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The Best Show in Travel

Voyeurism is the pastime of the traveler, so focus on the people around you and watch the show.

xiamen beach
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I was sitting on the beach in Xiamen, lazily looking at the fishing and cargo ships running back and forth through the channel that separates mainland China from Taiwan’s Kinmen Island. A young boy in front of me was digging a hole in the sand. He put a tremendous amount of time and effort into the job, removing massive amounts of the wet, goopy stuff with is bare hands. Just as I was beginning to admire his tenacity and work ethic, he stopped. He then stood up over the hole, and just kind of hovered there. “What is he doing?” Suddenly, he produced a little PP and pissed. “Oh.” Where the other little kids were constructing sand castles and maze-like moats, this little shit built his own toilet. Relieved, he ran away.

That wasn’t the funny part.

The funny part came five minutes later when a middle age woman walked up to the hole, bent over, stuck her hands into the entrapped liquid — which was a mix of sea water and piss — and rinsed off a seashell. A few moments after that it happened again. This time a mother led three little kids over so they could rise the sand off their hands. It is not my impression they came out any cleaner, but it did provide a good laugh: the kid’s piss hole became a defacto hand washing sink.

If I had not been watching what was going on around me I would have missed this little show.

A huge part of the travel experience is made up of voyeurism. Travel is done best by the nosy and curious. Each day of travel becomes an endeavor in people watching: looking into shopping carts, peaking into purses, looking what people have in their car trunks, creeping over to peak into an open doorway, looking over shoulders, watching lovers quarrel, honing in on make out sessions, wondering what someone is going to do next. Observing what cultures eat, how they play, how they show status, how they non-verbally communicate, how they tend to act in certain situations, and trying to figure out why they do the things they do is the intrigue of travel. It’s the great show of this profession — but there is no need to buy a ticket, this stuff is happening everywhere. All you need is a little awareness, a little patience, and a lot of curiosity.

Sometimes my people watching backfires. I was walking behind a college student on a sidewalk near Shanghai University’s Duchang campus, when suddenly he made a quick turn off into the bushes. I figured he just had to piss, but curiosity would not let me accept that as a definite answer. Chinese dudes don’t tend to be squeamish about urinating in public — they just angle their fronts away from the sidewalk and let it rip. The quick and sketchy way he jumped off the sidewalk at a seemingly preset point seemed like he was going to some secret place (to a hole in the fence? a secret passageway to something?). When I got to the place where he’d stepped off into the foliage I noticed a path. So I followed it, knowing full well that I should have known better. Dude was stroking it under a tree.


Watching people is a practice that seems to be going extinct. I remember growing up my father and grandpa would always have some funny story about some strange thing they saw some strange person do. Before television people would just hang outside their windows and watch the streets. In much of the less modernized places in the world people spend their lives just sitting in their doorways watching people walk by. Watching people is something that humans enjoy, but is something the over-developed world is quickly forgetting about. Nobody ever says, “Hey, I’m going to go out in the streets to watch a few people,” travelers don’t say they had a blast observing people doing everyday, mundane things when asked what they did abroad. But this activity, when actively engage, is one of the prime ways of learning about the people who inhabit our world.

I watch, I take notes:

Little boy digs hole in sand. Pisses in it. Woman and little girls come along and wash their hands in it.

The strange, the intriguing, the educational, and the humorous is happening everywhere right now. You just have to sheath the smartphone, leave behind the tablet, turn off the Kindle, shut up the chattering in your head, quit thinking about yourself, sit back and watch the show.

Filed under: China, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • André Vieira January 27, 2014, 5:49 am

    With this article you’ve reached what travel is all about for me. Those strange details we observe, that in our minds are so strange and quirky, but for others they are just…normal!

    Weird stories to tell in the future to our grandchildren. The stories that stay in our minds.

    P.S – “Dude was stroking it under a tree.” Did he saw you? ahahah

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    • Wade Shepard January 27, 2014, 6:55 am

      Yeah. Funny thing here is that he didn’t miss a beat. He may have been a little strange.

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