By Justin Francis, responsibletravel.com
There is something romantic about the traveler. Whether it’s the bleached blond surfer or the retired couple traveling in France, the traveler belongs, and ebbs and flows with the rhythm of a place. They are enriched by a journey of discovery.
Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as travelers rather than tourists. But did the warm smile of the local people we met on our last vacation mask a horror at our mangled franglais and clumsy attempts to ‘fit in’ by speaking Spanish with the locals? To them are our vacations a necessary intrusion?
Tourists stick out like sore thumbs (or a sunburned nose). They are separate from the people and the places that they visit. Over eager for their annual 2-week dose of happiness, determined to record it on film, and ill at ease with local people they hide behind their cameras.
Travellers on the other hand immerse themselves in places and cultures. Like the first ever travelers — the pilgrims — there is a reason and a purpose for their trip. They make new friends and laugh and argue about life with local people. The traveler broadens his or her mind, sees their lives through others eyes, and gains new perspectives. They return home with experiences that have shaped their values. The tourist reinforces their existing preconceptions, gets a tan, and comes home a little poorer.
So how do we become travelers?
Travelers fully experience places, rather than merely observing them. To do this they must first accept them. Accept that Nicaragua is hot, that there are bugs, that life operates at a different pace, and that local people are fascinated by us and sometimes stare.
Stop making comparisons with home comforts or other vacations. It’s OK to be angry about the service or the the lack of hot water in your room but realize that it says more about you than about the hotel, and resist the Western habit of wanting to change everything. Just be. Only then can you truly observe new people and places.
Fully accepting a place and genuinely observing will mean we can truly experience it. Get off the beach, roll up your trousers, and explore that rock pool.
Watch how people interact, learn some words of the local language and join the older men in the fish market for a bottle of Toña. Ask in the shop where local people go to swim, borrow a bike and take off with a towel and a bottle of water.
Take every opportunity to experience new things. Be in your world rather than on it and live in the moment. What a wonderful feeling it is when we can’t remember what day it is and have no idea of the time or concrete plans for tomorrow.
Avoid the Western habit of knowing all the answers, and cultivate the habit of asking questions. Recognize that there is often more that we can learn from the poorest people than we can teach them.
Realize that when you have formed a set opinion about a place or a culture you cease to be a real traveler. The way to real discovery is to remain curious and to go on experiencing and learning. As soon as you’ve made up your mind about a place or local culture you become an observer viewing the world through your beliefs rather than a participant creating new experiences with local people. Expats in Nicaragua
Having researched a little information leave the Guide book with its off the shelf answers in your hotel room. You will learn more from the lady in the bread shop or the taxi driver than from any book. Put the camera away for a few minutes and try capturing a few special images in your mind where they will last forever.
The tourist’s habit of trying to see everything ends in disappointment, and in learning and experiencing very little. When you are really experiencing a place something very strange will happen.
You will find that it enables you to make a contribution. A contribution to local conversation, a contribution to sharing knowledge and humor, a financial contribution to the local markets and restaurants where you eat and to the local guides that you prefer to use.
In a small way you will start to belong in the local community. Deep down all of us seek belonging and to make some kind of a difference. This, rather than material wealth or fame, is what makes us truly happy. Achieving this far from home is a magical experience.
Although you might not want to think it at this point you have become a more responsible traveler. You are having a more real experience, and you are putting something back.
Responsible is derived from the Greek word to respond or react. The responsible traveler has become part of the place and is making a difference. However, in case we get too excited about becoming travelers let us remember that on the same trip we are sometimes tourists and at other times, depending on our ability to accept a place and truly experience it, we are travelers.