Travel is About Doing People Not Places
To put it simply: it is my impression that travel is not about “doing” places, it is about “doing” people. I can only feel sorrow for the traveler whose memories of the places they visited are populated with monuments, sites, buildings, cold brink and stone, vistas, and bus rides connecting dots on a map rather than faces: mean, ugly, beautiful, strange, breath taking, kissable, barfable faces. There is a world full of faces, they are everywhere. When I think of the places I’ve been, I remember who I met there, and what we talked about, what we did, the streets that we left an endless trail of memories upon.As far as I am concerned, the value of the travel experience is the people I meet.
I often cannot care less enough about seeing the “sites” of any particular country, as I know that the show there will consist of tourists walking by quickly, ooohing and aahhing, seeing this, doing that, and a legion of locals who just want to remove me from my money. Go to a major tourists site anywhere in the world and gauge the degree to which you enjoyed your interactions with people there — unless you like being lied to, cheated, mislead, and harassed by people wearing guy smiley faces, you are better off staying in the streets where people live and work and who may actually be interested in meeting you — not just getting at your money.
If my impetus behind traveling was to connect UNESCO sites across the globe, I probably would have went home long ago, feeling lonely and shallow. Photos of things photographed a million times often mean little to me in retrospect, the experience of going to such places blunted by its regularity, the feeling of being corralled by signs and guides like cattle is a feeling I would rather forget.
If I really wanted to make a living writing about travel, I would sell the romance of tourists sites: I would pretend that I on some strange sort of spiritual journey standing on alone on top of a pyramid hearing the ancient voices of prehistory speaking to just to me, I would go out and try to have sex with some girl inside of some famous cathedral, I would try to hide inside of every UNESCO site I could find and write the story of how I had a magical experience wandering around in the night. But that would be bullshit, that is not what I am looking for.
I would rather sit on a park bench and wait and see who is going to sit down next to me, talk to this person, discover a real story, hear a real voice, learn something that is not of dead stone.
90% of my days of traveling I stroll through the streets, just walking around, looking for something interesting to look at, someone interesting to talk to. My travels are more or less pretty basic, simple even. I don’t run, hurrying to catch a bus to go to some site to hurriedly photograph just to hurry to catch a bus to return to my hotel exhausted seems more like work than recreation to me. But if it seems like it would be an enjoyable day, I sometimes will still stroll into a tourist site, say, “Hey, that was pretty neat,” and then stroll away to another place. I do not avoid tourism with adamancy, but I just seldom feel the need to go to another pile of old rocks just to be around thousands of other Americans and Europeans milling around like sheep in a pasture when there is an entire world of experience right before me that I can have to myself. I seldom write about visiting this or that tourist site on this travelogue, as there is often little more to say than “Been there, seen that, had the same experience as a million others, it was a nice day of strolling around, I took pictures.”
Or, what is perhaps worse, I would just write about the hassle of dealing with people trying to suck money out of me in the name of tourism.
An excerpt from visiting Tikal
My wife had never been to Tikal before. Three weeks ago we stopped off in Flores, Guatemala on our way to Mexico — Flores is the gateway to Tikal. We stayed in Flores for a few days, just walking around, talking to people, playing with Petra, sitting by the lake, but then my wife began to feel antsy about not visiting one of the most sought after tourist destinations on the planet. She did not really say so, but I could tell.
I had traveled with enough people who, in retrospect, would blame me for ruining their travels because I did not want to go to this or that tourist site. I have lived and learned, and although I had been to Tikal before and had no real urge to go again, I got the impression that my wife would feel as if she missed out on something if we did not go. So we went.
We walk to a tour agency in the morning and asked if they had a shuttle to Tikal. They said yes — of course they do. I asked when they were leaving, they said right now. Ok, fine, lets go. But the guy who ran the agency continued babbling, “We have free coffee for people who buy tickets from us, but it is only for customers, if you don’t buy your ticket here you can’t have any coffee.”
