Her designer watch caught the sun as she picked up her bottle of commercial Czech pilsner. We had stopped at a grocery store on our way back from the castle that crowned Cesky Krumlov, a haunted little town a few hours outside of Prague. It was the town where Hostel was filmed, and, after a screening of it in a very dark room the night before, I was determined to drown the movie from my psyche. Luckily, beer was cheaper than water. We both took a gulp, her nose scrunched up as she swallowed. “I only drink what the locals drink. It’s sad how many people don’t respect local traditions.” She raised her eyebrows at a group of guys drinking beer from refilled plastic water bottles. I’m just not like that,” she sighed. “I guess I crave an authentic experience.” She shrugged and her eyes dulled with the heartbreak of having to be at a hostel table filled with travelers instead of being the center of a parade the town had thrown for her.
I later found out, after an intense conversation about life and traveling, a local brewery had gifted the guys take away drinks for the night. The brewery had no bottles to spare, so they got creative.
When I first encountered her in Prague, she seemed interesting. It was nice to be around someone who wanted to go the extra mile to really find the culture of a place. But, it became exhausting spending hours searching for a place to have dinner, fleeing a restaurant at the first utterance of an English word. Souvenir shopping? Forget it. I think my disenchantment with her began when she blessed us with her opinion on how played out the Eiffel Tower is. Same for London Bridge and Vatican City. “What’s the point of going somewhere full of tourists? Don’t you want to be a traveler?”
She’s not alone in the sentiment. It’s become impossible to absorb any type of travel media without being slapped in the face with the tourist versus traveler debate. How has the tourist become the public enemy? Is the grand canyon really the new gluten? How did we get to the point where the traveler, usually a lauded example of an open and accepting mind, has become kind of a total and complete asshole? Am I kind of a total and complete asshole?
I don’t know which side of the line I fall on, how can you even tell the difference between the two? Fancy dress parties always end up with at least one person in a tacky tourist costume. There’s a very clear uniform, someone in a Hawaiian print shirt, khaki cargo short, zinc oxide slathered on the nose and completed by the ever classic socks with sandals. However, what about when it’s not your embarrassing dad going on vacation? What about a young person, dare I say millennial, going on a trip in search of moral transformation and Instagram likes?
I went on my first trip when I was eighteen. I had never traveled outside of Canada alone, so I booked with the bane of the “traveler” existence: the youth bus tour. You start to spot the signs of one after a while- big buses emblazoned with a huge logo and usually surrounded by a throng of drunk or hungover Australians. I can easily see why people hate them. From the outside, they appear as a large group of people prioritizing partying over the sleep of themselves and others. The argument usually runs along the lines of “if you can’t even put the effort into figuring out a train schedule, you’re not getting a cultural experience. Why even bother?” What the youth bus tour gave me was a sense of safety. Without worrying about having to book trains or hostels, I could be completely carefree. Like a kid allowed to cross the street by themselves for the first time, I emerged confident in my ability to face the world alone. Regardless of whether I stepped foot off the “beaten path” I could be away for a month and survive. I could make friends, good ones I still talk to years later. Though some have developed the trendy bus phobia, we all agree that as a first time trip it was a powerful catalyst. It made us fall madly in love with travel.
A lot of the traveler paradigm is built on a trip being something that changes you. The storybook idea is that every experience from check-in in at the airport to grocery shopping shifts your entire worldview. Imagine being that amazed all the time. It’s a ridiculous way to live. It robs of you being truly excited about things that genuinely are… well, exciting. Some experiences, like the inspiration at discovering onions are the base of pretty much every national dish, may not be as jaw-dropping as your first overflowing portion of paella or the lingering dry smoothness of your first glass of Chianti straight from the barrel, but they certainly deserve more elation than say, buying a toothbrush. Furthermore, if being a traveler is about a trip changing your life, why does it being a youth bus tour take away from that?
So the big question lingers. What is a traveler? I’ve had this conversation in many a hostel, on many a walking tour, and (most usually) upon many a bar stool. I’ve filled notebooks musing about where I fit. It ranges from “I am a sage traveler with my backpack and a spirit of kindness and wisdom” to “I am so excited about insert popular tourist attraction here.” I still remember the start of that first trip. The Heathrow tube station was buzzing with people who knew where they were going. I had to figure out where I belonged in that. Every decision I’ve made traveling has become a part of me, like a pin on the map of my soul. Every place, whether a five-star all-inclusive resort or whatever comes seventeen rings down from economy has shaped who I am and how I travel.
I don’t think it’s easy to describe a person. We don’t fit into neat little boxes labeled traveler or tourist. My experience of Rome is both the Trevi Fountain and the suburban homestay. Neither was an experience more genuine than the other, and I don’t appreciate being judged for enjoying what some see as the generic. Niagara Falls is a tourist destination because it’s a testament to nature’s mastery. Standing beside it feels like a lesson on your place in the universe. Maybe a part of her problem was that she didn’t experience the humbling that comes with seeing the determination of the Colosseum, the silliness of the Gherkin, the meticulous planning of the Sagrada Familia.
I ended up distancing myself from her, preferring my own company by day and her rowdy group of nemeses at night. My last stop before heading to Italy for my summer job was Nice. I met up with some coworkers and decided to invite the group along for one last night out. She was finishing up dinner in the hostel’s common room, so I invited her as well. Having been to Nice the year before, I suggested we pick up some more supermarket wine, watch the sunset on the beach and head to the legend of the Cote d’Azur: Wayne’s. She perked up at that one. “My guidebook says that’s an expat bar.” I stared at her, our eye contact held all the tension of the past few weeks. “Yeah.” I smiled at her and raised my eyebrows. “It is.” She scoffed at us, picked up her book, and left us with her mess of wine bottles and dinner dishes.
I realize now that I judged her just as much as she undoubtedly judged me. Maybe what I saw as cultural superiority was really a mask for insecurity. I still feel a tinge of guilt when I think about it from her side. Maybe with more prodding, we could have found common ground.
It was too late. She was reading in her bunk, and I was at a supermarket buying expensive cheese and cheap pink brut.
That night I watched the sunset on a pebbly public beach. I had my French gently corrected while dancing on tables. I stumbled home while laughing with friends about the transformation only a big trip can offer.
It was a good night.
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