From Our Archives: Hacktreks on Tourism - Are you a traveller or a tourist?
Nowhere Fast with Zak and Joe
bet you would never be seen dead with a guidebook in your hand.'
was one of those days when it felt great to be alive. The sky was blue,
the sun was shining and I was having breakfast on a rooftop overlooking
some tranquil lake. But thats as good as it got.
My two breakfast partners were at it again, demonstrating their personal
animosities for one another through a usual knife-wielding debate.
It is like these Americans who 'DO' Europe in one month. How they
act is merely a mirror image of how they think.
Joe was in the
process of lambasting tourists who rush around countries at breakneck
speed with cameras and guidebooks at the ready, aiming to see as many
sites in the shortest amount of time as is humanly possible. For many,
this is what tourism is all about. But Joe had a problem with this.
Then again, he had a problem with tourists. If you listened
to him for a while, you would eventually find out that he had a problem
with most things. This is because he had elevated himself to the heady
height of traveller staus - not some fly-by-night tourist.
Youre just a big, fat snob was the response from Zak,
who incidentally just happened to be American. Joe was neither big nor
fat, but Zak talked in such a way when he was upset - like some spoilt-brat
twelve year old. And there was no doubt that Joe was upsetting him.
I could tell this because Zak was spreading jam onto his bread with
a knife-wielding fervour seldom witnessed at the breakfast table.
Zak had every right to be upset as Joe was exhibiting the type of snobbery
that exists among the travelling fraternity. There are many Joe-type
characters who draw a distinction between themselves and the majority
of others on the road (or in the world!). Joe felt that he was one of
those authentic travellers who does not merely visit a country, but
soaks in the culture and mood of a place. And that cannot be rushed.
It takes time to do a lot of soaking.
Zak was almost as dismissive of Joe as Joe was of inauthentic
travellers (and for Joe, Zak fell into this category). Poor old Zak
was physically shaking and almost falling over his words such was his
passion, which was not really based on anything he believed in - just
a hatred for Joe. Ill bet one thing
I bet you, yes
you, would not be seen dead carrying a camera in public just because
you think it would be so untrendy, Zak declared, whilst pointing
an accusing finger at Joe and spluttering bread from his mouth. Zak
had a point as it was almost certain that Joe had one tucked away in
his backpack somewhere.
After catching his breath, Zak continued in his half blubbering manner
- Yeah, and I bet you would never be seen dead with a guidebook
in your hand, although you are always borrowing someone elses.
Zak reached for his coffee and began to slurp it down with gusto. And
yes, very often Joe could be seen borrowing someone elses copy
for a quick glance. Zaks accusing tone shifted to sarcasm - And
there is no way whatsoever you would let it be known that you have ever
visited a tourist site where other travellers visit. I knew what
Zak meant. If it was listed in the guidebook, then in Joes view
it was just to uncool to visit (although I suspected he had seen all
of the major sites at some point).
Joe had been ranting about young Americans who finish college and then
tour Europe for a month. In thirty days they visit Britain, France,
Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and, if
they can squeeze it in, parts of Scandinavia. Compared to Zak, Joe was
composed and articulate, and this probably wound-up Zak even more. And
I guess Joe knew it. It made him appear more arrogant that he actually
was. There was no slurping or knife-wielding from Joe. His sipped his
coffee and spread his jam carefully as if saying to Zak Look,
I am in charge here - and whats more Im also right.
In his mocking manner Joe continued with his tirade against American
tourists - They spend two days in London, two in Paris, two in
Amsterdam, two in Rome and two here, there and everywhere. Thats
a lot to see and when not spending two days in London, Paris or Rome,
they spend the rest of the time on buses, planes or in airport departure
lounges trying to get to London, Paris or Rome.
