Years ago in another lifetime, I was a tour manager in Europe. I was responsible for running coach tours – 21 to 35 days for a well-known touring company popular with 18-35 year olds. My responsibilities ranged from accompanying a client to the hospital in Venice, to nursing broken hearts and hang-overs, and everything imaginable in between. One of my favourite parts of the trip took place on day one of the tour. We would leave London early morning, and drive to Paris by late afternoon. On the drive from London to Dover, where we would catch the ferry to Calais, I would give my ‘First Day Talk’.
The First Day Talk was a marathon of public speaking. It could take up to two hours, which may seem long, but when you are about to spend 24/7 with 50 strangers for the better part of a month, there are a few ground rules to lay. I covered toilets (not as available in Europe as in other parts of the world), and sleeping arrangements (I was not employed to hook people up), and departure times (I would – and had – left people behind). I also covered money, language, weather, clothing, behaviour, drinking, and food, but the grand finale of the talk was the ‘traveller versus tourist challenge’.
“A traveller,” I would begin, “is someone who tries new food and new experiences, who embraces differences from home, who is flexible and willing to ‘give it a go’. A traveller is interested in getting to know a place, and is keen to attempt the language. A traveller will appreciate that things in Europe are far more expensive than in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. A traveller will want to get out there and do and see and participate in as much as possible, because a traveller knows they may never get the chance again. In short, a traveller will be an asset to this tour.
“A tourist, on the other hand, is someone who will notice all of these differences, and rather than embracing them, the tourist will complain and whine about them. Be a traveller, not a tourist.”
To this there would be heads nodding in response. I would even hear clients, when in unpleasant, awkward, or expensive moments on tour, say to another, ‘Remember, we’re travellers not tourists.’ Mostly it worked. Most of my clients were good fun and good people. There were a few tourists on the trips – but the others would usually bring them around – by cajoling, ribbing, or even with a few sharp words. Once I established that we were all in this together, the clients tended to develop a camaraderie much like a workplace. You all get on with it, even if you don’t like everybody else. When someone steps out of line, or needs support, the others rally.
A decade later, I still consider myself a traveller, not a tourist. I can think of two really obvious exceptions.
In Peru in 2006, I contracted Salmonella. It is in the tap water – even in a 3-star hotel – and through force of habit I rinsed my only tooth brush under the tap. I was then faced with the dilemma of rinsing it again under the hot water tap, or rinsing it in bottled water. I opted for bottled water, when what I should have done was throw it away. Within 12 hours I was sitting on the toilet, throwing up into the bathtub. I had to crawl on hands and knees between the bathroom and the bed. I could not keep down any food, and was on FULL STRENGTH, serious, do-not-mess-with-me-anti-biotics.
When I sobbed to the tour’s guide that I just wanted to go home, I was not in traveller mode. I was not embracing the differences between home and Peru. I was bloody pissed off. I was pissed at the water, and the hotel, who could not figure out how to get through to my mother in Australia. I was pissed off that I would miss trekking the Inca Trail. I was pissed off that for three months I had been getting up in the dark mornings, and running hills and steps in training for trekking the Inca Trail. And on top of all this ‘pissiness’, I was feeling sooooo sorry for myself. When I finally got my mum on the phone, I sobbed down the line in broken English, ‘I just want to come h-h-home. I h-h-hate Peru.”
I stayed. I got better. I finished the trip, and despite feeling like a cheat when I got to Machu Picchu – because I had arrived on a bus, not on foot – I was glad that I had not flown back to Sydney. When I was well, I got to feed llamas, and ride through the mountains on a motor cycle. I stood amongst ancient ruins, soaked in natural hot springs, and watched the sunrise over the Amazon Rainforest. I got to be a traveller again.
My other recent experience being a tourist was in Maui and it was, I cringe to say, voluntary.
Ben and I were staying at the Renaissance Wailea Resort, and it was beautiful, particularly the sunsets viewed from the balcony. We had been there nearly a week, and had spent most of our time experiencing as much of the island as possible. We had trekked across lava, and snorkled with the turtles ( I LOVE the turtles). We had driven the Road to Hana, which is only 60 miles, but took us 10 hours each way; we stopped frequently so we could hike, and swim in waterfalls, and get amongst it. Our best meal on that two-day trip was a smoked fish taco from a road-side stall. We were in Hawaii and we were squeezing every joy out of it, including the luxurious touches afforded us at the resort.
On our final full day there, we decided that we would take it easy. We would indulge in something a little ‘touristy’: we would lay by the pool and drink cocktails. We gathered books, hats, and sunscreen, and strolled down to the pool. We grabbed towels and set up our little part of paradise. The sun was hot, the skies were blue and the breeze was gentle. I went for a swim. Ben went for a swim. We dried off, lying on our sun loungers, and then went back and had a swim together. We sipped on ice water and perused the cocktail menu. Ben read, and I took photographs.
We had been there about 45 minutes when Ben turned to me and said, “This is boring. We should at least go to the beach.” ‘Thank god,’ I said, agreeing; it was boring, and definitely not something I could spend a week doing. We packed up our little part of paradise and opted for the beach – about 100 metres away – but even that got old after an hour. “Shall we make a move, Honey?” We spent the rest of the day driving to and from Haleakala Crater, which was incredible and other worldly – a grand mini adventure.
We tried. We tried to do the touristy resort thing, but it just doesn’t suit us. This is not to say that we can’t be still, that we can’t enjoy being in one spot and doing nothing. We can, but it depends on the spot, and it depends on the ‘nothing’.
Reading on a bench overlooking an incredible lakeside sunset in Wanaka, New Zealand – yep, we can do that.
Sharing a hammock for two – yep, that’s us too.
Sitting by a generic resort pool, amongst row after row of sun loungers, and avoiding ‘kid soup’ (the resort pool), not so much.
When I returned from Hawaii, I met up with a friend’s mother who I see on occasion. She, too, had just been to Maui. “Oh, did you see the lava fields?” “No.” “Did you go out on a boat, go snorkling? Swimming?” “No.” “Did you see the volcano? Watch a sunset? Swim in the ocean?” “No, no, no.” She had not left the resort, but she claimed to LOVE Maui. Tourist. Definitely.
p.s. I am not just a snob about coffee.