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Have You Become an Arrogant Travel-Bully Yet?

when traveling corrupts the humbleness it should spark

  "Where are you from?” we asked the girl. Her answer was intriguing (me to gag): “I don’t really like this question,” said she, pensively drifting with her eyes 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 now?”

 

She said it as though talking to 4-year-olds, with that apologetic smile, which, not very subtly, blends in a good spoonful of condescension in its hypocritical attempt to be humble. She was from Canada. She lived somewhere I don’t remember, was in Peru at the time and felt home in a bunch of places. But she was from Canada.

From which yoga variant did she get the energy to lay a pretentious monologue on us, when all the while she could have said but 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 just received a similar answer to the same question – “I am from the stars” – amid a drum circle and hash clouds in Kathmandu’s finest backpacker den): “Where was your mom, when you popped out?” That should answer the question just splendidly in the vast majority of cases.

Yes, I understand, you’ve lived abroad and left splinters of your heart in a multitude of homes, and, moreover, you’re living in a spiritually enlightened universe without narrow minded country borders and to ask the where-from-question is a shallow lapse, even bordering on racism, rooted in a society, which is sheepish and placing importance on all the wrong values.

 

By no means let my sarcasm deceive you, for I am with you on this one for the most part: Yes, it sucks that country borders render one privileged and the other helpless. Yes, in our society as a whole we still haven’t gained the right perspective on equality in racial and many more dimensions. And some other stuff is off as well. I’m the first one to give you all that. We are, by nature, one species rather than a bunch of races and fortunately, despite major setbacks and gridlock, I like to think we’re on the right way. Once the baby boomers hand over this world to our generation, we'll have it our liberal and cosmopolitan way.

That being said, there’s also beauty in the country borders of a globalizing world: isn’t seeing cultural distinctions one big reason, if not the biggest, to set out as a traveler? Globalization is already erasing many conceptual borders and with it local cultures, lifestyles, habits, traditions and languages, which, not least, are an incredibly powerful learning source. I like to cross a border and suddenly enter a different world. Why else would I do it?

Such an experience doesn't justify a smug smile, hinting at an allegedly unraveled world in our backpack.

 

So, when someone asks me the lavishly ignorant where-from-monster, I tend to answer with my home country instead of how hip I am, or how close to the stars, or how far away from dull society 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, living in Canada), never hesitates to give a simple reply.

Canada's friend, from Switzerland by the way and yet not very impartial, was the perfect company for a toplofty patronizer. For the next (and last) question “Have you been here for a while?” she had in store nothing but a narcissistic grunt. Her eyes lured ours to the beaten spot, where her tent had set roots in the grass for three long weeks. Then she shot: “Yeeeeaaah, we’ve been here for quiiiite a while (proud-agreeable-world-experienced-wisdom-smile shone at Canada) – three weeks!!”

So, when someone asks me the lavishly ignorant where-from-monster, I tend to answer with my home country instead of how hip I am, or how close to the stars, or how far away from dull society 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, living in Canada), never hesitates to give a simple reply.

Canada's friend, from Switzerland by the way and yet not very impartial, was the perfect company for a toplofty patronizer. For the next (and last) question “Have you been here for a while?” she had in store nothing but a narcissistic grunt. Her eyes lured ours to the beaten spot, where her tent had set roots in the grass for three long weeks. Then she shot: “Yeeeeaaah, we’ve been here for quiiiite a while (proud-agreeable-world-experienced-wisdom-smile shone at Canada) – three weeks!!”

 

The beloved backpacker uniform with items hand-woven by locals, albeit never actually worn by them, including the colorfully striped pajama pants (elephant-pants equivalent in Asia) and an Alpaca sweater, as well as a Palo Santo incense stick demonstratively lit before our eyes, underlined the rightfulness of her transcendent existence, far from a society, to which she might owe her being there, and belong to just as much as anyone else, and might go back to in three months, but could successfully deny and badmouth for the time being.

 

The setting for all this smug, worldly backpacker mush was a camp site in Huanchaco, a most touristy spot, cherished by local surfers and the ones 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 metamorphose from the binge drinking backpacker-caterpillar to the colorful zen-butterfly, shaming every true hippie, who’s not a brat of the 80s or 90s. For those, who have really ditched the renown procession along the world’s trotted trails, like Brent in his Kung Fu school in China, it is a mere pit stop though. For me the main difference between a backpacker and a traveler is the curiosity of the latter to settle and immerse oneself in the local culture beyond beer pong contests with other foreigners in hostels. Which, no doubt, is fun too, and no judgment is intended and to each his own and bla bla bla – this is a topic for another time.

But, even immersed for a while the fact remains that there’s always more to learn. Even an expat living abroad for years can’t cover all facets. Let’s step further: even in the motherland we’re mostly familiar with the socioeconomic layer we’re born in, although we can explore others. If I ask a friend of mine from a Parisian upper class background, whether most people in France speak English or not, 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 even jump to conclusions on our home country, then we should do so much less when living abroad or traveling, let alone after surfing away three weeks in Peru. Such an experience doesn't justify a smug smile, hinting at an allegedly unraveled world in our backpack. Our knowledge, wisdom and adeptness might be awfully more relative and limited than we like to admit to ourselves and others.

 

Huanchaco / Peru   surfing to the stars

Indeed, traveling sometimes seems to backfire and yield people more arrogant than they were at the starting line.