Maybe the reason why Zak had transformed himself into a blubbering,
emotional wreck, was because he had once done Europe this
There are lots of young American ex-college kids doing Europe like this
(but not just Americans it must be said). Joe hated them. Or, to be
more precise, he hated what they represented. They are what modern
tourism is all about with its emphasis on packaging, standardisation
and no sense of adventure, he said with eyes fixed firmly on Zak.
In Joes view, such people were dismissed for being tourists
as they make little attempt to get beneath the surface and get to know
local people and customs. Joe noted that They never get to know
any of the places they pass through.
Zak countered by saying, They spend a lot of time visiting art
galleries and museums, but I guess that it wasnt the kind
of getting to know a place that Joe was meaning.
For Joe, modern tourism is all about recuperation rather
than exploration. Tourism was about the right type of leisure
to let people blow off enough steam so they become suitably refreshed
and ready to embark on another bout of nine to five workplace
routine. He interjected with one of his classics - The tyranny
of work - its a well worn phrase - but the consumer-driven leisure
industry has succeeded in joing work and travel at the hip with an anaethetising
discipline and logic. And people become so disciplined
that when they travel, they become what Joe despises - tourists - feedom
lovers constrained by a certain mindset, mass produced guidebooks
and self-imposed timescales. Their travel experience has
become a non-experience dampened by a numbing standardisation.
Joe continued in an increasingly condescending tone toward Zak. As if
to reoinforce his air of superiority, he slowly and deliberately put
his coffee down and moved his plate to one side. As he did so, he moved
forward, looked at Zak and said, They are obsessed with their
watches, with what the guidebook does and does not say, and by their
need to finish a country in a given time. Despite his manner,
he was making a serious point. And despite the fact he was talking in
general terms, both Zak and I knew when he said they, he
was really referring to Zak.
A lot of travellers go away in an attempt to escape from all of the
routine, but continue in the same mindframe that they tried to get away
from in the first place. Getting away from it all doesnt
appear to mean much in this day and age - even among independent travellers.
Joe knew this and concluded, Travelling has become debased by
the leisure industry with the sites and experiences to be consumed,
then discarded and left behind in pursuit of the next pot of gold.
Even travel has become part of an industry these days.
It is a classic symptom of modern society of how too many have
He was convinced that modern work is unfulfilling and leisure dissatisfying
all because people are made to feel liker failures - the culture requires
them to feel this way. If they dont feel like failures then
whats the point of them continuing to strive for something more
or something better?, Joe continued.
Leisure? Whats all that about? Joe had an annoying
habit of answering his own questions - Increasingly, it is all
about going to the shopping mall in your spare time to get the new version
of the old thing you bought yesterday, because you are now told that
the old thing is suddenly useless - and so are you if you dont
possess the new one!
The unholy alliance of work and leisure
Joe was on
instilling a sense of permanent dissatisfaction
with who you are, what you are, what you have, and what you want. Then
you become who you think you want to be, what you think you want to
be and possess what you think you want to own. The result is happiness?
Well no, not really. The result is temporary and fleeting happiness,
which is taken away before you can enjoy it.
By this stage, Zak had gone quiet. He sat with arms folded. He couldnt
quite compete with Joe when in full flow. Why is it fleeting?,
asked Joe. Again, he provided the answer to his question - Because,
before you know it, you are back at work, disillusioned and striving
for the new media-driven life-changing lifestyle.
Joe should have been a politician or at least some kind of public oprator.
But I suspect he just couldnt be bothered. He then opened up a
whole new area to denounce. Zak, and everything he did or owned, had
become a total inspiration to Joe. Joe looked at Zaks portable
CD player, which lay on the table, then he was up and running - Music?
It used to be the ultimate in freedom loving expression, but now has
become coprporate sponsored and churned out by a lot of run-of-the-mill
artists under the banner of innovation. I could feel Zak mentally
rolling his eyes in response to Joes pomposity. Joe lamented that
The world has been remade in the image of the crisp, clean dollar
bill - and woe betide anyone wanting to do their own thing anymore.
