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july 10 -> dumb things backpackers say part 1

In the past year, Nori and I have had the displeasure to meet many silly backpackers. Below, we list the ten most annoying things that they say:

1. "I'm a ' traveler ,' not a ' tourist .'"

This is a classic; the granddaddy of them all. It is also delightfully ironic because it sums up a philosophy that I call ‘ backpacker elitism .' The implication is that travelers (elitist backpackers) spend a few months in a country, are frugal, really experience the local culture, wear local clothing, eat local food, and visit the 'real' wherever. Tourists on the other hand, spend only 1-2 weeks in the country (if that), throw money around, remain walled-off from the local culture in big hotels, wear khakis and collared shirts, eat at McDonald's, and visit only 'touristy' places. Tourists are both unwilling to and incapable of learning anything of value about a place. Travelers leave a place with a deep understanding of the country and its people.

At least that is what the travelers would like us tourists to think. The real motivation of this traveler/tourist pedantry is vanity. Yes, vanity. Travelers are incredibly vain. They like to think that the way they travel is the best way; that the places they saw were the best places; that the things they learned were the most profound. If some tourist can fly in from London and have the same experiences, it sort of cheapens those six months traveling , doesn't it? Many of the following “dumb things backpackers say” are tenets of backpacker elitism. I also include my retorts and some anecdotes.

2. “You only spent a month in India ?”

So now even a month isn't long enough to be considered a traveler ? One quickly discovers that the length of time that a traveler thinks is necessary to truly understand a country or region is directly related to the amount of time that the traveler spent there. That's vanity. I have never met anyone who told me “We spent five months in Uzbekistan; it was about three months too much.” The amount of preparation that a tourist may have done prior to the journey isn't factored in to the equation. What if the tourist is a PhD in Far Eastern Studies, who speaks the local language, and is on a two-week survey of Buddhist temples?

I remember meeting a young Israeli traveler in Christchurch , New Zealand . He believed that you needed to spend at least three months in any country (as he was) to get the full measure of it. Then he went on to say how wonderful he thought New Zealand was because, unlike the United States and Australia , there were no issues between the indigenous and colonial populations. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Did you speak to any New Zealanders during the three months that you were here?" I asked. Race relations between the Maoris and ' pakehas ' (settlers) are certainly not perfect. His comment seemed like something that would be said by a tourist to me.

3. "That place is too touristy .”

The implication is that no traveler would go there. Once again, the traveler is in charge of defining what is and is not too touristy . Even if the traveler has visited a touristy place, he can pretend that he was disgusted with the rampant commercialism and tawdriness and immediately walked away. Another trick that travelers like to pull is referring to a certain destination as real (even though it has thousands of tourists ) if the traveler believes that the person they are talking to has not been and will never visit said destination. Some places, I must admit, are true ‘ tourist traps .' They are places of no cultural or historical value that have been dreamed up only to fleece visitors of money. But the presence of tourists usually implies a site of cultural or historical value!

The Pyramids of Egypt must be crawling with tourists , but I still want to visit them. I might even ride a camel there. We tourists aren't as stupid as we look: we like to visit beautiful places, museums, sights of historical interest. Here is an interesting thought for snotty travelers : perhaps there are so many tourists at a place because it is historically significant or very beautiful. Those tourists being led sheep-like through the Louvre are probably learning more about the art than the intrepid traveler did by occasionally glancing at his Lonely Planet guide. Sorry that we can't cordon off the Eiffel Tower for your own personal visit; you'll have to share it with thousands of tourists who may have dreamed their whole lives about a trip to Paris.

4. "You didn't see the ' real ' Africa ."

The implication is that the traveler saw the real wherever - but you didn't. I can understand the desire to find the authentic, untouched, and uncommercialised corners of the world. The problem is that what is real and authentic is a matter of definition. (As we have seen with the traveler/tourist thing, backpackers love this kind of pedantry.)

Is London not the real England because it is full of tourists and souvenir shops? Is St. Petersburg not the real Russia because it was built as a ‘window on the West?'

As I see it, real places are defined by the travelers in odd and sometimes quite derisive ways. A few examples below:

(i) “Yeah, but Egypt (or South Africa , or Morocco ) isn't the real Africa .”

Real here essentially means black, backwards and poor. Most white South Africans would be amazed to learn that they are not real Africans, despite being born and raised on the continent. Most black South Africans (despite being the right color) would be upset that having a bit of money meant that they couldn't be African either. Egyptians might feel a closer kinship with the countries of the Middle-East than they do with those of sub-Saharan Africa , but does that make them any less African?

(ii) “ Bangkok is not the real Thailand .”

Real here means either rural, or it refers to a specific period in Thai history and culture that the traveler has deemed noble and pure. Bangkok cannot be real because the Thais there ride on elevated trains, drink Coke and play multi-user games on the Internet. This definition of real usually implies a place where there are no other (or very few) travelers and absolutely no tourists . So the traveler heads off to the poorest corners of the country, where he or she hopes to find a few people still wearing the ‘traditional' clothing and behaving in the traditional ways.

Of course, Bangkok 's citizens represent a large percentage of Thailand 's population, so why shouldn't their reality count as much as the reality of the rural poor? If you try very hard, you can still find Australian aboriginals living (to some extent) like they did before the arrival of the First Fleet. But that is not the life that most aboriginals now lead. As I see it, the most real experience of aboriginal life in Australia would be a walk through Redfern, one of Sydney 's western suburbs - a crime-ridden area of high unemployment, inhabited by many aboriginals. I suspect that almost no travelers have ever been there.

continue: dumb things backpackers say part 2