"Where are you from?” we asked, assuming it was an innocent question. Her answer was intriguing (me to never ask her another one): “I don’t really like this question,” said she, pensively drifting into a parallel sphere brimming with wisdom and sophistication. “Here we go,” I thought. “Because … dramatic pause … what does it mean? Where I was born? Where I feel at home? Where I live?”
She said it as though talking to 4-year-olds, with an apologetic smile that mimicked humbleness, but force-fed us a good spoonful of condescension without being subtle about it. She was from Canada. She lived somewhere I don’t remember, was in Peru at the time and felt at home in a bunch of places. But she was from Canada. Plain and simple. No complicated backstory, just a whole lot of pretentiousness.
From which pseudo-yoga variant did she get the energy to lay this self-indulgent monologue on us when she could have answered with a six-letter-word? She knew what we meant and she knew just as well that we knew that she knew.
As my travel companion Brent put it later, when I told him the story (after we had received a similar answer to the same question – “I am from the stars” – amid a drum circle and hash clouds in one of Kathmandu’s backpacker dens): “Where was your mom, when you popped out?” That should answer the question just fine in most cases.
I don’t mean to brag, but when someone asks me the classic where-from, I tend to answer with my home country and not with how hip I am, or how close to the stars, or how far removed from dull societal norms. Funny enough, anybody I know who could actually have a hard time answering the question (like a friend of mine, who's Chinese, adopted by Irish parents, and grew up in Canada), never hesitates to give a simple reply.
Canada's (Swiss) friend was the perfect company for a toplofty, patronizing travel guru. She took our next (and last) question:
“Have you been here for a while?”
Her first answer was a narcissistic grunt. Then she elaborated by looking over her shoulder, our eyes in tow: a beaten, rectangular patch disrupted the juicy grass covering the hostel backyard to mark the place where her tent had been – a place that would miss her dearly now that she was about to leave. Finally, she took aim at us with glinting eyes and fired away:
“Yeeeeaaah, we’ve been here for quiiiiiiite a while (casual-proud-agreeable-world-traveler-wisdom-smile towards Canada) – three weeks!”
A standardized backpacker uniform gave the perfect shape to her transcendent existence: striped pajama pants (elephant-pants equivalent in Asia) plus an alpaca sweater with alpacas on it – handwoven by locals, but never worn by them. The Palo Santo incense stick, demonstratively lit before our eyes, underlined her rightful denial of a society to which she might have owed her being there, and belong to just as much as anyone else, and go back to three months later, but couldn’t stand for now.
"Let’s wipe off that conceited smile, suggesting that we’re carrying an unraveled world in our backpack."
The setting for all this smug backpacker mush was a camp site in Huanchaco, a most touristy spot, cherished by talented local surfers and those awkwardly surfing their way back to the stardust that birthed them. Three weeks are indeed a long stretch for most gringos and enough time to morph from the binge drinking backpacker-caterpillar to the colorful zen-butterfly, an embarrassment to every true hippie who’s not a brat of the 80s or 90s. For those, who have really ditched the procession along the world’s trotted trails, like Brent in his Kung Fu school in China, it is a mere pit stop though. In my definition, the main difference between a backpacker and a traveler is the curiosity of the latter to settle and immerse themselves in local cultures beyond a generic hostel journey. Which, no doubt, is fun too, and no offense, and to each his own, and bla bla bla – this is a topic for another time.
However, no matter how local you try to go as a traveler or expat, there are limits to how familiar you can be with a place or culture. What’s more: even in the motherland we’re mostly acquainted with the socioeconomic layer we live in, even if we can explore others. If I ask a friend of mine from a Parisian upper class background whether most people in France speak English, he’ll assure me they do, confused why I would even ask. If I ask another friend from a French working class background, the opposite answer will be presented with just the same confidence. Both lived there for decades but see their society with different eyes.
So, if we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about our home country, then we should do so much less when living abroad or traveling, let alone after surfing away three weeks in Peru. Let’s wipe off that conceited smile, suggesting that we’re carrying an unraveled world in our backpack.
Huanchaco / Peru surfing to the stars
"Indeed, travel can backfire and leave us more arrogant than we were at the starting line."