For Joe, the true spirit of music and travel - innovation and exploration
- had been lost under the tide of the bland spend-earn, earn-spend ideology
that passes for modern day culture.
By now Zak had unfolded his arms and was spreading jam once again. He
was letting Joe get to him. Zak had now substituted his pointing and
accusing finger for a pointing and accusing knife and growled, Come
off it - why dont you leave your rose-tinted glasses at home next
time. Maybe Joe was an exile from some mythical past that he had
conjured up in his mind. But then again, maybe he wasnt.
Joe had little time for most other travellers and what passes for the
modern world. He didnt even give then the dignity of calling them
travellers - merely, tourists. He wasnt necessarily criticising
his fellow travellers, but the culture of the modern world and its influence
on travel, tourism and exploration. Joe liked to think of himself as
the ultimate post-modern traveller in a corrupted modern world. He saw
himself as free-floating, a child of the universe, unconstrained by
conventional norms; a person with shifting moods and desires and one
who prefers the temporary over the permanent; a person more comfortable
with the spontaneous than the planned, the exotic and sacred rather
than the rational, and with freedom rather than the types of oppression
brought about by the totalising effects of modern politics, work, music
- just about everything really.
Joe wasnt about to be brainwashed by the modern world with all
of its cynicism, which tells him he is a unique individual with specific
needs while all the time attempting to strip him of his individuality
by dictating to him what his needs are or should be. And knife-wielding
Zak disliked Joe for being this way. Zak took everything very personal
when Joe ranted about consumer-tourists - and he had every reason to
take it as personal because Joe intended it to be. Zak had a well-paid
job back home and obviously had no problem with indulging in the type
of conspicuous consumption that says to the outside world "Look
at me, Ive made it in life. Zak represented everything that
Joe hated - a sanitised world void of real sensation.
Joe yearned for real sensation - the type of "kick in the face
with a hiking boot sensation that splits your head open and never lets
you forget"; not something wrapped in cotton wool that tries to
tell you what and how to feel, or when and how to feel. Joe wanted the
raw. He didnt want some second hand, second rate cooked-up world
spoonfed to him on a plate by some faceless adman.
So I guess that Joe had a lot on his shoulders. What he believed was
all well and good, but I couldn't help but feel that he was an enigma.
How on earth could he escape from all of this oppression - and let's
be frank - there was a a hell of a lot to escape from. Indeed, he had
great trouble dealing with it all. He wanted nothing to do with cameras
or guidebooks (but still used both) nor with tourist sites (although
he had probably seen them all). He used all of the facilities of the
modern world, including planes, trains and buses - and the internet.
But I suspect that he used the most run-down public buses and the airlines
with the worst records for reliability and maintenance - he had to achieve
at least some authenticity from it all. Zak had noted his
reliance on the modern world and had pointed it out to Joe. Zak was
into point scoring and this was a moral victory for him - at least in
But one thing I agreed on with Zak was Joes snobbery, or to be
more precise, his extremism: his put-downs on tourists, fellow-travellers,
the modern world, guidebooks, watches, cameras and everything else you
could think of. I remember when Zak had met Joe for the first time and
he asked Joe where he was travelling to next. His reply was something
along the lines of Im not really travelling in a physical
sense. Its more of a journey into my own mind. I think Zak
took an instant dislike to him there and then. To most people, Joes
response would have been laughable. It is like he was a parody of some
hippy character from the sixties who was on some acid trip - the big
trip within himself and no one else is invited.
I can still recall my initial reaction to Joe when he first imparted
his wisdom to me. I was trying to conceal my disbelief: a kind of What
language are you speaking? reaction. Well, it was English of course.
Joe was in his own world when he spoke at length about the meaning of
life, and merely succeeded in alienating himself from everyone around
him who would roll their eyes and probably think Here is another
fruitloop getting high on himself with his daily dose of cerebral masturbation.
