There is a well-worn debate (which if you are reading this section I suspect you have overheard on some occasion) between the relative merits of a tourist and a traveller.
The gist of the argument goes like this: Tourists are trying to get away from home while travellers feel at home no matter where they are. The tourist sees what he has come to see; the traveller sees what he sees. The tourist returns home with photos; the traveller – if he comes home at all – returns with memories. And as Evelyn Waugh, the prolific English travel writer, put it decades ago, “The tourist is always the other chap.”
It is a pointless, elitist discussion. The style with which one travels should be irrelevant to others. Stay in a five-star hotel, or a flea-ridden flop house. Travel is neither an ideology nor a status symbol. As long as one treats the people they encounter and lands they visit with respect, I can see no reason to judge someone on a comfortable Caribbean cruise against another who crawled across Antarctica on their knees.
Besides, the more pertinent differentiation is fast becoming between those that stayed home and who get away at all.
Recent statistics are disturbing. Despite Canada being one of the stingiest vacation providers in the developed world, millions upon millions of vacation days go unclaimed every year. Those who do break away often feel the need to simply lie beside a pool and recover. Yet even then, escape remains elusive. Working (certainly checking e-mail) is a common expectation for those on the road, and from Thailand to Saskatchewan, nearly every guesthouse and hotel room is wired. You can check voice mail upon a dive boat in the Seychelles or in the back of a jeep on an African safari.
Many people also have no time or energy to consider a proper getaway and dismiss dreams of extended journeys: say six months of crisscrossing New Zealand in a camper van, or a three month EuroRail pass.
We have unconsciously but collectively devalued vacation as something that appears strikingly unproductive. Or put another way, the consuming focus of getting rich is robbing us of the opportunity to live richly.
I have long believed travel to be a basic and elemental force for good, placing it alongside such hallowed things as family and honesty. The road is humbling. It forces us to pare life down to the essentials. It reminds us the world is impossibly vast and complicated. Travel engenders something in tragically short supply: sympathy for those with different backgrounds, histories and beliefs from our own.
On a pragmatic level, study after study has shown that new experiences are far more likely to produce long-term happiness than new things, yet for some reason we continue to pile our garages and attics with clutter, and then stay home to watch it.
New Years is often a time we consider travels and journeys for the coming year. Rather than compiling a list of the next “great hotspots,” I offer instead this list of simple concepts that can be applied to any journey. Whatever your travel resolutions for 2011, may they come true.
On any journey, the most precious commodity is time. Whatever you were planning, find a way to go for just a bit longer. You will invariably return home to find nothing has changed and everything that seemed pressing was able to wait.
Far too many travellers leave home hobbled by a brimming backpack, with a daypack strung across their chest. Free yourself from this anchor. The clothes you wear on the plane, and a few simple changes, should do. Buy whatever else you need on the road. Sure you'll want a few indulgences – an iPod, a deck of cards, binoculars perhaps – but bring one, not all. Author Pico Iyer aptly describes travel as “monasticism on the move.”
The most enduring memories are usually interactions with others met along the way. Open yourself to this possibility whenever possible. Smile often. Poke your head around corners. Linger to watch and talk. Learn to say hello in the local language. And at least once in your life, consider travelling alone, which is the best way to meet other people.
Travel doesn't have to be expensive. Consider a house exchange or try couch surfing (see couchsurfing.org). Don't be afraid to go in low season. You may find chillier weather, but you'll also find better deals. Generally, the more expensive your accommodations and meals, the greater the veil between yourself and the local culture.
BE CAREFUL, NOT PARANOID
Don't let constant worries over health, food and safety leave you paralyzed. The world is not inherently dangerous or unsafe. (In fact, the opposite is generally true.) Use your head and trust your instincts.
Avoid the temptation to cram your vacation schedule and careen though the days at a breakneck pace. Slow down. Trust in serendipity over efficiency. Follow your nose. Explore a bit.
GO SOMEWHERE NEW
It is easy (and comforting) to visit old haunts, but consider taking the leap and tackling a destination that has lingered on your dream list. Learning about a country before arrival will always deepen your appreciation, as will memorizing a few words and phrases in the local language.
Take a bus ride to a village not in the guidebook. Order food more adventurously. Stop and talk to strangers. Press up against the edges of your comfort zone.
REMEMBER TO SEND A POSTCARD
The friend or loved one that receives a hand-written note from a foreign country will surely appreciate it. I bet you've never seen a tweet or status update taped to a fridge door.
Special to The Globe and Mail