What’s the point of traveling?

Flame job-1We’re all tribal. We like to hang out with people like ourselves. [Duh…] When we travel outside our tribal territories – be they family, social, job or something else – do we gawk, point and tell stories? Or do we respect people who aren’t like us and learn from them?

A while back I wrote about some wonderful experiences with people who overturned my preconceived notions. My previous, somewhat limited experiences with Japanese reinforced the cliché of surgical-mask-wearing camera-toting groups dutifully following their tour guides. My more recent exposures introduced me to other, more nuanced sides of a culture that I admittedly don’t know much about. When both sides come out of their shells, wonderful things can happen. (http://www.jpmaney.com/tourist-become-traveler/ http://www.jpmaney.com/frustration-all-around/)

Are we all tourists in someone else’s land? Or are we travelers sharing the same lifetime?

Through the years I’ve lived in a fair number of “historic” neighborhoods. I’ve discovered that suburbanites are a tribe of tourists unto themselves. They point. They talk about you as if you weren’t standing there. They exclaim over the beautiful “cuteness” of our houses and our “quaint” streets before getting into their SUV’s and driving over the river and through the cut-down woods to starter mansions that seem appropriate to their lifestyle.

I’m sure the vast majority of these people are very nice, decent, generous souls. But somewhere in their upbringing they’ve lost the concept of respect. Respect for those who may not be like them. Who may not live like them. Who may not share all their values. I like the places I’ve lived. I think it’s curious that others treat my neighborhoods as if we’re a Disneyland that doesn’t charge admission. To me, they’re tourists – voyeurs who look without seeing, observing but not absorbing the lives of others through a lens they’ve lifted to their eyes for an afternoon.

I’ve felt the sterility of their gazes, the mechanics of the small talk some feel forced to make with us locals. That doesn’t bother me. I recognize the discomfort that comes with being a stranger and the confusion that comes when your museum exhibit or television show talks with you instead of at you.

But I’ve learned to beware of those without any curiosity, who mask their out-of-placeness, (their fear of contact or contamination?) with a silent arrogance. These are the ones who view us the way they’d view a wax museum, who use our homes, our lives and our culture the same way they’d use a new carpet. Respecting people – and not just convention – doesn’t happen until we transform our ability to observe into seeing; followed hopefully by a transformation into curiosity and then to interest.

Once we’re interested, maybe respect can follow. Just a little bit. Just a little bit.

4 Comments on “What’s the point of traveling?

  1. A message from Battambang, Cambodia…
    I travel for several reasons, but a few that come to mind, minutes before welcome cocktail hour…

    Travel is community. The world traveler (“WT” from the days of the hippie trail to India) community is a unique sub-species of Homo sapiens, engaged citizens of both the world and their own tribe.

    It reminds the traveler of his place in world culture. It reminds that his own culture is neither superior nor inferior, a lesson all should grasp.

    It is a spiritual response, almost a holy obligation, to a the brevity of his visit to this planet. How sad to be near departure and have regrets about missed opportunities earthside!

    Ooooops, cocktail hour….

    Mainly, perhaps, it’s just SO MUCH FUN. And tempus fugit!

    • Tempus may fugit, but fun people fugit, as well! Let me know whenever you cross that other pond to we can trade stories over a pint or three.

  2. A conversation between two real world travelers! No surface stuff from the tourist perspective.

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