If cheap Nescafe in a small Styrofoam cup was a strong selling point of this guy’s business then I think I had better look elsewhere.
I felt myself disgusted so with this guy trying to lure us into buying a ticket to Tikal from him with instant coffee, that I turn and walk out of the office in a huff. The guy, of course, gave chase — he called out a lower price to us for the shuttle ticket. I turned around and looked at him, I looked at the van that he said was going to Tikal “ahoritta.” I sized up the situation: the van was empty, there was not one other passenger, he was not going to Tikal “ahoritta.”
I happily passed up the opportunity of a complementary cup of instant coffee and went to look for another ride to Tikal.
In scarcely a minute’s time we find another minibus whose driver said he was going to Tikal. He said that he, too, was leaving “ahoritta.” Of course. He was sitting out in front of a hotel and said he was waiting for passengers. We got into the empty van to wait for a moment. The driver went out to talk on his cell phone. Then sense overtook us, we realized that if we were to continue sitting in this van that we would be there for the next hour — waiting to leave “ahoritta.” We got out of the van.
We walk to the bridge that leads out of Flores, if any bus was leaving from here for Tikal it would need to pass us, and we could just flag it down and get in.
A minibus drove up to us. It was the same guy from the first travel agency who tried to coerce us with coffee. He drove up to us and asked if we wanted to go to Tikal. It seemed as if he was going right away, his bus was moving, so we got in. We got in just in time for the asshole to turn around and began driving loops through Flores scanning the streets for other tourists wishing to travel to Tikal. He found a couple Spaniards. He kept driving around until he got back to his tourist agency. We were back to square one.
Wait a moment, just a moment, soon we leave.
The passengers got out of the van. I asked for my coffee — if I had to deal with this guy then I was surely going to take his much sought after instant coffee. He gave both my wife and I cups of hot water and showed us where the coffee was. I spooned out enough coffee for two little Styrofoam cups. We began sipping the coffees.
We had only arrange for a one way ride to Tikal with this guy as, with a baby, we did not want to be hamstrung into having to leave at any certain time. But this guy wanted to sell us round trip tickets. We said no, we only want a one way ticket. Ok.
A few minutes later the guy returned to my side, he whispered in a sleazy voice:
“Those coffees are only free if you buy a round trip ticket.”
“No f’cking way!” my wife yells.
We slam the cups of coffee down on the desk in the tourism office and storm out.
We take a tuk tuk to the bus station in Santa Elena figuring that we may have better luck getting a bus from here to Tikal — or, in the faceless interchange of passengers going and coming we may find people to deal with who would not focus so much on giving us the piss. We walk up to a bus station booth.
“Tikal, Tikal, leaving right now, hurry.”
We bought two tickets, then we waited for over a half hour as the ticket vendor called all over the place to find a driver to take us.
This was a normal day in tourism. Fighting tooth and nail through truly rotten people in a rotten profession is the name of the game of seeing the sites:
If I want to go to Tikal, I must interact with people in horrible circumstances, I must interact with people who will lie, cheat, and steal to get as much out of me as possible.
This is normal, this is tourism, I could not get mad. 11 years of travel have taught me that it is folly to get pissed off when in the rounds of tourism, as I know well that I put myself there: I always know what I am in for if I want to visit one of those World Heritage Sites.
We got to Tikal, we had a nice day, Petra climbed up and down pyramids, we relaxed in the sun.
But it is the people I meet in travel that I remember the most. Who did I meet going to Tikal? Nobody, it is a tourist site, you only meet tourists at tourist sites or locals pretending to be your friend to sell you something. Either option is often not very good company.
Tourism degrades human interaction down to the bottom line: money. I am going to try to save as much money as I can, and people are going to try to get as much money as possible out of me. This is the game. I do not like dealing with people on this level, no towering monument of stone is worth the mental trauma of having to be perpetually on guard against being lied to and cheated. The work of always needing to be alert against being scammed, railroaded, or bullied is, simply put, work.
