Friday, August 19, 2011

Traveler vs. Tourist

I took a great class in college (I took a lot of great classes) called journey motifs in women’s literature, and one focus of the class was the differences between traveling as a tourist and traveling as a traveler. The obvious conclusion of the class is that it is better to travel as a traveler. The tourist tends to travel to consume the experience of travel – look at new scenery, gawk at differences, and if they are daring, try some new experiences and food. The tourist does not necessarily have to leave their bubble of familiarity; they can look at something different while staying comfortably within themselves and what they know. They are traveling as themselves, and they can choose how much they want to participate in a different way of life or how much they just want to consume it. The traveler is also presented with this choice, and they also have the option of staying safely contained within a bubble of familiarity, but the traveler chooses more often than the tourist to step outside the realm of the known. The traveler seeks something deeper from their journeys – they seek knowledge, growth, understanding, and realization of difference rather than confirmation of self. The tourist journeys at the surface, finding only reconfirmation of the self, while the traveler journeys at deeper levels, seeking an expansion of the self.

This has taken on a different meaning for me now that I’m a PCV. I’ve lived in Samoa for 10 months now, and in many ways I feel like I belong. I’m getting comfortable in my village, familiar with the “routine,” and whenever I see palagis driving by in rented cars with the air conditioning blasting (because all the windows are up) while I’m walking down the road in my lavalava and towel to go take a shower, I think “that’s right, I belong here and you don’t.” I ride the bus, I go to church, and I know enough language to carry on easy conversations with strangers and figure out that nobody knows the information I’m looking for. I live here; I can’t be a tourist. Yet in so many ways, I still feel like a tourist, and my fellow PCVs don’t hesitate to tell me when I’m acting like one. “Tali, what’s up with the touristy pictures? You act like you’ve never been here before.” I think the mark of a tourist is that they see things with fresh eyes. Everything is new, everything is different, and everything is worth noticing because of that. I live here and I am familiar with the country and culture, but I still find myself gawking, staring, and transfixed many times each day. Maybe this is just me trying to legitimize my behavior, but I think tourists bring a unique perspective to a place because they see everything as new. Instead of hurrying past things without seeing them, head down because you’ve passed the same things a million times every day, tourists look around and take note. Tourists tend to make a spectacle of themselves because of that, but it is because everything they see is a spectacle to them. The world is a spectacular place and it doesn’t fail to deliver when you look at it that way.

However, I also find myself on the other side of the coin and I see the tourist as awkward and out of place. The resort in my village reopened about a month ago, and I have seen a spattering of tourists because of it. They take walks through the village followed by a group of kids, and they show up in church, making 20 tala donations instead of the 20 sene donation most kids put in. It feels weird; my daily life is something up for inspection and observation. This shouldn’t be new to me because my daily life is always up for inspection and observation to the kids in my village – I never fail to be a source of entertainment, even when it’s just sitting on my porch eating crackers or reading a book. But somehow it feels different that outside people, temporary people, are looking at the place I live with their consuming eyes. On one hand, I am proud of the place I live and want others to know about it and see how beautiful it is. On the other hand, I tend to have the urge to defensively ask tourists what they think they’re doing. Everything is a spectacle and it feels weird. I will constantly be a spectacle for the kids in my village, and I am doubly a spectacle to the other palagis who show up because I am both familiar and out of place, but I am also guilty of looking at the things around me as spectacles. Maybe it’s not right to see everything as a spectacle; maybe it’s better to see everything with loving eyes instead of new eyes. See everything as beautiful, unique, and wonderful because of that instead of gawking at differences. Maybe then I won’t feel so strangely self-righteous about living and belonging here when comparing myself to other palagis, and maybe then I won’t feel so scrutinized at all times from all directions.

I still think the tourist has a unique and necessary place. I think everyone must be a tourist at some point before they become a traveler. When encountering something new, it is a natural reaction to focus on differences. We have to see things with new eyes before we can make them familiar. Familiar, not similar, or identical, or homogeneous replicas. I think it is also natural for us to try to make things familiar – we tend to gravitate to what we know, and the more we consider other people and things to be familiar and likable, well, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

1 comment:

  1. Wow that was a very intense but thought provoking piece there. But the mere fact you're asking those questions mean you've probably got more of the traveler side in ya than the tourist. Great reading... soifua.