Are you a tourist or a traveler?

Watching the trailer for Roadrunner, the documentary about the life of chef Anthony Bourdain that has just been released in the United States, a scene caught my attention in which he is lying in front of a handwritten sign with the phrase ‘Be a traveler, not a tourist!’. His voice is heard in the background, reflecting deeply on travel: “Traveling is not always something beautiful. You walk away, you learn, you get scars and marks, and you change throughout the process.”

If we think about it, traveling the way we do today is a true wonder. On a plane, a state-of-the-art cruise ship, or a high-speed train, we can reach, in a matter of hours, places that, in another era, would have required weeks, months, or years of travel. At some point along the way, we have fallen into the trap of itineraries that promise to take us to a large number of destinations in record time, as if we were competing to complete a list of cities in which you have visited, even if it is only to visit its main square for a few minutes.

I suppose that traveling this way is a consequence of the fast-paced times we live in. We want to cover everything in the shortest possible time; we need the photo in our Instagram feed. For this reason, the phrase that appears written behind Bourdain hit me like a slap with a white glove and forced me to ask myself the question: Am I a tourist, or am I a traveler?

We would have to start by defining each term. According to the RAE, a tourist is a person who travels for pleasure and a traveler is someone who recounts a trip. I would add that the tourist is someone who travels simply to see and that a traveler is a person who looks carefully, who observes with curiosity, and who seeks to connect with the place they visit, with its history, its flavors, and its people. A traveler is also someone who sets foot in someone else’s territory with humility and respect. To be totally honest, I think I have been both, and both unconsciously.

I was a tourist on an almost non-existent budget in London, when in a single day I walked more than 30 kilometers – to avoid paying for the expensive tube tickets – and passed in front of London Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Castle, TATE, The British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, the National Gallery, and Piccadilly Circus, among many other points of interest in the city, to return exhausted to the hotel for a Tesco sandwich for dinner.

My most recent experience as a traveler was in February of this year. After a pause in international travel imposed by the pandemic –which was much longer than it really was–, I had the opportunity to visit Islas Secas, in Panama. This resort is located in a private archipelago made up of 14 islands that can be reached by the property’s plane from Panama City. When all the rooms are occupied, there can be a maximum of 24 guests on the main island, plus staff members, a team of around 80 people. During my first two days of stay in this paradise surrounded by nature, I was the only guest. In each of the planned activities, I was able to meet each person, talk with them, learn part of their story, tell them something about mine, joke around and learn their names. Each one of them taught me something about the destination, the gastronomy, the customs, and the animal and plant species of the islands, despite, in some cases, not being from Panama. Andrey, Saúl, Beny, Israel, José, Laura, Brizia, Adán, Arlen… They all reminded me of the importance of connecting with the environment, but also of connecting with each other.

In their own way, each one made me smile and, above all, left a memory etched in my mind. I can’t forget that talk with Andrey on my first visit to the bar. Saúl received me with the jokes of Adan and Arlén during each meal, the patience of Laura and Israel on the paddleboard tour around the islands, Beny’s advice on not taking risks on the beach – “Never sit under a palm tree or a coconut could put your life in danger” – and how devastated I felt when I had to fly back to my everyday reality.

Between being a tourist and a traveler, there are many differences. In my view, the main one is that if we opt for the second option, we always return home transformed. It does not matter the duration of the trip, neither the destination nor the company. The really important thing is to go with the senses awake, with a hunger to learn, to discover, to ask questions, and to be surprised by what may be found along the way. As Bourdain said, it will not always be something beautiful, but it is most likely what we need.

To know my whereabouts in real-time, I invite you to follow me on Instagram (@pmaguilarr).

By Pedro Aguilar Ricalde

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