I’ve been playing around with the possibility of a new book about going on Japanese package holidays. This is its likely introduction:
Travellers and Tourists
Many years ago, I found myself spending the night in a Christian youth hostel near the red-light district of Amsterdam. I had arrived in the city late one afternoon during the peak tourist season and found that every affordable hotel was fully booked. My only option was to take a bed in a huge dormitory with lots of other tourists who, I suspected, were no more Christian than me. I presented myself at reception, feigned interest in attending that evening’s Bible reading by adopting a serious facial expression and nodding vigorously to the chap explaining it, and then went and dumped my bag on my bunk. A fellow from Australia was sitting on the bed below mine.
‘You going to the God thing, mate?’ he asked.
‘Doubt it,’ I laughed. ‘You?’
‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘Have you seen what’s out there?’ He nodded in the general direction of outside.
We went into the communal area and made small talk. A girl with a nose-ring, a butterfly ankle tattoo and an American accent was chatting with a couple of Scandinavians. I wasn’t trying to listen in to their conversation but her volume of speech didn’t permit otherwise. I heard her say with obvious pride, ‘Oh, I’m not a tourist. I’m a traveller.’
Now, in my view if somebody who is clearly on some kind of holiday and not an itinerant says, ‘I am not a tourist, I’m a traveller,’ you are well within your rights to immediately administer a ferocious wedgie. But perhaps Scandinavians are more forgiving. They didn’t even tell her to fuck off. They simply nodded and hummed a bit. Maybe they actually were Christians and full of forgiveness.
It wasn’t the fact that the girl thought there was a substantial difference between tourists and travellers that annoyed me. Nor was it the fact that she considered herself one of the latter. It was the fact that she announced it so confidently and with such haughty self-satisfaction, the fact that in a simple sentence her tone suggested that she thought herself somehow better than tourists. If she did indeed think that travellers were better than tourists and was proudly announcing that she was a traveller then she was, quite simply, boasting. And, in fact, she was very likely doing so to tourists, the very people she was so keen to distance herself from.
We all think things like that. We all think we are cleverer than some people, cooler than some people, better looking than some people, more intrepid than some people, but we don’t announce it out loud like that. If you noticed somebody reading a trashy novel loved by the masses and loathed by highbrow critics, you wouldn’t ask that person what they were reading and then by way of reaction announce, ‘Oh, I only read good books,’ or ‘Oh, I only read proper literature.’ Because that, obviously, would make you an arse.
You wouldn’t say such things, polite and considerate person that you are, but I suspect that this young woman might, a suspicion that wasn’t diminished any when I later found her in discussion with the receptionist of the hostel. They were debating the meaning of a sign on the wall, which read, ‘Guests are not permitted to bring any obscene publications into the hostel
‘I have a slight problem with that sign,’ the woman was saying to the somewhat bemused man behind the front desk. ‘I mean, what is “obscene”?’
‘It means porno,’ said the chap coolly and succinctly. Easy enough to understand, I felt. You can’t bring porno mags into the Christian hostel. To me it appeared to be a simple rule, easy enough to leave unbroken. And anyway, they were big, shared dorms so it had the potential to become a bit awkward for all.
‘But,’ continued the woman, ’who decides what is obscene? Who is to say what is pornographic? They thought D.H. Lawrence was pornographic once!’
The chap behind reception furrowed his brow. ‘Do you want to bring porno into the hostel?’ he asked.
‘No!’ said the woman with a weary sigh. ‘Of course I don’t. But what is “obscene”?
‘It’s porno,’ said the man again. ‘Look, if you don’t want to bring porno into the hostel there is no problem. If you do want to bring porno into the hostel, then you must stay in another place.’
The woman sighed and retreated back to the dorm, shaking her head and no doubt pondering the pain of being so much wiser than other people. I hoped that wasn’t what it meant to be a traveller
Travellers and tourists – is there a big difference? Is it better to be one or the other? Twenty years ago, when I went on holiday I often found myself in the company of people who would certainly say they were travellers, and I was doing similar things to them. In the days before the Internet, I inter-railed around Europe without even a guidebook. I arrived in strange cities late at night without reserved accommodation. I found places to stay and then I walked and explored and went where my feet took me. I ate in cheap, local restaurants and I travelled on local buses and public transport. While in a shared shower in a very poor hotel in Paris once, a man actually stole my worn underpants. Yes, I saw famous sites, too, but oftentimes by chance and without really knowing what I was looking at. I wandered without much of a plan. I travelled, I suppose.
