When we arrived in Panama I grabbed a Panamanian paper called “The Visitor” and read a great little article written by a guy named Jack. The article was called, “Tourists or travelers,” by Jack. While I’m not going to post or repeat the article here, he made some interesting and worthy distinctions between the two, which we were compelled to share with the kids. He closed his first paragraph with this quote by G.K. Chesterton: “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
The rest of the article was a discussion about the differences between the tourist and traveler. What I appreciated most about his commentary was his effort to take it a step further by moving beyond the stereotypes of a “typical tourist,” and altogether avoiding a rant about tourists.
He pointed out that while it is tempting to smirk or mock, “the important distinction [between tourist and traveler] has more to do with attitude and manners than it does with whether they have a backpack or two suitcases, a carry-on and golf clubs. Does the visitor come with an open mind and a sense of adventure or intolerant preconceived notions?”
When I arrive in a new place, I feel an equal sense of excitement and intimidation. I am prone to self-consciousness and over-thinking, so being in a foreign place, with a foreign language, different attitudes and “norms,” forces me to take a deep breath and forge ahead despite my internal discomfort. In Central America there is not one thing about our family that helps us to blend in. This makes me laugh, because seriously, there is no way around this fact. We are a big family in every way. Five of us – none of us petite – white, blonde, blue eyed. We can’t walk down a street without being swarmed by vendors wanting to sell us and show us everything. Within days we are recognized while walking around town.
Partly driven by my self-consciousness, partly driven by my own guilt from mocking tourists from the ski lifts of Colorado in my youth, I spend a lot of my traveling energy telling my kids to act one way or another. To go with the flow, to blend in, (ha ha), to not whine, (ha), to be flexible and the like. These messages are admittedly an annoying drone in their ears. But, there are times when experience speaks for itself and I can just shut my mouth and be witness to the intolerance and preconceived notions of the close minded “tourists” all around us.
We have seen our fair share of examples of inflexibility and irritation while in Bocas, and this article was timely fodder for a multitude of conversations along the way. We’ve seen some storming out, some cussing, some muttering and pouting. It’s true that Panama, (the little bit of Panama that we have experienced) is slow. Service, efficiency, and easy going smiles have all been hard to come by. But, despite my own awareness of this, my own moments of frustration, I am more aware of the ineffectiveness of the hissy fits and temper tantrums of these visitors.
My greatest hope while traveling with my 6, 8 and 10 year old is that they learn more about flexibility, attitude, and non-judgment, than they learn about the Panama Canal, the coral reef and the Spanish language. Because, for me, this is at the heart of traveling and experiencing a new place as a traveler, not just a tourist.
And yes… we have rolling suitcases.