There is this common acception amongst travellers that we are doing the right thing; whereas tourists are ignorant sheep fed by cultural clichés.
A tad arrogant, and smplistic too: I’ve met some truly inspiring tourists with great souls, and equally I’ve seen some quite dulls travellers hang out entire days at hostels (often fingering their guitar in South-East Asia if not checking their engine’s oil level in West Africa).
The truth is that the optimal journey has a bit of both.
Be a tourist to get the most out of your journey; we don’t always have enough time to explore and this requires prioritisation and planning. Tourists are generally pretty good at checking numerous landmarks and getting a visual sense of a place; they visit museums and build general knowledge – nothing wrong with that!
The tourism industry feeds them clichés, that’s undeniable – and what a better way to start a semiotic and cultural exploration of a place than with the stereotypes the local propaganda wants to throw at you?
But don’t stop there and risk to become a representant of the tourism subculture! Be a traveller, too.
Get out of the beaten track, to compare and contrast the stereotypes with your own insights.
Enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
Live like a local. Buy your food from a shop or dine with locals, to change from touristy restaurants. Ask your way to locals instead of keeping your nose in a guidebook.
Make it difficult for yourself if your health allows it, and do that long journey in a wretched van if that’s what locals do; experience what it’s like to wait one hour under the sun because the van will only leave when full.
Eat with your hands; listen to an unknown language’s music; learn an exotic alphabet; travel with your senses.
Look for differences with what you know, as well as appreciate similarities.
Engage with locals, even if all you do is smile.
Forget about the currency you use back home and stop comparing prices; develop a local sense of what’s right or not to pay, and fight for your rubles as locals would do.
Do all this to make sure you don’t return home untouched. Make sure you return full of impressions and a richer soul. Make sure you show people back home what you’ve seen, but also share what you’ve learned.
Be a traveller, for this is what I believe makes us better people – and better people can create a better world.