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Hacktreks on Tourism - Are you a traveller or a tourist?

Going Nowhere Fast with Zak and Joe
Colin Todhunter

'I bet you would never be seen dead with a guidebook in your hand.'

It 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 that’s 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.
“You’re 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. “I’ll 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 else’s”.
Zak reached for his coffee and began to slurp it down with gusto. And yes, very often Joe could be seen borrowing someone else’s copy for a quick glance. Zak’s 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 Joe’s 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 what’s more I’m 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. That’s 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 way.
There a 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 Joe’s 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 wasn’t 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 - it’s 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” doesn’t 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 become hoodwinked”.

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 don’t feel like failures then what’s the point of them continuing to strive for something more or something better?, Joe continued.
“Leisure? What’s 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 don’t possess the new one!”
“The unholy alliance of work and leisure…” Joe was on a roll, “…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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 Zak’s 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 Joe’s 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 don’t 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 wasn’t.
Joe had little time for most other travellers and what passes for the modern world. He didn’t even give then the dignity of calling them travellers - merely, tourists. He wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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, I’ve 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 didn’t 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 his eyes.

But one thing I agreed on with Zak was Joe’s 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 “I’m not really travelling in a physical sense. It’s more of a journey into my own mind”. I think Zak took an instant dislike to him there and then. To most people, Joe’s 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, don’t 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 on…well…buying drugs in London. But Joe wasn’t into drugs. He didn’t need them to get where he was.

If you could get over Joe’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t in communion with God - only with himself. He didn’t 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 couldn’t be in this day and age. He had rejected the modern world but couldn’t 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 didn’t like. Indeed, he was a product of that world and, in all truth, probably couldn’t live without it. I don’t think he had ever worked for a large corporation (I don’t think he had worked much at all). He didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 waster.

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 someone.

© Colin Todhunter September 2003
colin_todhunter@yahoo.co.uk

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