For the moment it suffices to say that Marie, the person I was with at the time, and I, had just lived in an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Andes for about a year, and that fortunately our gained perspectives there hadn’t corrupted our humbleness to the extent that we needed to lecture every 30-seconds-in chance encounter. Though I do admit, that I’m not very humble on you right now Canada. As you can see, my patience and temper with the crew I set sails with, and have ditched somewhere along the way, has shortened. I am being an arrogant travel-bully in my own way right now, shooting from a pedestal. On the other hand, I meet the locals with a rapture that, at times, forgives their every sin in the name of foreignness. When they are being ethnic or ecological bullies, discriminating races within their own nation or littering it beyond recognition, I hardly give them a slap on the wrist in my mind – different culture, different rules I appease.

 

So how comes that people metamorphose into such overly wise beings when roaming the globe?

 

Out of many a conversation I had with fellow travelers about looking at home only through the rear-view mirror, I can remember just one in particular that wasn’t signed by the bottom line “everybody should travel”. Again it was Marie, who said something very true, when we thought back to the moment in Peru some months later. She said that many of her friends back home – who have never traveled – are less ignorant and judgmental, more open to the world and definitely humbler than many of those, who are armed with a backpack slung over their shoulders, out there to allegedly widen their inner horizons by staring at actual ones, and shooting smartass-stereotypes at anyone, who can or can’t be bothered to listen. And aren’t ignorance and prejudice the major issues, which the Canadian-Swiss alliance was so loudly mutinying against, all the while turning a blind cliché-eye to the fact that they are the very vanguard of these vices?

 

Indeed, traveling sometimes seems to backfire and yield people more arrogant than they were at the starting line. Most roadwarriors are somewhat like-minded – that’s precisely why we’re out here alone together. And this like-mindedness is mirrored in the belief that everybody should travel, that we’re kissed by the loveliest of muses, and that the home stayers are poor bastards.

 

Why?

 

Because you literally see and walk the world (no doubt about that one), you learn things about different cultures (how much depends on the way you dive in beyond tubing and full moon parties), and you make incredible experiences that last you a lifetime (unarguably). For me, personally, the learning effect, the new insight into the human condition might be the most interesting one:

Being in a culture so vastly different from yours, cracks the narrow mind open. You might even realize that the phrase “life is” isn’t just a vain claim owed to the intrinsic philosophical depth of the question behind it, and the subjective wishy-washyness of the answer, but also due to the fact that people live entirely different lives in varying parts of the world. The lessons are in the details that you can hardly learn from TV (even though they're almost as hard to learn, if you're out there for a sightseeing-spree rather than a look behind touristy facades, and if you only seek the company of your own kin at the other end of the world):

 

There are countries, where you flag down the bus instead of waiting at a designated stop. Silly example? Trust me, it carries heavy implications of a whole different society, lifestyle and mentality on its tiny shoulders, which I will outline another day.

 

Now where was I? Exactly, the “why” in why, allegedly, everybody should travel. Throw in some terrific and unique experiences with the travel lessons, some erupting volcanoes here, a dip with sharks there, the gazing at deserts and jungles and 8.000 meter peaks, the time a tree revealed to you the meaning of the color purple and the whereabouts of the universe during a trip on psychedelic plants, a good pinch of constantly meeting new people with new stories, plus frequent romances for the single traveler, or even love found far from home, and you’ll get the drift.

 

Salasaka / Ecuador   marveling at erupting Tungurahua

You understand that life is not just work and suits, but rather what happens in-between the plans society had for you. You pack much life into your life to rid it of waste and regret in retrospect, whereas the office life is often viscous as glue, tying people to their chairs, and appears like a fast forwarded movie once looked back on. To remember the day you suddenly stood in front of an elephant in the wild is a piece of cake compared to remembering the Tuesday you stapled away like any other. Instead of hoarding material possessions you indulge experiences.

 

All this is true, I gotta hand it to you traveling. So what about the poor fools that stayed at home? Our friends and family? They must be miserable. We travelers usually like to think ourselves happier and some big chapters ahead. How could we not, discovering the world, while the adventures back home merely encompass TV and paying off a mortgage? Back home nothing ever changes, so why stay there?

 

First of all, traveling the world is mostly a privilege of people with a certain monetary and I-get-a-visa-everywhere background. Only these we can judge ever so harshly, the ones that could travel but for some reason don’t. So why don’t they?

 

Because they have careers and cars and leases and they want marriages and kids. Sounds silly, once you’re traveling. And I am traveling. I made it my life and I don’t want any little buggers to mess with my dreams, at least not just yet. I have been in many homes but not home home for years. But, one thing I realized somewhere along the road: who am I to say that they should travel?

 

I truly think that traveling is a terrific teacher. Still, I believe, just as much, that it is not the only one, that it is not something for everyone, that it is not necessarily for most people who say “that’s sooo amazing, I wish I could do it too.” And, I know for a fact that it is not the only road to the all so pursued happiness – just look at the legitimately happy people along the way, all the locals that meet us with these hearty smiles, who have never even left their neighborhood.

 

Maybe some of our friends back home are really just afraid and would benefit greatly from leaving it all behind at least for a while. However, maybe some are also just genuinely happy in the place they are, the one they always might have been in, and possibly always will be. And while they may miss out on some lessons of the world, they might grow just as much or even more in the comfort of their known zone. Isn’t, say, having children one of the most defining experiences you can have, that leap of taking responsibility for someone else’s life?

 

One thing is for certain. They are humbler with their lessons, less condescending. They scarcely go like: “You should have a bunch of kids too, it’s amazing,” even though I’m sure it must be. They will say “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me” much rather than “it’s the best thing that you can do with your life.” That you might feel exposed to society pressure, which promotes having kids and a house, is much less their fault than it is yours.

 

So, what about you, Canada? Would you say traveling has corrupted your humbleness, that is, turned you into an arrogant travel-bully?

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