Is vacation the enemy of travel? Not so, reveals the author in a provocative exploration of the tourist/traveler debate.

Wisdom from experience / Photo: tiago.ribeiro

“Up top,” the old man said. He demonstrated, opening wide to reveal his tongue touching the roof of his mouth. “Easy, see?”

Sure. Already the tiny hut was hot. We sat in a half circle around the rusted oil drum, five Americans and the old Aleutian. Inside the drum a fire torched, causing sweat to run down our naked torsos. A rough ceiling hung inches overhead. Heat and sweat.

A small room. The old man wanted to know if we were ready. Sure.

Gently he dipped the aged soup can into the bin of boiling water. We watched him stretch the crudely fashioned dipper over the heat. He smiled, then began to methodically pour the water onto the small rocks covering the drum. The rocks hissed and belched narrow towers of steam.

For three seconds nothing more happened. Then a blanket of heat struck, reflecting from the outer walls. The painful burn flayed my back and I felt real fear. A blur of human flesh bowled through the tiny door before me, pursued by Hell’s climate.

Then a layer of steam clouded the tiny room, diminishing visibility. Remembering the old man’s words I pressed my tongue upward.

A Traveler’s Tale

When I think on travel it’s the truest moment that comes to mind, like the old man sharing his life in the midst of Alaska.

The river wild / Photo: code poet

That my own story should strike me as a traveler’s tale seems odd. For so long I’ve idealized the true traveler. He’s always shown superior understanding, enlightenment, and fulfillment. A man of the road, heightened by awareness.

I am not that man. Yet, I’ve traveled and seen places, acted occasionally as a tourist, but attempted to learn. Did I somewhere unknowingly become the true traveler? Or am I a tourist fascinated by travel? I can only answer by returning to the beginning.

First, there was the desire to travel. Then there was the plan. We’d carry backpacks, stay in hostels and explore without a plan, all in an effort to capture the spirit of travel.

But even as we moved I felt us failing my romanticized notions. Yes, Christina and I ran to trains lugging our packs and lost our way in the streets of Venice.

We thwarted the Lonely Planet recommendations in order to find the world’s best kept dining secrets. In Rome we crossed verbal swords with an unscrupulous guide and took victory. We overcame logistical obstacles and breathed the experiences, history, and culture home couldn’t offer.

We were, in short, on vacation. And isn’t vacation the enemy of travel?

A Wealthy Warlord

That realization introduced guilt to an otherwise rewarding experience. By scanning online posts, watching documentaries, and reading insightful articles I began to educate myself on the parasitic tourist.

I was entirely disconnected from the art of travel.

Words and pages filed by the Zen nomads reprimanded me for my apparent disregard for human suffering. I became, through their words, a “wealthy warlord lobbing missiles into the hearts of the environment and foreign cultures.” I was entirely disconnected from the art of travel.

So I decided to change. I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—eliminate travel. But I could determine to travel responsibly, with an eye for local immersion. Travel and understanding, I reasoned, could coexist.

Feeling my “rich, white man’s burden” lightening, I chose Alaska as a destination. Not Anchorage, Denali, or cruise ship Alaska, but working Alaska. Westbound for a job in a salmon cannery.

Go North

In western Alaska I spent a month mucking about with dead fish. I lived in housing constructed of plywood and corrugated siding, beside the gray Naknek River. Bald eagles flew over daily. A grizzly heaved himself into the mess hall dumpster occasionally.

Alaskan ship awaits cargo / Photo: author

I toiled through long hours and lost too much sleep. My coworkers were Ukrainians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Japanese and Turks. Many were Aleutian natives who annually hopped from cannery to cannery, following the fish. Together we worked and ate and walked into town.

The old man taught us about the native sweat hut. His tongue trick allowed us to grit through the inferno until we began to sweat like Aleutian men.

In the heat the old man shared a sliver of culture, a moment of camaraderie, a touch of humanity in a wild land. Something museums and tours couldn’t offer.

Since Europe and Alaska I’ve struggled with the traveler versus tourist debate. The words from both parties are too irate for sensible, worldly citizens who claim awareness. Neither group, it seems, can accept that I view my experiences as equally rewarding. So I’ve been forced to manufacture my own ideas.

To Plunge Right In

The difference between a tourist and a “true” traveler is not that their directions are so misaligned. It’s that their stopping off points differ.

Where a vacationer goes to view another place and culture a traveler goes to plunge right in. Europe for me was informative, pleasurable, and wildly exciting. It was a world where each day was a joy. Do I now know how the Italians, Swiss or English live? Not really, I tell the pundits, but I know how they welcome foreigners.

The salmon cannery showed me a side of Alaska beyond the glaciers and grizzlies. I learned what life is like for thousands of natives, but never did I misinterpret that knowledge as total understanding.

At times it was fun, mostly it was work and waiting. I wasn’t on vacation. Instead I was living ordinary life in an extraordinary place. The good was tempered by the bad.

Now when I travel I prefer to journey on a budget. Often I sleep in tents, cook meals on a camp stove, and take strangers up on offers of dinner, a backyard, or coffee.I ride a bike because it’s cheaper and more enjoyable than a car. I do these things because it’s the only way I can afford to travel.

If I won the lottery tomorrow, would I give it up for first class and fancy restaurants? Never, but I’d probably spring for a vacation once a year. I now have a tough time believing that my enjoyable week harms underdeveloped nations.

Miserable people don’t change the world.

What are your thougths on the myth of the true traveler? Share your thoughts in the comments!