Tourist vs. Traveler

Some people (pretentious people) will differentiate between “travelers” and “tourists.” “Tourist” has connotations of white sneakers and shorts, fanny packs, loud conversations, and standing in the middle of the sidewalk gawking up at something slightly taller than what you might see at home. “Traveler,” on the other hand, has connotations of hitchhiking through Central America, eating dodgy street food in Southeast Asia, and, I dunno, swimming to Madagascar unescorted or something.

Some people (I am totally one of these people) will only refer to themselves as travelers. But you know what? If you’re staying at a hotel recommended on TripAdvisor and following the maps printed in your Lonely Planet guide, then you’re not exactly charting new territory. You’re walking down a slightly beaten path. And that’s OK! There’s a reason why lots of people visit certain places. It’s because those places are amazing and unique. If you’ve been to Paris three times and never been to the Louvre (and often remark smugly on this in conversation) then that doesn’t make you a “traveler”–that makes you an idiot. (Full disclosure: I am an idiot.)

I’m in favor of whatever gets people out of their houses and into other places. Since one person’s life is really small and the world is really huge, it’s always seemed so important to me to just see as much of the planet as possible, that we gain something just by walking on different ground and breathing different air. For some people, though, their comfort levels with “different” aren’t all that high. So if you need to go somewhere in the same country as you were born in, or somewhere where the local language is the same as your own, or somewhere in the company of a large group of people from the same place as you are, then that’s fine. Because the point is, you’re going. And maybe it’ll be fun enough that next time you’ll feel comfortable leaving the country, or going to a country where another language is spoken, or striking off on your own.

I have two seemingly diametrically opposed habits regarding tourists in my own town of Chicago. The ugly habit was primarily in effect when I used to work in the Loop. Every summer, we’d be flooded with people from out of town who would, inevitably, stand in large groups, blocking the sidewalk, staring at something or moving very slowly and uncertainly. And I would get So. Very. Angry. I would storm past them and make snarky comments to whoever happened to be walking with me (or under my breath to myself like a crazy person). How dare they get in my way! How dare they not know their way around! How dare they stop and look at things! Well, because, obviously, that’s what they’re there for. They’re there specifically to look, just like I’ve been in countless cities where I’ve wanted to stare at the big cool building, or check the map and then the street sign and then the map and then the street sign again, or use an unfamiliar public-transit ticket machine. But in my everyday life, I often forget about this and just get frustrated that someone is in my way.

This, I hope, is balanced out by my other, better-natured habit, which is that if anyone ever asks me for directions or even looks like they need directions but are maybe too scared to ask, I will always offer to help. Just yesterday a lady with a roller bag and an adorable Canadian accent asked if she was on the right El platform and where she should get off for her hotel downtown. I told her and then talked to her for a little while about where she was from and what she was doing in town. She was an artist and so excited to see the Art Institute. I told her she wouldn’t be disappointed but that she should also check out Pilsen for the galleries and the street art. “And the tacos,” I added. “You can get good tacos in Chicago?” she asked, surprised. I then proceeded to talk her ear off for the next two stops about Chicago food and specifically recommended El Milagro to her.

I can only hope that instances like this balance out my travel karma. It seems to have worked so far. But it would be far better if I could remember, in those moments when I’m rolling my eyes at those stupid tourists, that I’m one of them too.

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