Is this enjoyable?
This is the question that I often ask myself when trying to see some tourist site somewhere in the world. Sometimes it is, for sure, many times it is not. I know that if I just walk around in the streets of some city, village, or town “doing nothing” that I am going to have an enjoyable day. I know that if I go out and meet someone, make an acquaintance, sit around on park benches, if I drink tea in a sidewalk cafe watching people pass by, if I have a good interaction with a stranger then will have a really good day.
Given this, why do I need to risk having gruesome interactions with people as an exchange for seeing the places already plastered all over postcards and tourism posters?
The value of traveling
When I think back on my travels, what stands out are the odd conversations, what people said, who I’ve met, what I learned from them, what I shared — this is what is truly worth traveling for.
I remember the young guy who I met in a park in Kunming, China. He told me about how it was his job to go out into the villages, count the people’s children, and file reports on families who broke the one child policy. He told me that he sometimes was responsible for women receiving forced abortions. He added that the people in the villages did not like him too much and that the sometimes chased him away with pitch forks and large sticks.
He then decided to sing me a song, the words of which were something along the lines of, “I love you like rice balls.”
I remember jumping off of a bus in the middle of nowhere Laos with Stubbs around five years ago. We were previously riding on a bus to Luang Prabang from some small town in the north of the country. This bus was full of tourists, the first time that we found ourselves in such company in a reasonably long time stretch of travel. Eventually, Stubbs could no longer take the conversations he was hearing all around him. The bus pulled over to a restaurant for a break in a real small highway town.
“Lets just get off here,” Stubbs suggested.
To the bus driver’s amazement and worry we pulled our bags out from under the bus and split, not finishing our ride. There was a hotel near the restaurant, we got a room there. We stowed our bags, I went out for a walk.
Almost as soon as I began walking down the rickety portion of Laos highway 1 that bisected, as well as probably gave birth, to this little village, I met young guy who walked out to talk with me. He was around 18 years old, spoke near fluent English, he was wearing a bright purple button up shirt. He dressed like Prince, he was clearly a pimp. But my social senses were, apparently, not as clearly refined then, and I chatted with him in the street for a while. He showed me his “sister,” who was hanging out the widow from inside a broken down plank board hut. She was disproportionately attractive when compared with the nowhere, jungle town she was living in.
“Do you think she pretty,” the kid in the purple shirt asked.
I admitted that she was.
I talked to the kid in the purple shirt a little more as the girl watched, I agreed to come back later that night to drink beer. I was too young then to know what I was getting into.
I returned alone to find a much different scene. I was invited into the plank board hut, I found it full of teenage girls, and one other dude. There were posters of women in thongs all over the walls. I grew suspicions of my surroundings, there were too many clues. But at the same time, we were all kids, I was probably the oldest out of anyone at 23. It was not a creepy feeling scene, yet, so I stayed in the little hut. We got some beer, we drank, talked, ate funny Laos drinking snacks. This went on for an hour, then IT started.
A girl then broke rank and came and sat down next to me. “You think she pretty?” the kid the purple shirt asks. She was pretty ugly, but I lied to be nice. “Ok, you take her.”
Shit, the teenage kid in the purple shirt really was a pimp.
Dammit, I passed off the offer. Then another girl tried, then another, then another.
“You think them pretty why don’t you pick one,” the pimp spoke with seemingly bewildered.
The girls sat in front of me in a group, looking pretty to be picked.
“Pick one, pick one.”
I have to get out of here.
As if my mind was read, the other dude in the group snuck around me and closed the door of the hut and locked it. I was shut into a highway brothel full of teenage whores and pimps in nowhere Laos.
“Pick one, pick one.”
