Tourism vs Travel

Is it better to be a tourist or a traveler?

The difference between those words might appear to be small at first. But to me they represent a clear distinction.

A tourist is an outsider. They see the sights, try the food, do all the things that any guidebook would recommend. But it’s superficial–they never get below the surface. As the word implies, they are taking the tour.

A traveler is an insider. They go deeper and embed themselves in the culture of a place. Not just trying the local food, but behaving like a local.

This post stems from a conversation with a French woman who teaches English. She told me how her students spend eight years studying–some of them go to London for a year–but never learn the language because they don’t truly experience it. And I realized that’s exactly what I’m doing with Spanish.

A tourist looks in from a distance and only sees the what. A traveler gets up close because they want to understand the how and the why.

I want to be a traveler. I go out every day in search of deeper experiences.

More often than not, I end up being a tourist. My only human interaction is with the front line of the service industry–waiters, bartenders, bus drivers, tour guides. But I’m not getting to know the locals–no bonding over jokes or connecting over shared experience. I repeat the same Spanish phrases that I learned from books–ordering meals, buying tickets, telling people where I’m from (when I say, “I’m from San Antonio,” Argentineans get super excited and start babbling about Manu Ginobili). But I’m not learning the language–I can’t have a conversation of more than a sentence or two without switching to English.

When I do go out, I go with a group that speaks English. Which is fine for a tourist; it’s more comfortable than being alone. Thing is, I didn’t need to travel to another continent for that experience.

I can tell myself that I spent three months living in South America. But it isn’t true. I’m just passing through. To have the experience of living in a place, it’s not enough to eat at some restaurants or look at some art in a museum. I have to learn the details. The unique charms that keep people here. The intricacies of the language that can’t be learned ordering coffee.

I am looking to change my connection with travel. I used to be content with scratching the surface of a place. To be honest, I still am content. No matter how much I fight it, tourism is fun.

But I’ve got the nagging sense that there is more to get out of my time here. Friends have told me how envious they are of my trip; I know enough to appreciate that I’m even here. That doesn’t mean I have to be satisfied with being here. There is so much right in front of me, if I would only take the chance to reach for it.


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