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july 10 -> dumb things backpackers say part 2

5. "I hate globalization."

Travelers tend to be a very liberal lot, which is ironic considering their elitist tendencies. The first thing you discover is that most people can't explain what it is that they abhor. Is it that Chinese laborers are being paid very little to make cheap tennis shoes and air conditioners? OK. Then we will have to ask the Chinese government to accept 2-3% growth instead of the 7-8% the country has been racking up thanks to rapidly expanding exports. And we'll have to ask Mei Li to give back the refrigerator that she bought with her wages. Oh, and all you travelers will have to take off your shoes.

Is it that indigenous cultures are being crushed by the media-led dominance of the West? The travelers are a big part of it despite their best intentions. I often think of travelers as the vanguard of globalization. In their quest to avoid the touristy places, and find the real , they catalyze an unstoppable process that renders those untouched places touristy . One of the most important lessons of modern anthropology (and sub-atomic physics) is that you cannot observe without changing. But travelers think that they are somehow different, because of their high ideals and sensitivity to the local culture.

Of course, the travelers usually only speak English (or their native European language), which most people in the real place may be completely unfamiliar with. In order to generate custom off these intrepid travelers , a few locals will learn some English. Maybe the traveler carries a walkman or a digital camera - a device that none of the real place's inhabitants could afford, but they instantly want. When the travelers return from their pioneering adventure, they share a tip with a few backpackers in a hostel, who go there themselves and tell others. A few hostels open up. The real place gets in the Lonely Planet. Soon, busloads of dreadlocked travelers (and maybe even a few tourists ) are arriving, and spaghetti marinara and banana pancakes are available at the local restaurant. The place has become unreal, touristy . But the traveler feels no guilt, for now he gets a chance to say:

6. "I was there before it got commercialized."

More vanity (see what I mean?) Now, even if you thought you saw the real wherever, you are condemned to being a tourist because you visited after some watershed event: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of a civil war, the construction of the first McDonald's etc. We have met several travelers who prefaced every story with "I was there before..." These are the world's worst travel bores. They usually wait until someone has finished a lively story about a visit to Russia before trumping it with “I was there before the Soviet Union fell apart.” There stories can be interesting, but the implication that they visited a place before it got touristy is impossible to miss.

Every visitor sees a moment in history. Some moments are naturally, more momentous than others, but treating the periods before and after as banal is simply stupid. Not everyone in the world can wait for the next wall to fall so that they can be the first of a hardy group of travelers to visit there. These types of travelers remind me of war-time journalists. They live for the bullet that whizzes past their head, for the explosion whose concussion knocks them to the ground. In the travelers' case, the experience is hopefully less violent, but the idea is the same. “I was the first. It was still a bit dodgy when I was there.”

7. "You spent how much?"

The problem with many travelers is that they forget that they are traveling on a budget for a very simple reason - they don't have much money. Instead, they sublimate the fiscally-imposed austerity into a kind of principle: SPEND LESS MONEY AND YE SHALL EXPERIENCE THE LOCAL CULTURE. They see themselves as modern monks on pilgrimages. They criticize anyone who spends more than them on anything. They laugh when they hear how much you spent on a taxi, flight, or night in a hotel. They blanch at the thought of joining an expensive, organized tour. “We don't do the tourist stuff,” they say.

The irony is that travelers do not necessarily learn or experience any more than those people who spend a bit more. Why do rich people seem to have smart kids? One big reason is that they can afford to give them a good education. It can be like that with travel. On our luxury safari in South Africa , we learned a tremendous amount about the animals and the bush - much more than we would have learned on a budget safari. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and wanted to impart a love and understanding of the complex environment to their guests. In each of our rooms was a detailed field guide describing everything from carnivores to butterflies.

In my opinion, how much money you spend has very little to do with how much you get out of a journey. Many travelers decry wealthy tourists who spend their days holed up at the Hyatt, while they happily spend every evening drinking beer at the youth hostel. You don't need to be rich to read a history book. You don't have to be frugal to engage a local in conversation. Where you sleep at night need not influence what you see and do during the day. Get it?

8. "I always take public transport because I get a chance to see how the locals live."

There are some good reasons for taking public transport. Cramming into a matatu in Kenya is certainly a cultural experience. Risking your life on an Indian bus can be exciting. It can be pretty amusing to see what people do with their spare time during a long journey. The approach to public transport can also tell you a lot about a country. When we visited Kenya , the Minister of Transport had just enacted strict regulations on matatus that forbade stereo systems, required seatbelts, and limited the number of passengers to 14. Meanwhile, in Uganda and Tanzania , no prospective passenger was ever turned down. It is silly to pay US$60 for a taxi to a hotel in Zanzibar when you can take a breezy dala-dala ride for less than US$1. Taking long-distance bus rides also gives you a chance to see countryside that you wouldn't appreciate on a flight.

For most travelers , however, there is no choice of transportation. They take long-distance buses because they don't have the money to fly. No one really enjoys eighteen-hour bus journeys, regardless of what they tell you. One or two such journeys can be ok, but dozens of them can be physically crippling and spiritually draining. Public transportation in the countries that travelers visit is usually very crowded and uncomfortable. In many countries in Africa , the bus or van does not leave until is full (meaning horribly overcrowded.) The bus usually breaks down at least once. If you take enough long-distance buses, someone will puke on you. Of course, it goes without saying that most bus drivers are suicidal.

continue: dumb things backpackers say part 3