When I returned from my first prolonged period of travels – sixteen months backpacking around Latin America – I called myself a ‘traveller’, without really thinking about the term. Then a family member asked me the question, “Who is a traveller?” And I found myself trying to defend my new identity.
However, it was a justifiable question. My partner (at the time) and I had experienced amazing off the beaten track experiences; from climbing a desolate snow peaked volcano, being stalked by a puma and learning salsa in Guatemala. However, our journey had been sprinkled with more traditional touristy activities. So to an outsider our travels might have seemed like a prolonged series of tourist events and excursions. But we knew we’d experienced a different way to visit foreign places.
I’ve always felt an independent traveller is someone who approaches travel with ‘insiders’ eyes, that is, they take the time to see things more as they are, beyond taking a photo and ticking off another tourist site.
Paul Theroux, the celebrated travel writer, says this about the traveller and tourist, “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.”
Or Rolf Potts, one of my favourite travel writers has this to say on the subject. “As for the tourist-circuit, slowing your travels down will automatically lead you off the tourist trail. When you aren’t racing from attraction to attraction, you’ll quickly discover that the best experiences come from diversions along the way.”
You might ask why am I questioning this concept?
Well, last summer I visited Spain, predominantly Madrid; researching and developing ideas for my second book, in my Reluctant Pilgrim series. And I’ve felt like a traveller. That was until I arrived in Estepona. It’s gracious and more restrained than much of its high rise neighbours, but nonetheless it’s still the Costa del Sol. Estepona was never on the itinerary but a series of signs took me here, and I’m learning not to resist signposts when they come. However, as soon as I ordered a cold beer on the beach, I instantly began to doubt the reasons for this side trip. I greeted the waitress in Spanish and ordered the beer, she responded to me in English. Then my ears picked up on all the English speakers around me and I thought, “What have I done, I’ve ruined my authentic Spanish trip. I’m in Tourist Hell!”
I’d jumped to a conclusion of course: I hadn’t understood the obvious. But it took me a couple of days to realise this – as soon as I’d arrived at my lodgings I’d been greeted by ‘wisdom’ in the shape of.., well I’ll keep this secret for now as I believe it’s going to weave its way into the novel. But my accommodation was a great find; a grounded blue campervan shaded under a Nispero tree. Paradise!
When I reflected on the ‘wisdom’ it helped me consider myself in relation to the Americans and English propping up that beach bar. I was seeing things differently, I was experiencing our (British/American) holiday culture from an almost Spaniard’s perspective. However, what I later realised is that they were confident, having fun and totally in the moment as themselves; it was me who had a problem with my identity. I now think what’s most important is that we stay true to whom we are when we travel.
I’ve also come to realise that we crave different experiences depending on our moods. There are times when I want to eat with the locals, or ride a horse like a Gaucho. But there are other occasions when I just want to sit in a bar and drink a beer with an Englishman. Sometimes I’m a traveller, sometimes I’m a tourist. It doesn’t really matter how you classify it – as long as you’re true to yourself – you’ll embrace the journey. It’s hard work being a chameleon.