Photo: Natalia Deriabina/Shutterstock

Analyzing the Traveler's Mind Through 3 Persistent Myths

by Sarah Menkedick Feb 21, 2009
Who, a travel anthropologist might ask, are these people calling themselves travelers, and what do they think? What are their beliefs, customs, rituals, myths?

Stepping into an anthropological frame of mind, I’d like to take a crack at debunking a few of the myths that seem to cling to traveler consciousness, in the hope of getting beyond the same tired givens and conversations.

Before travelers become too easy to pin down, maybe we can create new variations on the myths that often form the center of the traveler worldview.

Myth #1: Cheaper is Better: Sleeping On a Filthy Mattress in a Hotel that Smells Like Urine Makes You A Better Traveler

To a certain extent, this is true. The further towards comfort, familiarity, and privacy one moves, the closer to a globalized and sanitized version of culture one gets:

  • Take a private taxi in China vs. a local minibus and save yourself the experience of peeing on the side of the road in the rain with 15 other people.
  • Eat at a McDo in Mexico City and spare yourself the havoc the chilaquiles might wreck on your stomach, and the hectic experience of securing a table, flagging down the waitress, and briefly being the confused gringo at the center of attention.
  • Stay at the luxury hotel in Malaysia and save yourself the buckets of sweat under a lethargic ceiling fan and the view of massive red underwear hanging on the balcony.

But then again, the McDo might turn out to be the chosen make out joint for Chinese teenagers. The luxury hotel might serve the most amazing Malay lahksa you’ve ever tasted, and give you the energy to go on a five-day trekking expedition through the jungle.

The private taxi might let you relax enough to notice the hills of pines wrapped in fog, the factories and the barefoot children outside of them, the soot that coats the walls of every town you pass.

Perhaps cost shouldn’t be the defining factor here-perhaps it should be contact and awareness.

Does a traveler having beers with other travelers every night on a hostel roof necessarily learn more than a tourist having a conversation with a Malay businessman over a plate of satay?

Does splashing out from time to time mean one is betraying some sort of inherent travel pact to suffer in the name of understanding? I don’t think I could travel standing on a Chinese train for 20 hours, but I don’t think that means it’s impossible to comprehend the fact that the majority of migrant workers do just that.

The key, I believe, is balance – not self-righteous, self-flagellation, or dependence on luxury and comfort that one grows immune to daily life in a place.

Myth #2: More is Less: Places Are Ruined by Tourism

I remember reading an article by a very well-known travel writer, who bemoaned the arrival of “the tourists” in Laos and reminisced about the “penniless” woman serving him, the sole traveler, a cup of juice in the street so many years ago.

He went on to rant, in typical fashion, about how places had been colonized by tourists on the banana pancake circuit.

Now, I’m not going to slip so far into relativism as to say that eating banana pancakes with a mishmash of Americans and Australians is just as “authentic” and eye-opening a travel experience as, say, sipping noodle soup in a dimly lit local joint with a Lao family.

When tourism begins to colonize a place to the point where local culture is nearly replaced by travel culture (hostels, internet cafes, banana pancakes), I find that troubling.

And yet, isn’t there a paradox for travelers here? In the idea that, while travel is a magically transformative experience that should be undertaken by (almost) everyone, and undertaken cheaply and independently and “off-the-beaten-track”, only they, the select few, truly have the right to experience and understand the off-the-beaten-track places?

There is an egotistical assumption here, that an elite group is privileged in its appreciation and understanding of travel and therefore should be uniquely allowed to experience it and decide its reach and limits.

They avoid being tourists; they avoid polluting an area with their culturally different presence and their gaze and needs as outsiders, because…because they suffered more on longer bus rides to get to more distant villages? Because they, and only they, appreciate the real, the authentic, the down and dirty of travel? Because they’ve never held 9-5 jobs?

A host of factors seem to select someone to be part of this group who bemoans the arrival of the other, the tourist.

And once a traveler of this way of thinking identifies with a place and starts the ranting about the arrival of tourism, a particular imperialist tone creeps into the discourse: the traveler somehow takes ownership of the place, waxing poetic about the need to protect it, to keep it poor, isolated, exotic.

A Fruitless Debate

This tendency of travelers to berate tourism as some sort of tragic, corrupting presence, is blatantly ironic and, in my opinion, fairly useless.

It encourages an irresponsible and selfish way of thinking that says, “Get there now, before they spoil it!” It is the rhetoric of a club of wealthy explorers who are in a race to be more exclusive, more exotic, the first; to control, intellectually if not physically, an area by determining what it should and should not be and who should or should not be allowed in.

Instead of focusing uniquely on the traveler vs. tourist dichotomy-a well-worn debate dealt with eloquently in this article– why not emphasize the way places can retain the culture that makes them unique and attractive to travelers in the first place? And the ways in which locals can have the maximum say possible in how tourism affects their communities?

This expands the dialogue from vain bitching among travelers to constructive conversation between the people who are actually being visited-the “hosts,” as anthropologists call them, and the visitors, or “guests.”

Myth #3: The More, the Better: The Longer, Farther, and Harder You Travel, the More You Learn

A travel conscript, as Claire Moss called it in her excellent article on the subject, is that hostel-goer with a weary look, who spends hours wistfully writing e-mails back home, who keeps going, boarding another tour bus, eating another plateful of something strange and spicy, sleeping in another strange bed, and counting the days, accumulating…what?

Notches on a stick? Anecdotes? Factoid after factoid? Bits and pieces of language, a “thank you” in Indonesian here, a “cheers” in Hungarian there?

There is a fine line between the thrill of creating new routines in new places – the walk with a cup of coffee through the strange half-familiar streets each morning, the hello to the same juice vendor, the mini-life in a foreign land-and the monotony of going through the routine of traveling, backpack, bus, bed, backpack, bus, bed, beer, backpack, bus, bed.

One can easily give way to the other.

I have felt that weariness several times and known, okay, enough. After awhile, traveling can become a 9-5 affair, just like sticking in the old punch card at the office.

It becomes a routine that blinds just like any other, carried out with a vague sense of boredom and repetition and obligation. The days pass more as sun-filled, distant films than as actual, fully realized experiences. There will always be another exotic destination, another bed in another dorm, another beer in another bar, another cultural event, tour, park, museum.

And when they turn into one spectacle, one forced journal entry after another, they are just as rote as tedious lessons recited in a lecture in which you’re half-asleep and hung over.

Sometimes, stopping in one place for awhile, or turning one’s travel eyes upon home, can be more rewarding than going through the motions for months, years on end.

As sites like Matador and the vastly growing array of travel literature can testify, the travel movement which has grown up in the past several decades has its own priorities, belief systems, and myths, just like the more static communities that have been the traditional focus of anthropologists.

Can we dissect ourselves anthropologically from the inside out? And, when we need to, remake our own myths?


Got strong opinions on the “Banana Pancake” trail? Join this discussion in the Matador forums: Is the “Lonely Planet Trail” really so bad? For more on Myth #3, check out Hal Amen’s article, Sounding Retreat: Why Seasoned Travelers Aren’t Afraid to Call it Quits. And for one Matador member’s perspective on the traveler/tourist debate, read Jay Martin’s blog post, The Travel Spectrum.

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