traveling is all about?
1. A tourist by any other name is still a tourist to the locals. Discussion of being a tourist versus a traveler is superfluous, as no matter how we see ourselves, to the locals, we’re all tourists.
This is especially true in the poorest regions of the world. Although we may put on a sari or cover our hair with hijab, truth of the matter is, we all travel with our own expectations of the places that we visit, and we often pick destinations because what they represent. For instance, we go to Paris to experience glamor of the “old world”, to sit in outdoor cafes and watch the pedestrians go by; to Mexico to experience the carefree beach life while sipping margaritas by the pool; to Thailand to see the “exotic” cultures.
Essentially, tourists/travelers are all outsiders who have expectations of what a place is and how the people should act. Even if the reality of the place is incongruous to the fantasy, travelers tend to congregate to an environment that lives up to their expectation. Whether it’s Khao San Road in Bangkok, Cancun (Mexico) or the beaches of Montanita, Ecuador, the environment is the same once the tourists take over – they all become the set of Alex Garland’s novel.
2. As much as we would like to believe that we live an egalitarian world where race (more accurately, ethnicity) and nationality don’t matter, people are treated differently depending on where they come from. Although it’s natural to encounter cultural differences and culture shock when we travel, for certain nationalities and especially for people of color, traveling to a certain parts of world can not only be unpleasant but also dangerous.
Racism is something that is rarely discussed in travel guides and magazines, and even most travel forums tend to steer clear of this topic. Tragically, racism is an integral part of the world, and as a person of color, traveling often highlights the detrimental effect of 500 years of colonialism.
Although the people around the world are becoming more cognizant of racial inequality, and in some countries, there have been valiant efforts to achieve a higher level of awareness in attempt to eradicate racism, these experiences are still demeaning and dehumanizing when we confront them thousand miles away from home.
More importantly, the disconcerting aspect of such discriminatory attitudes and racial bigotry is that travel experiences in certain parts of the world can be quite different for people of color, and in some regions, even pose unforeseeable dangers that are unfamiliar to most white travelers.
I remember how uncomfortable I’d felt when I was traveling in the Eastern part of Germany. Especially, in the cities that recently received rave reviews from all the well-known travel magazines as being the “hotspots” and “up and coming” places such as Dresden or Leipzig, I’d encountered nothing but hostile stares and locals who made me feel as if I wasn’t welcomed in their cities.
Tragically, during 2006 FIFA World Cup, when people from all over the world descended upon Germany, we would find out the extent and gravity their animosity towards ethnic minorities, as racially motivated attacks began surfacing in the various cities and towns. Since then, human rights organizations such as the Africa Council and the International League of Human Rights have issued travel advisories to black and Asian tourists to avoid certain areas of eastern Germany.
Although we are well aware of travel warnings about Americans traveling to regions that are conflict ridden and where there are imminent dangers to our security, racially motivated treatments and attacks against people of color are rare discussed and even acknowledged among travelers. The only way we find out is through firsthand experience and under the most harrowing circumstances.
All over Europe, people of color (tourists and average citizens alike) are facing increasing trends in racism, and as unpleasant and unpopular as the topic may be, as world travelers, we must be aware and be cognizant of it, if not for anything, to know that we are not alone in encountering these experiences.
3. Places (attractions, restaurants, bars, etc) in renowned travel magazines and guidebooks are visited by thousands of tourists, and if a place is known for being “off the beaten path”, chances are, it’s not.
Some people may poke fun at the tourists who travel thousand miles to eat at McDonald’s or to drink coffee at Starbucks, but most often, you’ll encounter more locals at these establishments rather than at a corner cafe or so-call undiscovered restaurant that were written about in New York Times. If major publications like NY Times, Lonely Planet or Frommers took the time to write about a place, you can assume that hundreds of thousands of their followers have read about it – and will be there.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going to places that are recommended by these publications, as most often, they really are sites and experiences not to be missed. However, it’s unlikely that you will mingle with the locals, as most people who dine at these establishments and trek the so-called off-the-beaten-paths are fellow tourists/travelers.
Case in point, last year, shortly before traveling to Ecuador for the very first time, I did some research on where to go, things to do and see. Montañita, a little fishing village along the Pacific Coast, was mentioned in all the guidebooks and was recommended by several travelers as a place I must visit. Shangri-La of South America as one traveler called it; I was intrigued.
Unfortunately, I found this tiny beach town to be stereotypical in living up to the western perception of what an underdeveloped world should be. Full of backpackers and wannabe surfers in dreadlocks and sarongs, who looked about as authentic to the local culture as someone wearing a kimono, it was a pit stop for the tourists to live out their bohemian fantasy. If the hodge-podge of hostels and tattoo parlors weren’t annoying enough, the only Ecuadorians I encountered were vendors and shop owners, who greeted their customers by asking, “Where are you from?” in English.
It reminded me of all the so-call exotic destinations that fulfilled the suburbanites’ imagery of exoticism, and frankly, being in Montañita was no different from being on the Island of Majorca or among the seedy elements of Khao San Road in Bangkok. Perhaps, it was Shangri-La long before the guidebooks discovered it.
4. You don’t always get what you paid for. Places that are expensive aren’t necessarily worth the price you paid.
As a Californian – San Franciscan, I am painfully aware how high the cost of living in California can be. I’m doubly aware that for most visitors to this great state of ours how shocking it must be to pay such hefty sum for food and lodging. It’s expensive to travel in California, and often, what you get isn’t worth the money you paid for them.
For example, as spectacular as Yosemite is, finding lodging near the park (meaning at least an hour drive) is not only challenging and requires a reservation months and even a year in advance, but also costly. Unfortunately, even if you manage to find and book a hotel months in advance and are willing to sign over your first born, you’ll find what you get is no better than a sub-standard motel reminiscent of a truck stop near a highway. It’s tragic, but it’s what you have to put up with when you’re traveling in California.
No matter what kind of fancy spin the guidebooks and magazines may put on the hotels, motels and B&B’s in California, what you get is incongruous to the price you’ve paid. And it’s not the only place where high prices don’t mound up to great standards, as I’ve encountered same kind of disappointment when traveling in Switzerland and Japan – high prices, low standards.
5. Being a vagabond or nomad isn’t as glamorous as the bloggers make it out to be, and traveling and discovering the world doesn’t have to be a life altering decision. It can be as easy as going for a run or become a second nature like brushing your teeth – you simply need to get into a habit of doing.
Although the tales of people quitting their jobs, selling all their earthly possessions and leading a life of a vagabond may seem romantic, it’s just as easy to hold down a full time job and travel with a family as it is to walk the earth alone like Cain.
For almost two decades, I have traveled to over 300 cities in 30 countries. I believe that discovering the world and truly understanding the culture requires more than strapping on a backpack and traveling off the beaten path, and no matter how well traveled or culturally proficient we may see ourselves, ultimately, we are all tourists in the eyes of the locals.
Nevertheless, I do my best to travel with respect to the culture of the places that I visit, learn the language, and more importantly, I try to interact with the locals whenever I can, as after all, the best travel memories I’ve had were those shared with others and connections I’ve made along the way.
For me, travel is an extension of everyday life, and as much as people like to get away from it all, life’s nuisances exist – and follow everywhere.
However, I’ve learned countless life’s lessons through travel. Among the most significant is how insulated and small our lives can be without an exposure to different places, different people, and more importantly, different perspectives. Also, traveling and gaining a better understanding of the world has taught me to cherish all that I have, while living my life to the fullest with humility, tolerance and compassion. And above all, it has shown me how to see the beauty in the simple things and that like everything else in life, it’s better when it’s shared.