What’s the difference between a traveler and a tourist?
For me, the fundamental difference lies in the dichotomy between a traveler’s external focus and a tourist’s internal obsession.
Travelers want to connect, understand, and feel. They’re genuinely interested in a place and recognize that the place existed before they arrived and will exist after they leave. They know that people live in that place, and that those people matter. That they have full lives, jobs, loves, culture, and heritage. Travelers are also very much sensitive to the fact that these people, and the places in which they live, don’t exist solely for the pleasure of others.
In contrast, tourists only care about a place to the extent that it can serve their purposes. Does it remove me from “real life?” Is my social cachet back home increased by being there? Does it make me comfortable; pamper me? Most importantly, does it make me happy?
All this began stewing in my mind shortly after I met the man pictured above.
Silver Hill, Montserrat
I was on one of our trademark random ramblings, this time trekking across Silver Hill in the northern tip of the island of Montserrat. We had no destination in mind; no real reason to be tramping through the bush under a low, threatening gray sky. No reasonable explanation for dragging my wife and two young kids along with me on yet another aimless endeavor.
A few minutes into our meandering, we came across a twisted, disintegrating sign barely clinging to a rickety wire fence.
Please be patient. The animals try to go this way? Mark.
I stood there for a moment, thinking.
What could this sign be trying to communicate?
I looked to my left. I looked to my right. Seeing nothing that even remotely hinted at an explanation, I hopped the fence, ushered my kids beneath it, and pressed on.
About 100 yards later, we came to another fence. This time, it was propping up an old man.
The Old Man
He was almost indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. His beard looked as scraggly and prickly as the underbrush that clung to the windswept rocky slopes. The clothes draped about his person, the color of drought. His sinewy frame seemingly as strong as the gnarled volcanic rocks all around us.
We struck up a conversation about the area. It began tentatively, but before long, he began instructing me on the surrounding bays, the hilltops, the volcanic history, his livestock.
It was less conversation, more oral dissertation. Unfortunately, though, I made for a lousy pupil. Because of his raspy, low voice and the howling winds, I missed a few things here and there. Sharp as a tack, the old man would notice, shoot me a look equal parts exasperation and disappointment, then get back to the lesson.
To continue my education, I was required to enter his enclosure. While dodging piles of manure and suffering increasingly threatening advances by his cows, I followed along as be pointed to empty spaces and recounted the generations of his family who had lived on this hill. He recounted names, built homes around them with his words, and ridiculed some of their children for moving on.
As I stood there, listening as hard as I could, rain began to pelt us in the face horizontally—driven by the high winds. The old man continued, undaunted, picking his way along the slopes with the self-assured strides of a mountain goat.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an unnatural white shape on the sea.
I turned my head to focus on the shape.
It was an enormous cruise ship—motoring past with thousands of passengers, the majority of whom no doubt lacking even a passing interest in what they were passing by.
I squinted in the rain. I looked back at the old man. Then I looked at the cruise ship. Then I looked back at the old man.
My difference between traveler and tourist
Being a traveler is experiencing and hopefully contributing to life, I thought.
Being a tourist is an exercise in escaping life.