“You only have 3 weeks in Colombia?! Shit, kinda pointless coming here.” I listened as the skinny French guy tried to light his cigarette off the gas cooker. Instant karma got him as he burned his fingers, but he wasn’t done yet. He flopped down on a chair, and looked wistfully out to sea as he continued “I mean, I could spend 3 weeks just here, you know? You need to slow down, everyone travels so fast, but not me. I wanna connect with the place I’m in, connect to the locals”.
Up on the hostel roof, the girl he was initially talking to was barely listening, but that didn’t put him off. His comments were for everyone here, all of us fellow backpackers who he desperately wanted to impress.
It’s an all too common situation that manifests itself in many different ways – from the loud bragging tourist who shows off all his passport stamps and forces his expert opinions on his hostel dorm mates, to the homeless looking guy who refuses to wear shoes and hasn’t visited a single interesting landmark during his trip because there are “too many tourists”.
Perhaps it’s in part due to the modern day obsession with social media. The affirmation that comes with the likes, knowing that other people enjoy what we are doing and the momentary feeling of actually being interesting. Social media is fuelling this competition between travellers. I’ve lost count of the amount of natural wonders and infamous historical sites I have visited and have seen the same scenario. Tourists all fighting to take the same picture, the same angle, recreate something they have seen on Instagram. So that they can post it online and show the world, “Hey, look where I am!” Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, but I always wonder, have these people really seen this place? Not through the camera of their iPhone, but really looked around and enjoyed the moment.
My boyfriend recently took me to a lookout point in Montreal, a place where you could get a wonderful panorama of the whole city. We stood talking and enjoying the view, as he pointed out all the famous landmarks. It was so peaceful, until another tourist, wearing her finest attire, backed into us whilst posing for a photo. Ignoring her, we carried on admiring the view, until she rudely asked us to move as were were in her shot. The sole purpose of this viewpoint was to admire the city, yet here was someone trying to clear it out so she could pose, have her picture taken in front of a stunning backdrop, one that she barely even looked at, to no doubt show off in front of her virtual friends. Of course, she got her shot because we moved on, but when we passed 15 minutes later, she was still there. Still at the view point, taking centre stage so that anyone who wanted to enjoy the view of the city in real time had to enjoy the view of her too.
But where do we draw the line? As someone who travels a lot, I love to get pictures of myself in magical destinations around the world. Sometimes though, I look back on my social media and cringe. What do other people think when they see these pictures? That I want to brag? Show the online world how travelled I am? How great my life is? I mean, I never post the pictures of my legs, ravaged by sandflies and covered in bloody bites. Or a photo of me spending 12 hours on a cramped bus with matted hair, having not slept for hours. Only the glamorous stuff goes onto social media, the glossy side of travelling. And so I have to ask myself – am I part of this millennial travel competition that I hate?
It’s not only online, but in real life too. Perhaps it’s in part due to the fact that when travelling, we are repeatedly meeting new people, giving us the opportunity to be whoever we want to be and show what we deem to be our best side. With so many people from every corner of the world, with a million different stories to tell, we fight to be the most interesting. We can reinvent ourself every day.
Group conversations in hostels quickly turn into a bragging contest, backpackers always trying to one up each other.
You went to India for a month? Well I was there for 6, and I did a silent retreat for a month of that. You’ve just been on holiday in Bali? Oh I was there at a yoga retreat for 2 months. The endless flow of advice from other travellers becomes tiring too. If you mention where you are heading next, no doubt someone will throw out some random unrelated town and declare that you absolutely have to go there, to see the “real” country. It doesn’t matter if it’s 8 hours out of the way and there’s absolutely nothing of interest, it’s going to get suggested anyway just so that everyone knows that the person suggesting it has been somewhere no one else has.
I’ve lost count of the people I have met who have belittled others for their travel choices. So what if someone chose to pay for a guided trek rather than go it alone! The die hard backpackers who poke fun at those that choose to holiday in a luxurious resort. The people who believe the only way to travel is by getting “off the beaten track” and going to the most obscure places possible, whilst looking down their noses at those go to popular destinations. But the track is beaten for a reason, and destinations world wide become popular when they offer lots for travellers. With the ever growing industry of budget airlines, and a generation of people yearning to explore, its hard to avoid places where you will find other tourists. I once met a guy who went to India, even to Agra, but didn’t go to the Taj Mahal. It was obviously a great source of pride to him, and he declared it proudly to all who would listen. He told us all how he didn’t want to get involved with that “super touristic stuff” and only wanted to experience “the real India”. But what does that even mean?! That a landmark visited by thousands of visitors each year is not representative of the country it’s in, just because it’s popular?
Some people save for a long time to take a short holiday, it’s all they can afford. They want to enjoy it, go all out. Not be belittled by some snobby backpackers who thinks it’s not travelling unless you eat at local markets or travel around on local buses, even if it means adding 3 hours to your trip in a steaming hot bus. The “gap years” who turn their nose up at the people who want to have a little luxury on their holidays, instead of sharing a dorm room with 15 other people.
We need to stop trying to impress others and enjoy the world around us. Travelling isn’t a competitive sport, which means there are no winners or losers. Enjoy the world around you, in whichever way you choose, there is no right or wrong.