My companion and I had just arrived to Huanchaco, but the way these two young women marked their territory made it feel like we had never actually made it to Peru and had landed on Swiss/Canadian surf turf instead. I thought back to the place we’d just come from – Salasaka, a never-heard-of indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Andes, where I had lived for a year before making my way south. It had been a humbling year beyond words and so I had no desire to lecture every 30-seconds-in chance encounter about it. Such humility, kudos. Just where is this humility now while writing this rant? As you can see, my patience with the backpacker crew I set sails with has shortened after I jumped ship about a month into my journey to become an even more enlightened creature. I’m being an arrogant travel-bully in my own way, taking pot shots from a pedestal.
Indeed, travel can backfire and leave us more arrogant than we were at the starting line. Most of those who leave home for the world are somewhat like-minded – that’s why we’re out here alone together. And this like-mindedness resounds in the almost fanatic belief that everybody should travel.
So where does this travel arrogance come from?
From the WORLD! Travel and you get to see it, feel it, love it, learn it. Of course, just how much you learn depends on how deep you dive in, but if you make it past the shallows, you get to experience the human condition at all sorts of different depths and temperatures.
Suddenly, the phrase “life is” becomes more complex and more meaningless at the same time; a vain claim and a claim in vain to start with, due to the philosophical depth of the question behind it and the subjective wishy-washyness of the answer, it gets even emptier when you realize that people live entirely different lives across the world. The lessons are in the details you can hardly learn from your TV or PC (even though they're almost as hard to learn if your trip is a sightseeing-spree rather than a look behind touristy facades):
There are countries (and they are most countries), where you flag down the bus instead of waiting at a designated stop. The implications this detail carries on its tiny shoulders are massive and tell you a lot about societies, mentalities and lifestyles.
Now where was I? Exactly, the “why” in why, allegedly, everybody should travel. Throw in some unique experiences with the travel lessons, some erupting volcanoes here, a dip with sharks there, a couple of deserts and jungles and 8.000 m peaks, plus the time a tree revealed to you the meaning of the color purple and the whereabouts of the universe during a psychedelic trip, some new people with new stories, a handful of romances and even loves, and you’ll get the drift.
Salasaka / Ecuador marveling at erupting Tungurahua
You get to feel what you knew all along deep down – that life happens in-between the plans society had for you. You pack so much life into your life that there is hardly any space for regret. You experience so many stand-alone moments in so many settings that you remember them all, while the routine back home blends into one scene that appears like a fast-forwarded movie when you watch it later on. To remember the day you came face to face with an elephant in the wild is easy; to remember the Tuesday you stapled away like any other, is impossible – in retrospect it’s all the same day.
All this is true, I have to hand it to you travel. So what about the poor fools that stayed at home? Our friends and family? They must be miserable. We travelers like to consider ourselves happier and a few big chapters ahead, don’t we? Back home nothing ever changes.
So why do those who share our travel privilege pass up on it?
Because they have careers and cars and mortgages, and they want marriages and kids. Sounds silly when you’re traveling. And I am traveling. I made it my life and while I’ve been in many homes since I set out, I haven’t been home home for years. One thing I realized somewhere along the road though: who am I to say that they should travel?
Of course, travel is a terrific teacher. But it’s not the only one and it’s not for everyone; most people who say they wish they could do it, don’t really want it and don’t end up doing it. Maybe some of our friends back home are just afraid and would benefit from leaving it all behind for a while or two. But maybe some are just genuinely happy in their place and their plots are just as valid. Isn’t, say, having children one of the most defining experiences, that leap of taking responsibility for someone else’s life? Now that is an adventure.
One thing is for certain: they are humbler with the lessons they learn. Like my companion from back then pointed out after our encounter with the travel-bullies: those who have never traveled are often less ignorant, judgmental, arrogant, and more open to the world than many of those who are armed with a backpack to widen their inner horizons. And aren’t ignorance and prejudice what the Canadian-Swiss alliance was so loudly mutinying against, all the while turning a blind eye to the fact that they were embodying the very cliché of these vices?
So what about you? Have you become an arrogant travel-bully yet?
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