M-16’s, minefields and bar fights, oh my!

We’re all tourists and travelers of one sort or another – through life. On this planet. We share our journeys with many people. My life has taken me to wonderful places where I’ve spent wonderful times with wonderful people. To me, experience is more important than all the views and all the stuff that winds up cluttering our homes. To borrow the name of a show I was in years ago, You Can’t Take It With You.

If we’re all tourists, how are we different? There are many people who are happy and satisfied exploring their own lives and immediate environments. Then there are the clichéd tourists who exaggerate national stereotypes [insert your favorite story here]. These are the voyeurs who look without seeing, observing but not absorbing the lives of others through a lens they’ve paid to look through. Whether they’re pointing and loudly talking about the locals as if they weren’t there in another country or in a city neighborhood in their own land, they treat neighborhoods, houses and residents like museums and shops that are there for their amusement, much like a holographic television show.

Then there are those of us who like to get off the bus to walk, talk and become part of another community, as much as we can and as much as they’ll allow.

I’ve been fortunate in that my professional life has been built on traveling to places, learning about them and working and socializing with the people who live there. I was even more fortunate when I lost a couple of corporate jobs and used the time to travel even more. When you’re not staying in an American chain hotel with a lot of other Americans, you tend to meet the locals and listen to their view on the best local places to see and things to do. And you’ll also hear news and views that you probably won’t get online or in the American media.

I think I’ve found the difference between touring and traveling. Without denigrating those who make different choices – or bragging about my own – here’s my take on the differences:

There are times when we’re just too tired to think. Too exhausted to do much. That’s when the service and external structure of a cruise line or tour bus is great. There’s nothing wrong with a guided tour – you’ll learn history & other things you’ll probably never pick up from the locals. And if you’re not particularly confident about your communication skills, particularly in a region that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, I can understand a tour here, as well. There’s a time and place for all these.

Every now and then I find myself in a group – particularly in Africa, where it’s really the best way to see all the critters. A few years ago I was in Mozambique, riding with a number of others in the back of the old 2-1/2 ton truck that served as our bus. As we were coming up to a pit stop, the driver/guide warned us not to cross the road to where all the little flags were. They marked a minefield that the UN hadn’t finished clearing yet. Apparently not wanting to use the trees on our side of the road, one of our German compatriots crossed over – the road – not to another plane of existence. We started calling and waving to him. He smiled and waved back at us before entering the tree line. The good news, he made it back without killing himself or us. The bad news, none of us could make it clear to him, in any language, what he’d done. He was miffed that our driver paid VERY close attention to him for the next couple of days of touring. It’s one thing to look at big critters, it’s another thing to become critter food.

In general, I avoid organized groups with their sign-waving leaders. It’s just not who I am. Maybe these examples will give you an idea of my preferred mode of travel.

Baggage – if you can’t carry it by yourself, do you really need it? With all of today’s security and barcode tracking, I’m really not worried about my bag going to Cleveland. But I despise waiting forever for the carousel to come around. You can go upstairs to your room early because you need to have your all your bags in the lobby early in the morning for the early bus to wherever. Or you can be talking with new acquaintances in a local pub when the barman announces last call. Then we all buy more rounds, he locks the door and we drink and talk until we’re done. The only people allowed to enter are the local police stopping in for a pint or two after they’ve finished their shift.

You can sit in your hotel bar with others in your group and have a nice chat about your itinerary or the folks back home. Or you can socialize and talk with the locals and find yourself with hands up against a wall and the business end of an M-16 at your back. My American accent and passport made things worse, not better, for me. Eventually we all lived happily ever after and I was escorted back to my room, not to a jail cell.

You can ride your air-conditioned bus to your next destination, with your guide handling all the details. Or you can start hitchhiking to your distant friend’s house because you missed the regional bus to their town. And get a ride from their next door neighbor when you’re still two hours away. In another city, I showed up 45 minutes late for a theatre performance because I hadn’t accounted for a time change. The house manager comped me for the next night’s performance.

You’ve probably been asked to hold somebody’s coat, tote or something while they boarded your bus. Have you ever been asked to hold a goat while its owner is handing a crate of chickens to the top of the bus? They asked the person next to me to hold their baby, which promptly spit up all over them. My goat didn’t.

Did you ever leave a cruise ship floor show early because you didn’t really care for it? I left a Namibian bar fight for the same reason.

If I want a peaceful time away from it all, I’ll find a retreat center. Or maybe I’ll watch TV. We all travel for the experience, memories and souvenirs. We just have different tastes.

There’s no such thing as a bad experience. Only the beginning of a beautiful story.

Jim Flynn, Raleigh, NC [1981]

7 Comments on “M-16’s, minefields and bar fights, oh my!

  1. Great article Jim! I’ve been a tourist and not a traveler way too much. But like you said there is a time and place for both. And I have done both.

    Now we need to know more about this scene…

    “Or you can socialize and talk with the locals and find yourself with hands up against a wall and the business end of an M-16 at your back. My American accent and passport made things worse, not better, for me.”

    Please now, hold my goat while I…

    • Mike, I’ll tell you the “rest of the story” over a few beers in a few weeks. The short version is that the authorities were interested in potential revolutionaries.

  2. The great reward we get from traveling is celebrating our similarities as well as differences. We meet people from other parts of the globe as well as those who may have come of age in our own neighborhood, all experiencing their own search for something inside as well as outside themselves. And some who just want a little R&R.

  3. Can it be true that there’s a kindred travel spirit living in Raleigh? The article sparks memories of my travels (not tours!!!) in the far afield. It would be great to trade tales if you’re interested.

    • Andy, I sold my Raleigh house about a year and a half ago and have been on the road pretty much continuously since then. I was traveling before I sold it and realized it was a waste of time and money to maintain something I rarely used. Let’s stay in touch and grab a drink next time I pass through town.

      • Great idea to sell out Raleigh tethers, one of my aspirations. Continuous travel?… In Peru (1980) I met a Frenchman who had been traveling 7 yrs continuously; very next day I met an Austrian who had been on the road 17 yrs. Amazing!

        • Damn, I was in Peru in 1980. I guess we missed each other then, too. Catch ya one of these days!