Joe reminded me of a lot of travellers. They find one spot, dont
do much travelling, take as much hash or acid as they can get hold of,
and embark upon their own mental wanderings. What is the difference
in doing that from just staying in a grotty apartment in south London
and getting off your head on drugs - as many people do? It seems like
the waste of an air ticket - the money spent on it could have been spent
buying drugs in London. But Joe wasnt into drugs.
He didnt need them to get where he was.
If you could get over Joes less than endearing arrogance (a tall
order, I know), you could grow to like him. He seemed out of time and
out of place. Maybe he should have been a tourist attraction himself.
He had a certain attractiveness: that degree of otherness
that tourist sites possess. He had a timelessness about him. He could
have been twenty four, forty four or sixty four. It didnt really
matter. He could have been a 1960's hippy type or an early Twenty First
Century New Age type. I guess he was lost in the modern world and wanted
to be somewhere else. The point is that he was somewhere else - at least
in his mind. A place were few are allowed to venture, unless you sat
and talked with him.
What I liked about Joe was that he was not one of these spiritual fruitcakes.
He was interested in what may lie beyond the natural world, but did
not claim to have unrestricted access to it. He wasnt in communion
with God - only with himself. He didnt dress like a holy man or
pretend to be one. He talked like Buddha, but sounded like Marx. He
spoke a lot about desire, false needs, suffering and exploitation, but
he was neither a Buddhist nor a Marxist. He was Joe; a tourist who wanted
to be a real traveller but felt frustrated that he couldnt
be in this day and age. He had rejected the modern world but couldnt
really do without it. He was a person on his own inward journey, but
needed to travel the world in order to do it. I think Joe quite liked
the luxuries of the modern world; it was just the excesses he didnt
like. Indeed, he was a product of that world and, in all truth, probably
couldnt live without it. I dont think he had ever worked
for a large corporation (I dont think he had worked much at all).
He didnt need to indulge in those new trends, fads or products
that compel a lot of people to earn big money in the first place. Joe
wasnt even much of a tourist or traveller. He did little of both
- touring or travelling (at least not in a physical sense). So what
was he? He couldnt really be described as a tourist; it is debatable
whether or not he could be described as a traveller. A kind of touring
traveller or a travelling tourist?
No, he was none of those things. He was much more. He was part of a
dying breed - an explorer - albeit an explorer who was rooted to the
breakfast table for most of the day. He wandered through the deepest
corners of his mind, imagining a better world and in the process saw
things that too many do not wish to see: themselves as they are and
the world as it is. He could have been in some seedy place in south
London, but chose not to be. But even if he had, there is no doubt,
he would still be an explorer. Why? Because at least he knew that you
cannot capture freedom or beat it into submission. Most of the world
thinks it can and has merely succeeded in trapping itself inside an
iron cage of its own making, while beating itself over the head in frustration
- (with a breakfast table knife) just like Zak. Zak was part of the
world that Joe talked so disparagingly of; and Joe represented everything
that Zak despised. Zak did not regard him as an explorer - merely a
Perhaps in years to come, even the darkest recesses of the Amazon (if
it still exists) will become tourist destinations. At that point, physically
there will be nowhere left to roam; nowhere left to explore. After we
have stripped the planet bare of its resources and have consumed everything
we can in a self-defeating quest for permanent ecstasy, maybe the Joe's
of this world will no longer seem so self-righteous or out of step.
And the Zaks of the world will then remember all the Joes that they
had encountered along the way. Suddenly, it will dawn on Zak that, just
possibly, Joe had really been saying something worthwhile. But somehow,
I doubt it. The Zaks of this world are not listening now, and I guess
they never will. In the meantime it is just a case of putting up with
their blubbering, bread-spluttering ways at the breakfast table of life
and listening to all of those Joes, sounding like stuck records with
their anti-this, anti-that and anti-everything mantras. Pass the coffee
© Colin Todhunter September 2003
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