Forget “Tourist Vs. Traveler” and Go Live Abroad

Are you a tourist or a traveler? 

The discussion of the ‘tourist vs traveler’ is quite well-known nowadays and is basically about the different way in which people travel to other countries. Tourists are those who visit the places their Lonely Planet guides tell them are good while travelers, on the other hand, take the time to do the things locals do, emerge with the country. ¨A traveler sees what he sees, a tourist sees what he has come to see¨ as Gilbert K. Chesterton put it.

I always liked to think of myself as a traveler. Trying local foods, going off the beaten path, learning about the culture. But the more and more I read about this discussion, the more I realize that it has two mayor flaws.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with touristy. Most ‘tourist’ places are famous because they represent an important historical moment or even because they are simply really beautiful. Being in a resort is also nothing to be ashamed of, as it is probably your vacation and your main goal is probably to relax and get away from the intensity of life at home, something which simply impossible if you are a good ‘traveler’.

If you give yourself completely to a new country and culture you will get back more tired than when you left, which is nice but it’s not something you should always want and I don’t think there is anything wrong with being on vacation, as long as you realize that that is what it is opposed to saying things like “Oh I love Mexico, the beaches are amazing”. I mean, yes, the beaches ARE amazing, but the fact that they won the geographical lottery should not be the main reason why you should love a country.

Second of all, even as a traveler you will not ‘get to know’ the culture. As much as I wish that were true, the contact you have with a country will always be very superficial. In fact, the only way to actually get to know a country is to live there, and not even that is a guarantee for integration and cultural learning. The thing is; culture is complicated. Very very complicated and complex and it is not something you just pick up on your amazing travels.

Don’t get me wrong, traveling is amazing and you can certainly learn a thing or two about culture, but knowing a country is much more than that. I often meet people who have backpacked in Panama and the more I talk to them the more I realize they know absolutely nothing about the country. I lived in a town called La Chorrera, right next to Panama City and so large that it has now formed it’s own province.

A tourist or traveler will most likely never end up there unless incredibly lost ’cause even though there are many people living there, there is not that much to do. However, it is such a big city that anyone who has spent some time in Panama or even looked at a map should at least have heard of it. Yet most people who have backpacked in Panama, even if it was for a couple of months, have never heard of the place. They don’t know what Panamanian people think like or any of the popular culture of the country because they are too busy looking for the ‘authentic’ music and places to stay, which in reality only exist for the sole purpose of tourism (the colonial neighbourhood Casco Viejo is a classic example of this).

But again, there is nothing wrong with being a tourist or a traveler as long as you realize that unless you live in the country and spend time with people (and I don’t mean talking to the sympathetic young man who guided you through the jungle)  you are never going to actually know it’s culture. Knowing a culture doesn’t mean some trivia about where a certain tradition came from. Knowing a culture means understanding it. It means knowing the good and the bad. Culture is like an iceberg and those who only travel will only see the tip of the iceberg while there is so much more invisible and unspoken cultural background.

I spent an intense year living in a family, surrounded by the culture, and still I only know a fragment of what Panama really is. Because a country and it’s people might be the hardest thing to define in this entire world. But trying and getting to know the culture with all the struggles that brings has been more than worth it and that’s why I would recommend everybody: forget ‘tourist vs. traveler’, go LIVE abroad!


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