I get up to make for the door, a girl and the purple pimp restrain me with smiles and laughs. I sit back down for a minute, smiled and laughed my escape attempt off, and waited for their hands to release me. When they did, I shot up from my chair and fought my way to the door. The whores tried to grab me, the purple pimp hung on to my shirt for dear life, I battled through the whole contingent, reaching the door and busting in open with force. Just as I stepped out into the fresh air of a dark Laos night, the pimp made one last grasp at my shirt and one final attempt to gain my business. Holding onto me with a grip that was fast slipping, he whispered a final offer urgently into my ear:
I was out of there.
In 2004 I went for a hitchhiking trip around Japan. I slept outside using a tarp and a sleeping bag as my only shelter. I met a lot of interesting, good, funny people on this journey, but one event that stands out happened one night on the eastern fringe of Shikoku Island. I was hitchhiking the 88 temple pilgrimage around the island. I tried sleeping in a park, but was kicked out (the first time that had happened in Japan), so I tried sleeping in the woods on a hillside, but some dog keep barking berserk at me the entire time, so I walked down to another little park farther out of the village. Again, I was bothered, this time it was by some woman. I was told that I could not set up a tent there, I argued that my sorry tarp was not a tent. The vigilante could not argue this point, I refused to leave and she stomped off.
I slept solidly that night with plans to go watch the sun rise over the ocean early in the morning. I work just before dawn, packed up my tarp into my small backpack, and as soon as I made to walk down to the sea, I was stopped. An older Japanese couple who were camped out in a proper RV had prepared a bowl of soup for me, and were just waiting for me to wake up to eat it.
They handed the hot soup over and I took it with gusto, it made the trials of the night before wash away cleanly.
I can go on all day with these little stories. They are truly not extraordinary travel tales, I have far more adventurous stories tucked away for dinner table telling, but I believe that these three simple stories show something essential in travel: they show the small extraordinariness that happens in the everyday. They are little parabolas that came from walking slow, without a plan, and being open to my surroundings. They are little anecdotes that were created because I erred more towards chance encounters than schedules and itineraries, these stories are what happens each day in travel when you don’t race around to see the sites, when you don’t try to “do” places, when you sit back, focus on what is around you, and just see what happens.
It is my impression that travel is about doing people. When measured against this objective, places, sites, and “things to do” become almost irrelevant intruders upon the real joys of moving through the world. There are people everywhere, there are strange encounters waiting around each corner, I take away much fonder memories of walking through the streets of some no name town with my wife and baby than I do from going to Tikal.
I know some readers are going to criticize me for not appreciating the splendors of the wonders of the world, for being arrogant, for not taking the opportunities that I have to see what only a handful of people in the world can pay to see — and they may be right — but after 11 yeas of travel, I have realized that it is the people I meet that make my travels that leave indelible imprints upon my mind. I have thousands of little stories piled up from 47 countries like the three above, I have thousands of conversations in my memory bank that I can still recite almost verbatim, and these are what stand out to me about my travels. I can remember the tourists sites that I have visited, it is true, but they rarely ever arise in my consciousness when I look back and ponder the path that I have traveled.
I leave this article with an excerpt from a comment that my friend Paulo left on a previous entry:
You know, when I left the finca I visited Utila, La Ceiba amongst other places. Utila is a pretty place and I met lots of people. But you know what? I had better conversations with the street prostitutes in La Ceiba. As soon as we established that I was no potential customer, they changed. They became real. And then they were normal people again. They were so interesting. They all had a story to share. I already forgot the conversations I had in Utila but the hours spent in the streets of La Ceiba are imprinted in my brain, I remember every single detail.
I though of this comment as I wrote the above piece, it is right on. There is a certain essence of travel that is beyond the beaches, the tours, the monuments, the sites, the ruins, the suspended animation of nights in tourist bars, an essence that goes beyond hedonism and the pursuit to have a “good time,” it is the essence of real life. Real life happens in the streets, you must go there and walk slow, sit down, open your mouth and talk to a stranger to really experience it, and to learn lessons from it. If I have one goal, one solid impetus that drives my travels, it is to observe and witness real life, to dive into the ordinary, the substance, the thick soup of human existence on planet earth.