Travel Is Not a Competition

When I went to Sri Lanka with a college friend, we met a fisherman at the beach on the very first day. He had just caught a small squid and insisted on showing us around. He told us a bit about the beach, about how he was still trying to repair his boat from a tsunami that happened years ago, and we even ended up eating the squid at his house, that his mother prepared with some curry.

I felt a bit uneasy during the whole interaction, but my friend was a much more well-versed traveler than me, and he was always up for adventures like this. Unfortunately, at some point, we realized the inevitable: The fisherman would not leave us alone until we paid him some money. He followed us all the way to the hostel, and I would have been happy to give him, say, the equivalent of 20 euros – a lot of money in rupees at the time – for his kind if slightly misguided attempts.

My friend, however, took adventuring rather seriously: He did not want to pay the guy a dime. I don’t remember exact numbers, but let’s say it was near-impossible to convince him to even give the guy five euros. Ultimately, I ended up giving him a lot more than what my friend was willing to give him, and I paid it out of my own pocket.

If you ask me, it was the stupidest debate to even have. Here we were, tourists with a thousand times the economic means this guy would ever have, too cheap to give him what meant months of survival for him yet little more than two cinema tickets for us. Sadly, it was a debate my friend and I would keep having throughout our trip.

Maybe my friend was just a bit cheap, but I think he also succumbed to a pattern I still see in many people I know today: Everyone wants to be a traveler, but no one wants to be a tourist.

People love to think they’re getting a bargain, that they’re the ones seeing all the places “the masses” don’t see, eating all the food no one else but a local would find. In reality, we’re all tourists most of the time, getting nothing more than what locals have worked out makes sense to present to us – and, actually, that is perfectly fine.

You wouldn’t expect some random person from a foreign country to come into your office on Monday and tell you how to do your job, but when it comes to travel, we all like to think we’re experts before our plane has even landed – and the locals better treat us that way. How dare you show me the Taj Mahal? I want to see the little side street with that one special samosa shop 23 minutes away!

Travel isn’t a competition. How much fun you have is not determined by how local you can pretend to be. In fact, if you’re getting your sense of satisfaction from travel mainly from feeling smug about which activities you’re choosing vs what most tourist guides are suggesting, you’re missing the point entirely.

It is perfectly fine to be a noob in some areas, and guess what, a country you’ve never been to definitely qualifies. It’s a wonderful opportunity to let go of our anxious desire to look smart all the time, yet we often only use it to play more of the same games we play at home.

When you’re a tourist, be a tourist. Do whatever the hell you want to do, and if that’s going to Disney Land for the 17th time and paying eight bucks for an ice cream, so be it. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford “spending big” in terms of another country’s currency, consider that the more you spend, the more you’ll support that country. You don’t need to throw money out the window, but you don’t need to haggle about every croissant and keychain either.

There’s that saying about teaching a man how to fish instead of giving him one, but if you’re just visiting, the gift of a week’s worth of food is often more than enough.