What we bring home from our journeys depends more on why we go rather than where we go. To my mind, there is a real difference between a tourist and a traveler. It doesn’t have to do with where you go or how you travel. It doesn’t depend on whether you carry a backpack or Louis Vuitton luggage. It doesn’t have anything to do with wearing blue jeans or silks. It has everything to do with your attitude and reasons for traveling.
One of the newest developments in travel is “Low Impact Tours,” which encourage travelers to leave no mark on the spot visited – no trace that the area has been visited by tourists. When we travel as tourists, we are on a personal low impact tour – for while we may not leave a mark on our surroundings, it is also true that our surroundings do not leave a mark on us.
Think of the environment you experience when sailing across the ocean. As a tourist, you’ll cruise across the ocean on a ship, peering out the portholes, catching glimpses of things in the distance and then emerging dry, untouched and unchanged at the end of the journey.
But a traveler is like a diver in that same ocean, totally immersed in the immediate surroundings, moved about by the currents, and through imagination, maybe even catching a ride on the back of a passing porpoise. The traveler will emerge exhilarated at the end of the journey, and more likely than not, changed by the experience.
“Travel is broadening” is a famous adage. But whoever first said it was not, I am sure, referring to the broadening of the beltline that can so easily happen on a trip. Rather, they were referring to stretching the mind through observations and experiences new to us. Stretching means doing things that make us a little uncomfortable, and simply observing and experiencing is not sufficient; to change, one must also be open and accepting. This doesn’t mean that we will like or agree with everything we see, but it does mean that before we judge, we will make an effort to understand.
After a long siege of hard work, deadlines and stress, it may be that what you need is rest and quiet in a familiar atmosphere. That’s the time to travel as a tourist – relaxing on a beach somewhere or enjoying your favorite sport or activity, and pushing the culture and people around you into the background as much as you need to in order to accomplish your objective.
But, when you decide to visit a new city, country or region with the goal of getting to know it, put aside the isolation and defensive attitude of the tourist and become a traveler. Let the sights and sounds, smells and tastes of the place sink in. Consider communicating with local people an opportunity, not an inconvenience. Find opportunities to mix with the people by yourself, or with just a couple of friends. Visit the local markets where food and other necessities, not just souvenirs, are sold. Try riding a bus or other local transportation. Get out of bed early and walk around at first light to watch the place come alive. Appreciate the differences in climate, culture, costumes and customs that make the place different from your own.
Tourist and travelers alike return with photographs and souvenirs. But the traveler also returns with memories of sights and sounds, experiences and people that will last for years. And in some way, large or small, the traveler returns a different person.