Several years later, I travelled through Asia, still without the Internet but I did use Lonely Planet guides. This seemed acceptable to other travellers. They all had them, too. But we went to see the same places and we stayed in the same hostels. Didn’t that make us tourists? I wasn’t sure where the line was drawn. In India everyone went to see the Taj Mahal. Did it make it more authentic if you went there in a cycle rickshaw powered by a forty-year-old, whippet-thin man who looked sixty and chewed red betel nuts so he wouldn’t notice the blood when he spat? Was it more ‘real’ to arrive in such a fashion and then get angry because he tried to charge you the equivalent of 3p more than you had originally agreed? Was that better than arriving on an air-conditioned bus from the local Holiday Inn?
I travelled independently and witnessed plenty of condescending attitudes towards those who came with tour groups. I stayed in shitty hostels because that was all I could afford at the time. I met many, however, who revelled in the cheapness and filth of their sleeping quarters. They boasted about how little they paid for a bed, they compared insect bites and pondered what beasties might have caused them, and they competed for who had contracted the most severe form of dysentery. They sneered at those staying in five-star hotels and I would sit silently thinking, ‘But they have been watching the BBC and CNN and sleeping on crisp sheets and had a lovely warm shower this morning. You are covered in flea bites and stink. How is that better?’
Of course, I said nothing. I am far too cowardly for that. Instead, I listened to them swap tales of discomfort and disease and watched them raise tie-dye t-shirts to reveal Chinese character tattoos. You know the sort – the ones where they are convinced it says, ‘Strength Through Adversity’ in Chinese but when translated correctly actually means, ‘Poverty Gives Me A Stiffy.’ One girl once advised me never to give begging children money because as soon as you do dozens more appear with their hands out. I found this to be true in India, but still, it was hard not to laugh at her advice that, instead, we give them a hug. That will keep the hunger pangs at bay. ‘Get any money for food, today?’ asks the family when the child returns. ‘No, but it’s okay, because a fat westerner hugged me and told me I was precious.’ If the child had no family and the money was, as was commonly rumoured, to go to a Fagin type of leader, I am sure he would be just as thrilled that his employee had had a small cuddle.
I think independence is the main thing that travellers hold dear. The fact that they are free to do as they choose, to experience a country as they wish is what is important. A fellow once told me that the problem with tour groups is that they go from site to site on a coach and take a few photos but don’t get to see the real country. They are visiting but not really experiencing in any meaningful way.
‘But you go to the famous sites, too,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do. But then I eat in a local restaurant or stroll through backstreets or go wherever the mood takes me and I meet people and see things that aren’t on an itinerary. I let things happen. Tourists in groups are told what will happen and when. I don’t see much fun in that.’
He had a point. Spontaneity is surely lost in tours and nowhere did that seem more likely than in Japanese tours. On occasion I would join in with the sneering at large groups of Japanese tourists with cameras round their necks following a guide with a flag for a shepherd’s crock and snapping a few photos of a famous site before getting back on the bus and heading for the next must see place. ‘God, that looks awful,’ I would say to my newfound, ratty-haired friends in places such as Varanasi. ‘So do you fancy coming to see the market tomorrow morning?’
‘I’m sorry, we can’t,’ they would condescend with a tinge of superiority, ‘We’re going to wash some lepers in The Ganges.’
Although I saw myself more in the traveller camp than the tourist one when I was a young man, I never really saw a problem with nice hotels and comfort. In fact, I wanted that very much. It was just economics that threw me in with people who thought towels doubling as petri dishes were acceptable drying implements. However, I never once thought I would become a tourist of the kind that follows a flag and allows himself to be led from site to site with a group of likeminded, passive individuals. I never thought I would be part of a Japanese tour. Over the last couple of years, though, that is the person I have become. Laziness in prior planning is the major reason I first gave up my independent ways to become a member of organised tours, but now it is getting to be the norm. I am one of those people travellers sneer at. The stories that follow are the tales of what I did as part of the Japanese tour experience.