What is the difference between a traveler and a tourist? This is a question that I’ve been asking myself as I move through the Balkans. The city centers of Bratislava, Slovakia; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Zadar, Croatia, hardly feel like real places, but instead resemble some sort of Disney experience with all the signs in English, and every eatery proclaiming to serve authentic cultural dishes. I almost feel embarrassed to venture into these space behind the ancient walls, but I know about the history and I want to see the Roman forums, the castles, and how the architecture transitions from middle ages to communism to modernity. I was discussing this topic with another foreigner over dinner, and his explanation was that, “tourists bring money to a place; travelers do not.” So then which is more disruptive to a local economy and a place? A traveler or a tourist? If I am not spending much money, is my presence damaging?
On the other hand, myself and others who identify as travelers exchange knowledge and information instead of money. We will return to our own nations and when we hear people say, “That country? Is it dangerous?” we can confidently respond with a no. I learn a few words in each language prior to arrival in a new country, so that I can at least say a greeting, thank you, and ask “do you speak English?” I also conduct extensive research into a place, and learn the general history, the typical gender relationships between men and women, and the folk music. I have discovered that watching films from a place give many insights into the society, the religion, the family structure, the gender roles, and the history.
Interacting with local people is also important. The other day, I shared a table at a cafe overlooking the Adriatic Sea with a Croatian woman and her French bulldog. She asked if I was traveling alone, and then told me how she and her sister had traveled around Europe together. They had been planning a trip to visit extended family in Long Beach, California, when her sister got ill unexpectedly, and passed before they could accomplish that dream. Now she travels around Croatia with her dog. She offered me a cigarette, but then said, “ah you are American. Americans do not smoke.” (I still can’t believe how many people here smoke, even though the cigarette packets show images of blackened lungs). We talked about the beauty of the sea and swimming, and about food. She loved it that I have wanted to visit her country for many years, and now I am here.
I had a conversation with a German who was staying at the hostel in Zadar. He had returned recently from a few months in Cambodia, and was on his way back to Bavaria for school. I told him that I want to visit Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and his response was rather disturbing. He said that the Chinese had recently purchased large plots of land along the Cambodian coastline and on the islands, and were in the process of building high-rise hotels and casinos. His recommendation was that I plan to visit in the next year or two, and if I wait beyond that point, the area will be ruined forever. While he was in Cambodia, he saw villages plowed over to clear land for the development. Travelers accept the natural and human environments for what it is; tourists want air-conditioning and entertainment. Tourists want their personal walls protected from discomfort and the unknown. If any places on this planet are currently not in tourist development, perhaps it is better for them to remain hidden and unavailable to the foreigner. I have always wanted to see Mongolia, but maybe if Mongolia becomes someplace available for me to visit, then it is already ruined.
An old friend in far Nor Cal provided an insightful comment regarding Bigfoot. He said, “we need to leave Bigfoot alone. If we find him, we will want to figure out if he is a human or an animal. If we decide he is human, we will give him clothes and make him find a job. If we decide he is an animal, we will put him in a zoo. It is better for Bigfoot if we stay away.” Is it better for us to stay away from the traditional cultures that still remain elusive and hidden from globalization? I don’t know. Do communities want “westernized,” or is the circumstance forced on them, and they reluctantly accept? Are the travelers and the tourists welcomed, or simply tolerated? Where is that grey area behind the wall?
In general, travelers and tourists look different. Tourists drag expensive luggage, and travelers carry a dirty rucksack strapped to their back. Travelers are unshaven and smell like patchouli, and tourists wear their new outfits and designer fragrances. Tourists look lost, and travelers look weary and a bit bored. Travelers are alone, and tourists are in packs of 25-30 with a guide leading them along the sidewalk. Travelers wander the planet for months at a time, and tourists know when they will cross the wall to the other side, and return home. Perhaps we are all part tourist, and part traveler, as we move through our own lives.
Whether I am a tourist or a traveler, what might be most important for me about visiting the unfamiliar is to allow that space to change me; to welcome the experience into who I am, and to carry some piece of that culture and the people forward through my own life. If I am not learning, then what am I doing on this planet? I don’t want any walls, and when I encounter walls that others have constructed around me, I want to build a ladder or dig a tunnel. Walls are a part of history, ancient artifacts to observe and touch, to feel the heat of centuries of warfare, separation, and tension. Through travel, the world shrinks and the distance between the self and the other is no longer an immeasurable shape; the names of foreign countries become pronounceable, exotic environments are realized and appreciated for their intrinsic value, and policies expand beyond national borders into familiar faces and individuals. The question remains, though, about how we can get behind the wall without ruining the space that the wall protects?