In his book, Abroad, Paul Fussell noted a point in time when travel was considered a form of study, one whose fruits “were considered the adornment of the mind and the formation of judgment.” All that changed, according to Fussell, with the development of tourism, a gross practice that transformed the world from an endlessly expansive learning experience to nothing more than a prepackaged milquetoast buffet of comfortable aesthetic experiences.
Some would-be travellers aim to evade tourism by simply avoiding “tourist traps,” those intentionally laid out corners of every city flanked by monuments and notable sites, filled to the brim with overpriced restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, and carefully curated locals draped in traditional clothing styles that went out of vogue centuries ago.
Yet simply avoiding “the sites” doesn’t guarantee you fall on the right side of the traveller/tourist divide. There is no end of obnoxious American backpackers bulldozing their way through the world causing just as much offense and learning just as little as the family-friendly set who wonder why there isn’t a Disney World in Paris just yet.
In order to dramatically reduce your obnoxiousness as a backpacker, consider the following:
The obnoxious backpacker’s fetishization of the mythical “local” sprouted from the same soil as the tourist’s desire to see native Hawaiians dress in grass skirts and do a missionary-sanitized version of the hula. Both seek to collect supposedly authentic foreign experiences. Neither sees the individuals they meet as anything more than entertainment, as the source of some good Facebook pictures and a “worldly” social circle.
The way obnoxious backpackers attempt to connect with locals doesn’t help matters, with the most popularly sought out interactions including:
As someone who has complained about America, gone drinking and clubbing, and who has had sex with locals in foreign countries before, I’m certainly not condemning these activities outright. However I am arguing that seeking out a Frenchman to bang, initiating an anti-American tirade with a Scott, or actively searching for a Berliner to go to the Berghain with is a problem. All of these actions objectify the people you meet and reduce them to nothing more than your ill-informed opinion about their nationality.
Instead of trying to “connect with locals,” leave yourself open to sharing whatever experiences come your way with whomever you meet, regardless of whether it’s a girl from Taiwan you meet in Spain or a New Zealander you meet in Bangkok, or even, heaven forbid, another American.
One of the most valuable paradigm-shifts you will gain from travelling is a new perspective on your home and, by association, yourself. Obnoxious backpackers take this to mean they’ve left their home country to learn how everything is wrong with it and how everything is better everywhere else. Much like the tourist, obnoxious backpackers leave America to confirm their biases rather than challenge them.
Sitting at the heart of this approach lies the perspective that the obnoxious backpacker is somehow different than the rest of their countrymen. Every obnoxious backpacker who conforms to the “everything everywhere else is better” believes they are the exception, that they aren’t really American, that they are more at home within the foreign countries they consider so much better.
Ironically enough this exceptionalist attitude is about as American as you can get. There’s more to being an Argentine than enjoying dancing the tango, drinking Malbec and eating grass-fed beef, just as there’s more to being American than eating cheeseburgers, listening to country music or rap and drinking Budweiser. Your nationality lies deep within you and expresses itself through more than your sensual preferences.
Traveling requires an honest confrontation with who you are and where you come from, not a denial of your roots.
Obnoxious backpackers tend to approach the world as nothing more than a series of “must have” experiences. Even though their destinations are different, they still plan their itineraries according to the same rigid greatest-hits style of country conquering as the tourist. They experience their destinations as a rush of shallow impressions planned weeks before they set foot on a bus, train or plane.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking up a couple of destinations you’d like to see on your trip and there’s nothing wrong with researching a country’s specialties before you arrive. But if you spend your entire trip rushing from famous destination to famous destination you will lose touch with the daily life surrounding you.
Travel is about more than breaking up your year with a little wonder while you’re on the road. Travel is about transforming how you live your day-to-day life after you return home. You will never learn how daily life is refracted through the ground-level experiences of the rest of the world unless you slow down for a minute and spend some time doing “normal” activities somewhere new.
If you hate the fact you’re a workaholic obsessed with bragging rights you will never overcome your unhealthy worldview by making sure you get a picture of yourself posing in front of the 7 Wonders of the World.
By contrast, spending some time in Spain sinking into the relaxed workflow and developing a deep appreciation for long, social dinners may very well change your life and make you a welcome guest in the country rather than an annoying nuisance.
In 1973 Batson & Darley produced an oft-cited study that demonstrated the chief component behind compassion and empathy. It isn’t your personality. It isn’t your education level. It isn’t your moral or religious leanings. It’s your perceived level of busy-ness.
To sum up the Batson & Darley study- the busier you are, the less you give a damn about everyone around you.
I’d argue this lies at the heart of why so many backpackers are just so damn obnoxious. They are so concerned with sticking to their impossibly packed, self-aggrandizing schedules they don’t have the opportunity to notice anything around them. Their rush to take a picture of every relief in the Vatican or to sleep with someone in Paris gives them a sort of tunnel vision that blinds them to the needs of those around them, especially the need to be treated as a person and not as a background player filling out “THE BEST TRIP EVER.”
Which touches on a final point- when you’re as busy as the average obnoxious American backpacker you not only lose sight of the humanity of the surrounding population, you also lose track of all sense of appreciation. The gelato you eat in Rome can’t just be good, it needs to be the best. The church you visit in Seville can’t be simply beautiful, it needs to be majestic. If any item on your checklist disappoints it wastes the precious hours you’ve scheduled into scarcity, and you will make damn sure everyone within earshot understands the deep, deep wound this let-down caused you.