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Tourist vs. Traveller

An Aussie living and working in Africa discusses the different visitors he encounters along the way
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There is nothing quite like the smile that forms on a local’s face in parched lands when rain finally falls. That struggled smile when he or she needs to flee from cover to cover, yet enjoying with exasperated pleasure every drop that finds them. There is a celebration in local culture, of acceptance of change, of acceptance of weather. An ancient practice of revering the elements, the earth, and dreams of future bounty and quenching one’s thirst. It is both a personal and shared blessing where strangers unite, smiles widen, cheeks round, and droplets roll down brows. An elemental relief.

But there is a peculiar group of humans who don’t smile the same way. The tourists. Not travellers, for a traveller rejoices with locals. A traveller accepts and even immerses themselves in pretty much everything. But a tourist … a tourist is special. A tourist falls sully in “foul” weather even when the drought dust is forced to the earth and rushed down bursting drains, when children laugh and dance, when shrills of joy erupt from villagers, even then you will find the numb and glum tourist sulking in a brilliantly foolish rut.

The old adage that the customer is always right doesn’t always apply — the customer can actually be very wrong. And so this piece explores the failure of the tourist.

After a stint, most guides know their job description may lack in specific details. From relationship therapist to financial advisor to master dishwasher, the ambiguous employment contract, if there exists one, rarely specifies what the customers may demand.

“As of today, I’ve been to 80 countries,” Rose said, deliberately loud enough for all of us to hear. She fiddled ostensibly with the app that displayed what percentage of the politically bordered earth she’d traversed by the age of thirty. This was only hours after she’d crossed a border earlier that day to gain another stamp in her passport. Possibly twenty miles deep into the “exotic” country. And then returned. The others, including myself, paid her little creed. Rose was a “stamper” seeking another mark in her passport. Even after the privilege of reaching so many distant lands, and combined with a variety of other characteristics, she still remained merely a crappy tourist. She would not become a traveller in the time I’d guide her. And I’d expect, sadly, she remains a tourist today.

It sounds harsh, I guess. But for many years, I’ve observed thousands of voyagers through tour guiding and leading jobs, and while my theories remain anecdotal, devoid of the official seal of approval from some incredibly liberal university professor, I can’t help but notice patterns of behaviour. My jobs have entailed maintaining the safety and well-being of the paying tourist, often through danger and duress. Cyclones, shark-infested waters, deadly snakes, wolves, intense four-wheel-driving, brawling customers, missing customers, lions, gorillas, blinding blizzards, thieves and scams, pissed-off elephants, political turmoil … the list goes on. Most guides would immediately know what I am talking about, given the dangers they witness daily.

I heard once from a formidable Zimbabwean ex-pro-hunter-turned-tour-guide, that there are three types of guides: Jeep jockeys, useless cons, and legends. At one point or another I’ve been all of those.

A Jeep jockey is a guide who likes to show off what he/she does to establish self-acclaim among the customers, or gain private access to a single or multiple customers’ pants. From ski and surf instructors to drivers and divers, they will carry a group through, yet they are not doing it for the better of the clients, but rather for their own self-gratification. Smooth operators.

Useless cons are often manipulative, false, or incredibly limited in their information and will endeavor to pilfer cash out of their clients using sorrow stories, hidden costs or guaranteed commissions. They are in it for the quick buck, and often have scripts and methods for achieving their financial objectives. They fleece the unassuming and once the bills are paid, will disappear.

But what makes a legend? These are guides who have a passion. They’ve done the hard yards, or are starting out and haven’t burned out yet, and keep coming back because they love what they are sharing. They know their financial status, and keep it in check. They may have tough personal stories, but don’t expect financial benefit from them. They know if this tour doesn’t work out, the next one might. They always learn more and want to learn more. They become a member of the very stories and landscapes they share. They observe the group and monitor their idiosyncratic natures. Through this they communicate. They have a well of patience that auspicious monks gawp at.

So guides and leaders aside. What about the customer, the pax, the tourist, the traveller, or punter, as they are often called? What about the arrogant Roses and other problem pax of the world? From the WiFi addicts poised like models in bikinis on a perfect beach monitoring social media, to the penny-pinching negative know-it-alls, to group tour mutineers and aggressive posers requiring constant undivided attention. Now, if anyone has actually worked in the tourism industry, particularly directly with the customer, they would know.

The tourist is one with incongruent behavior, which may trap them in a cycle of negativity, like some peculiar offspring of a Dharma wheel. Hopefully, anyone who reads this may learn and impart some valuable skills for the blossoming pensive nomad, or even for the seasoned traveller, who remains, sadly, completely clueless about themselves and the world around them, like Rose.

It isn’t necessarily advice on how to get cheap tickets or where to stay; rather, this is a deciphering of a human group, fresh in the anthropological scheme of things, a peculiar group pursuing a dream. It’s about how to maintain the dream, even when the nightmare seems imminent. It’s about shirking the invisible backpack that weighs down the tourist.

So I’ve introduced a major incongruence of the mind of the tourist. Tourists carry an invisible backpack, unlike travellers. A burden they schlep unaware. It probably started at home. Maybe when they were children and magazines, books, TV, movies, shaped their juvenile mind’s eye. And they keep this image close to their heart when they hit the road. They pack their bags in anticipation. Inadvertently they load heavy their invisible bag full of incongruences. They walk forward with a predetermined world in mind, and the longer it takes to remove this petulant behavior, the longer it takes for the tourist to become a traveller. Walking around with a smile all the time is not what it’s about. But there should be a sense of humbled privilege in the art of travel.

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December 13, 2018